January 29, 2023


So, about those Zags…

It’s ironic that Rui Hachimura is heading cross country – not to Spokane, but to the Lakers.

Rui would be just the player Mark Few needs to patch this year’s team together.

Oh, and a point guard too.

Back in the real world, what’s the story with the Zags?

Catching a shocking 68-67 loss at home to a fairly ordinary Loyola Marymount squad and then “reacting” to win 99-90 at Pacific in a game that was annoyingly close, well…

Does that sound like a team ranked 14th in the latest AP poll?

Or a group that could extend their national best streak of seven straight Sweet 16 (or better) NCAA tournament appearances?

Just for context, LMU is No. 89 in the NET rankings (Gonzaga was their only Quad-1 win), while Pacific checked in at No. 224.

These aren’t exactly national powerhouses that gave the Zags fits last week.

Play-by-play announcer Greg Heister made this observation during the Pacific game in reference to the LMU loss and last-second wins at USF, Santa Clara and BYU…

“Those kinds of games will help the Zags as we get into March and tournament time.”

WILL YOU?

This kind of logic usually applies to teams with a lot of talent, often young groups or teams that are still learning to play together. In general, they improve as they become battle-hardened, and trainers put the pieces of the puzzle in the right places.

To be honest, I don’t see much of that in these Zags.

So far what you see is what you get.

On the plus side, Drew Timme is a scoring machine if he can get the ball anywhere around the low post – and if he doesn’t get fouled.

Timme’s 59.5 percent free throw can be deadly (and it was against Loyola Marymount as he only got 7 freebies out of 12).

In fact, fouling the Zags big boys is a good strategy.

Timme’s struggles aside, Anton Watson is rattling at 60 percent.

Ah, but we talked about the strengths of the Zags…

Along with Timme’s magical feet around the hoop, Gonzaga has a bunch of good 3-point shooters.

Julian Strawther (40.8 percent), Rasir Bolton (40.3) and Nolan Hickman (36.6) have each won a road game with a barrage of late 3-balls – and that’s not even counting Malachi Smith, who at 54 .5 percent is almost automatic.

However, like Timme’s skills around the basket, which are offset by foul-line fights, there’s a caveat with the outside shooters too.

No one in the group is particularly good at creating their own recordings.

They need purring offense to move the ball and find them waiting – properly set up to shoot.

And this Zags offense sometimes produces more squeaks than purrs.

NOW to the serious problems…

Start with the fact that the generally accurate KenPom ranking ranks the Zags 90th in defensive efficiency.

This is awful.

So…

Why are they so poor at this end of the floor?

Few would argue that, with the exception of Timme, this is the quietest team he’s ever had – and if you don’t talk about defense you’re screwing up the switches and causing all kinds of chaos.

Bottom line, you’re giving up easy shots for no good reason.

In addition to the silence issue, most Zags seem vulnerable to being hit one-on-one and are unable to keep ball handlers in front of them.

In the loss to LMU, Gonzaga tried multiple defenders against Cam Shelton, who basically used up most of the 30-second clock on each possession in the final five minutes.

It was odd, by the way, that Few never doubled Shelton to get the ball out of his hands – since none of the other Lions really wanted to shoot.

Malachi Smith eventually got the order after Shelton made a trio of 3-pointers over the smaller Hickman.

Smith did his best, even forcing left-hander Shelton to go right on his last drive of the game – but LMU’s man of the moment threw in a low-percentage bank shot anyway.

Next …

That’s the problem on the edge.

Nobody on the list is a true shot blocker (or rebounder, for that matter).

Timme, Watson, Ben Gregg and the 7-foot Efton Reid III – when he’s playing – aren’t fast, athletic jumpers, which negates their size.

NOW we address the point guard problem on offense.

Hickman inherited the job when Andrew Nembhard went to the NBA, but that’s not really Nolan’s game.

He’s a badass in the open field and a good long-range shooter to boot.

But running a semi-court offensive against big, tough opponents who have scouted the Zags to death?

Hickman fights, it’s as simple as that.

I reckon if Few had to do it all over again he would have started Bolton at that point in the summer.

The logic then likely had something to do with Bolton’s fatal shooting off guard, and that Hickman’s natural ability would allow him to learn the point job as the season progressed.

Unfortunately, not much has improved and Gonzaga has paid a price.

Hickman committed two turnovers to Baylor in the last 80 seconds and tried to drive to no avail – and the Zags lost 64-63.

Even in last week’s LMU game, Few’s last game started with a pass to Hickman with 11 seconds remaining and a point down.

The goal was clearly getting the ball to Timme, but Hickman was chased off the right spot, played a pass from a bad angle after taking too long and Timme was bullied.

You see, Nolan Hickman is one hell of a basketball player.

So are a lot of these Zags.

They’re ranked No. 16 on the NET (although Saint Mary’s is No. 6) and they’ve beaten teams like No. 2 Alabama.

It’s just, by Gonzaga standards…

There’s really no serious hope of a Final Four, which sucks.

And damn rare.

Email: [email protected]

Steve Cameron’s Cheap Seats column appears in The Press four times a week, usually Tuesday through Friday, unless you know something’s happening.

Steve suggests you take his opinion in the spirit of a Jimmy Buffett song: “Breathe In, Breathe Out, Move On.”

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