The Maui Invitational this year features some of the best teams in America, including top-ranked Duke and third-ranked Gonzaga.
The Zags made their debut late Monday night on ESPN2 with a 84-78 win over scrappy Illinois, but that wasn’t the main event, at least not on television. And not with Bill Walton doing the analysis.
When Walton is sitting courtside, the game is a backdrop to his one-man show. Such was the case in this one.
What they saw …
• If you had to guess, one would guess Walton saw everything Hawaii has to offer. He did a video travelogue. He talked volcanoes. He did some ocean rowing. He talked bike rides. He complained about Fleetwood Mac. He danced. There was traffic and weather. All the while the game would play in the background and play-by-play ringmaster Jason Benetti would attempt to rein Walton back in.
Until he gave up late in the first half.
From then, it was stream-of-consciousness, in the vein of a James Joyce novel.
And basketball took second-best.
• Which is too bad, because when Walton is focusing on basketball, his comments and insight are about as good as it gets.
He loved what he saw with Josh Perkins’ pace. He compared Corey Kispert to former Phoenix Sun Dan Majerle, an interesting comparison. He noted the unsung contributions of Jeremy Jones, who scored 12 points and grabbed seven rebounds – in the first half.
And, when Illinois put together a late 12-2 run to pull within two, Walton was at his best.
“Gonzaga never goes away from what they are,” Walton said when Kispert hit a 3-pointer to stem the Illini tide – for a while.
It was a vein he had explored earlier.
“What I love about Mark Few, if the other team doesn’t stop his planned attack, he just keeps coming back to it,” Walton said after Rui Hachimura buried an Illinois defender at the rim and scored.
• But Trent Frazier, who led all scorers with 29, including 27 after halftime, kept the Illini in the game.
Walton continually praised Frazier’s big shot after big shot, including 6-of-11 from beyond the arc after halftime.
• “The great thing about Gonzaga, everybody is making positive contributions on every possession,” Walton said early in the second half. No one epitomized that more than Hachimura, who led the Zags with 23 points, including a game-ending breakaway dunk for the final margin in a foul-plagued game.
Those last three words upset Walton from the first whistle, an offensive foul on Brandon Clarke.
He railed about the 23 fouls called on both teams in the opening half. He mentioned the inordinate number of second-half call – Gonzaga shot 35 free throws, Illinois 19. And he did a good imitation of a fan four rows up yelling “Let them play!”
Or as Benetti called him at one point, “Mr. No Call.”
Funny thing was, Few felt there weren’t enough whistles, demonstratively showing his displeasure with referee Brian Dorsey with about two minutes left before halftime.
“Mark Few is hot on the sidelines,” is how Benetti termed it.
What we saw …
• Illinois (1-2) gave the Bulldogs their first tough test, mainly because the Illini attacked defensively on every possession. At first the Zags (4-0) struggled with the extra contact, playing more passively than Few seemed to want. But GU adjusted, attacked and, with Illinois also dealing with foul trouble, began to attack more consistently.
Much of it came from Hachimura, who Walton termed “the rare combination of power and finesse.”
Though it also came from Josh Perkins, who was tasked with handling the ball against Illinois’ pressure for most of the game. At times he was very good, with nine assists. But he also had a hand in Gonzaga’s 22 turnovers with a team-high seven.
• The Zags needed an eighth player in their rotation due to foul trouble and Jones, a senior, stepped up.
He didn’t score much after halftime, but finished with a game-high 11 rebounds and even more words of praise from Walton.
“Jeremy Jones has been every bit as important as any player in this game for Gonzaga,” Walton said.
He also pulled down the biggest rebound of the night, gathering in Frazier’s 3-point miss with 10 seconds left. He then hit both free throws to give GU a four-point lead.
“That guy needs to play more,” Walton said.
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