Gonzaga handled Texas A&M 94-71 late Thursday night at the McCarthey Athletic Center and improved to 3-0.
We’ll keep it uniform with three takeaways from the Zags’ victory:
The Zags aren’t the biggest team, especially with 6-foot-10 Killian Tillie sidelined for about six more weeks following ankle surgery. Past GU frontlines were taller and bigger, especially with 7-1 Przemek Karnowski, 7-foot Zach Collins, Tillie and Johnathan Williams, but the current group looks plenty capable of protecting the rim.
Forwards Rui Hachimura and Brandon Clarke both stand 6-8, with Hachimura in the 235-pound range and Clarke around 220. Both have no problem reaching higher elevation.
That was evident again, as the Zags had 10 blocks against the athletic Aggies. Clarke had three swats, maintaining his three-per-game average. Freshman forward Filip Petrusev added two and Hachimura one.
“There were a lot of high-level plays at the rim, a lot of athletes flying in there, a lot of guards flying in there,” Zags coach Mark Few said. “Ten blocks, I can’t remember when we’ve had a night like that.”
The bonus was Corey Kispert’s three rejections and one by point guard Josh Perkins. The 6-6 Kispert had just seven blocks in 37 career games. The coaching staff has been after the sturdily built wing to be more physical.
“It’s always been there,” Kispert joked. “It’s a hidden talent. It was just being in the right place at the right time, catching the guy square in the chest.”
The impact of Gonzaga’s rim protection was important. Texas A&M had success, particularly on point guard TJ Starks’ slashing drives in the first half. As the game wore on, the Aggies faced more roadblocks in the lane.
“He (Starks) got by us, but our bigs were there,” said Perkins, noting that part of the game plan was to steer drivers to helping post players.
Tillie, by the way, had the hard cast removed and he’s now in a walking boot. He seems to be on schedule, but hasn’t had his first checkup.
3 balls, few strikes
Gonzaga’s offense has been humming along. The Zags were on track for another 100-point night, but managed just four points in the final 4-plus minutes with the reserves on the floor.
Well, maybe there was an additional reason. The Zags made just 33 percent of their 3-pointers. If that number sounds familiar, it’s because they made 33.3 percent against Idaho State and 32 percent versus Texas Southern. They’ve hit eight, eight and seven 3s in their first three games.
The absence of Tillie, a career 48-percent 3-point shooter, is a factor, but the Zags have yet to dial in the long-distance range. It’s barely noticeable, because they’ve been terrific inside the arc. GU’s offense runs through the bigs, which leads to the high number of paint points and repeated trips to the free-throw line. The Zags have attempted 94 free throws to their opponents’ 50.
The Zags had quality 3-point looks but couldn’t connect consistently, other than Zach Norvell Jr.’s 4-of-9 effort.
“We started taking more open shots in the second half, sharing the ball and moving it. Some nights you’re on, some nights it rims out,” said Kispert, who has been feeling a bit under the weather of late. “Great looks, just one of those things.”
When Gonzaga scheduled a two-game series with Texas A&M, the presumption was that the Aggies, coming off two Sweet 16s in the past three years, would be a formidable test.
The Aggies put up a fight, minus two injured players, and still feature size, length and athleticism. But the exit of two key seniors and three underclassmen opting for the pros dropped Texas A&M to 12th in the preseason SEC poll.
Still, Gonzaga got what it needed out of the matchup leading into the biggest games on its schedule. The Zags are going to run into elite athletes and opponents, beginning with the Maui Invitational on Monday and a December stretch against Creighton, Washington, Tennessee and North Carolina.
“We’re going to play lots of bouncy dudes, too,” Clarke said. “They had some guys that were super bouncy. It was definitely a good practice run for us.”
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