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Gonzaga men make their point this season with balancing act

Gonzaga  forward Johnathan Williams is leading the way for the Zags this season, averaging 14.5 points per game. Josh Perkins is second at 13.5. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)

Basketball teams form identities over the course of a season.

Just past the halfway mark of the regular season, one thing seems clear with the current Gonzaga Bulldogs: It’s often unclear who is going to be their leading scorer or their go-to player from game to game.

This is one of many Gonzaga teams in the past decade that relies on balanced scoring. There have been nearly as many GU squads during that time that were more star-driven and powered by one or two prolific scorers.

Last year’s team enjoyed the best of both worlds. All-American guard Nigel Williams-Goss led at 16.8 points per game, but there was depth and balance with four others averaging in double figures. The Zags also had one of the nation’s top defensive units.

Entering last week’s Los Angeles road trip, the Zags were the only team in the nation with six players averaging double digits (players had to participate in at least 75 percent of team’s games to qualify). They left with five averaging double figures and Silas Melson at 9.7.

Gonzaga is one of four teams to have six players score at least 20 in a game.

“It’s like the full essence of a team,” junior guard Josh Perkins said. “You never know who can go off on any night. That’s what is so special about this team. It’s going to be a different guy’s night every night.”

Senior forward Johnathan Williams, thanks to a 30-point performance against Loyola Marymount on Saturday, moved past Perkins as the team’s top scorer at 14.5 points per game. Prior to Saturday, Williams hadn’t led Gonzaga in scoring since the Washington game on Dec. 10.

Perkins is next at 13.5 points. He’s only been the leading scorer twice – in the season opener and versus North Dakota. Zach Norvell Jr., Killian Tillie and Rui Hachimura have been GU’s leading scorer at least three times.

“Tonight it was Tillie’s night,” Williams said after Tillie’s 22-point effort against Pepperdine last Thursday. “We kept feeding him, he kept eating. Perk might have it going one night from the 3-point line, ‘Snacks’ (Norvell) might have it going. When they do, we have to keep feeding them the ball because you know they’re hot.”

No. 15 Gonzaga (14-3) is developing a deeper rotation. Hachimura has made nice strides in the past month. Freshman wing Corey Kispert is nearing his November form, before he suffered a sprained ankle. Freshman center Jacob Larsen has become a regular contributor.

“We have a deep team,” Tillie said. “Everybody can score 20 each night. It’s hard for the other teams to scout and to focus” on one player.

The trick is parlaying that balance into postseason success, with the disclaimer that multiple other factors (defense, rebounding, turnovers, assists) influence a particular team’s trajectory.

The 2009 Zags reached the Sweet 16 with six players averaging between 9.1 points and Josh Heytvelt’s 14.9. Balanced squads in 2014, 2012, 2011 and 2010 won at least one NCAA Tournament game but failed to reach the Sweet 16.

The Zags have had at least one player – Williams-Goss in 2017, Kyle Wiltjer in 2015-16, Kelly Olynyk in 2013 – average at least 16.8 points in four of the past five seasons.

The three 30-win teams in program history came in 2017, 2015 and 2013. Last year’s team played in the NCAA championship game, the 2015 team lost in the Elite Eight and the 2013 Zags were upset by Wichita State in the second round.

The 2016 Zags, behind the one-two punch of Wiltjer (20.4) and Domantas Sabonis (17.6), meshed when the guards stepped up later in the regular season. They made the Sweet 16 before falling to a late Syracuse comeback.