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Couple of big steps forward for Gonzaga’s inside players

UPDATED: Sun., Jan. 7, 2018, 6:13 p.m.

Gonzaga forward Johnathan Williams looks to navigate around the defense by Pepperdine’s Nolan Taylor in Thursday’s game. (JAE C. HONG / Associated Press)
Gonzaga forward Johnathan Williams looks to navigate around the defense by Pepperdine’s Nolan Taylor in Thursday’s game. (JAE C. HONG / Associated Press)

LOS ANGELES – It was just four games ago that coach Mark Few was lamenting the inconsistency of Gonzaga’s inside play, the maddening nature of not knowing which bigs would show up on a given night.

After the Zags’ frontcourt foursome worked over Pepperdine and Loyola Marymount on the L.A. road trip, Few invoked the equal-time rule.

Johnathan Williams torched LMU for 30 points. Killian Tillie roughed up the Waves with 25 on Thursday. Rui Hachimura has been his customary highlight-reel self but with greater consistency at both ends of the court. Jacob Larsen struggled versus the Lions but was a difference-maker against Pepperdine.

Two games: 104 combined points and a bigs-fueled 96-40 edge in points in the paint.

“Johnathan had a good weekend and it was good to get the bigs back,” Few said. “They delivered all weekend.”

Few noted the group is still a work in progress when asked about sophomores Tillie and Hachimura.

Few said that Tillie is having a “really good year” but added, “we’d like to get him more consistent. He kind of rides this thing up and down, actually all three of the bigs, Rui, Killian and ‘3’ (Williams) have been like that, but we’re making some ground and being more consistent.”

“Rui’s been doing a really good job defensively. He actually guarded (LMU’s Steven) Haney as good as anybody in the first half. He’s obviously dynamic in the open floor. We just have to get him a little less casual with the ball.”

It’s fair to point out that Pepperdine and Loyola Marymount don’t possess the interior players of WCC foes Saint Mary’s, San Diego and BYU. Pepperdine center Matthew Atewe and LMU counterpart Mattias Markusson combined for all of two points in 39 minutes versus Gonzaga. The Waves also were without talented forward Kameron Edwards (concussion).

It’s also fair to note that Pacific and Santa Clara aren’t stocked with all-conference forwards either, but Williams tallied just six points in those two games and Tillie totaled just 15 points.

“They need me be to more consistent on the glass,” Williams said, “and also when they give the ball to me, to be more consistent on the block, knowing I’m going to get a bucket eight times out of 10, nine times out of 10.”

Williams might have exceeded those lofty ratios in Saturday’s victory over LMU.

Hachimura has put together five consecutive double-figures outings, averaging an impressive 13.2 points in just 18 minutes. He’s Gonzaga’s leading scorer through four WCC games despite being seventh in minutes played.

Gonzaga’s rim protection has improved in WCC games. The Zags have blocked 5.75 shots per conference game compared to 3.5 against tougher nonconference competition.

The Zags for years have attempted to stay true to an inside-outside approach in an era when the 3-point shot has become more prevalent in college basketball. They have plenty of room to grow in the frontcourt and backcourt. Their postseason chances will hinge on the development and consistency of both units over the second half of the regular season.

“Our goal is to win the championship and go back to the Final Four,” Williams said. “If we’re more consistent as bigs and the guards bring it on like they’ve been doing, I feel like we can be an unstoppable team.”

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