No. 9 Gonzaga begins run of Top 25 tests at No. 22 Washington in revitalized rivalry
Dec. 7, 2019 Updated Sat., Dec. 7, 2019 at 10:18 p.m.
SEATTLE – The previous time Gonzaga and Washington were on the same court, Rui Hachimura hit a winning, midrange jumper that ensured Zags bragging rights for another year.
But a one-sided rivalry – GU has won five straight and 12 of the past 13 – was anything but one-sided on the floor. Another memorable matchup seems inevitable when No. 9 Gonzaga (9-1) and No. 22 Washington (7-1) collide Sunday at Alaska Airlines Arena.
Gonzaga’s task will be handling a raucous environment, solving a 2-3 zone that yields just 62.3 points per game and containing a pair of Husky freshmen projected to be first-round picks.
“This is a big one,” GU sophomore forward Filip Petrusev said. “The gym is going to be packed. It gets me fired up.”
Washington’s challenge is showing consistency on offense, finding the range beyond the 3-point line and slowing a Gonzaga offense that hits 50% of its shots and averages 86 points.
“Playing at the Zags last year was a pretty cool environment,” third-year Washington head coach Mike Hopkins said. “You remember a lot of games, but rivalry games, great environments, I feel like we have one of the best home courts in the country. It’s one of the reasons why I wanted to be here.”
Hopkins has produced consecutive 20-win seasons, including a Pac-12 regular-season title last year and the program’s first NCAA Tournament appearance since 2011. The former Syracuse assistant brought in a pair of top-10 recruits in Isaiah Stewart and Jaden McDaniels and landed Kentucky transfer guard Quade Green. Junior forward Nahziah Carter was in Hopkins’ first recruiting class.
Those four produce 55 of UW’s 73 points per game. Washington scored a season-high 90 points in a 10-point win over Eastern Washington earlier this week, but the Huskies are shooting just 30.7% on 3-pointers. Carter checks in at 48% (12 of 25) while the remaining Huskies are at 27%.
“The thing about this team lately, it’s been different leading scorers every night,” Carter said. “When there’s a new leading scorer every night that maybe you haven’t focused on, then it’s hard to guard a whole team.”
That’s been one of Gonzaga’s calling cards.
“They’re pretty simple, but they’re simply great. Does that make sense?” Hopkins said of Gonzaga’s offense. “They’ve got great spacing, run to the corners, dangerous shooters, great post players. They’ve got great balance.”
The Zags have seen plenty of zones this season, but none featuring Washington’s length and athleticism. The 6-foot-9 McDaniels at times has been stationed at the top with the 6-9 Stewart anchoring the paint, typically joining 6-9 Hameir Wright and the 6-6 Carter in the starting lineup.
Gonzaga senior forward Killian Tillie, who missed last season’s game due to injury, could be a key player on offense.
“When you put him at the top of the key, he can see everything and make the right reads,” sophomore guard Joel Ayayi said of Tillie. “He’s going to be a really good outlet for us, puts less pressure on the point guard to organize everything. You can put him in the corners, on the wing. He can play everywhere.”
Washington’s zone constantly changes, Gonzaga head coach Mark Few said. “Sometimes you get it to the high post really easy and all of a sudden they’ll take that away.”
Washington has mixed in more man-to-man defense this season. Tennessee, at 47%, is the only UW opponent to make more than 45% from the field.
Both teams make frequent trips to the foul line. Gonzaga has attempted 108 more free throws than opponents but is hitting just 65.2%. Washington has shot 73 more free throws than foes and makes 71%.
“Mike has done just an awesome job establishing his system, and it’s been really effective,” Few said. “He’s always been a great recruiter, so they’re getting great players. It’ll be a great atmosphere and great opportunity for us.”
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