Dan Thompson: Gonzaga again refuses to shrink in the big moment, even when its number of healthy players does
Jan. 18, 2020 Updated Sat., Jan. 18, 2020 at 11:19 p.m.
Yoeli Childs took the floor during warmups looking the part of someone who was going to play Saturday night, only to occupy one of the first three seats on the BYU bench for the entirety of Gonzaga’s 92-69 victory at the McCarthey Athletic Center.
The Cougars surely could have used their leading scorer, but risking March for mid-January is foolish when a BYU victory in Spokane is not the decent bet it was a few years ago.
BYU didn’t need a win tonight; it needed a healthy Childs come the West Coast Conference Tournament.
In any case, the decoy didn’t work.
“I knew it was a fake,” Gonzaga senior forward Killian Tillie said after the game. “I did that before.”
By the end of the night, though, the Zags were minus their own top scorer and had fewer healthy players – or, more to the point, players that head coach Mark Few trusts – than the Cougars played all game, and the visitors only played eight.
The attrition keeps getting worse for the top-ranked Zags. In late October it was freshmen Oumar Ballo (academic redshirt) and Brock Ravet (left the team for personal reasons). Without those two, Gonzaga still had enough for an eight-man rotation, Few’s usual number.
But then this week, it was decided a third freshman, Anton Watson, would undergo surgery to fix his troublesome shoulder – a surgery that, it should be noted, hasn’t been performed yet. That thinned Gonzaga’s bench to two bodies.
And then with 15:05 left in the second half Saturday, Filip Petrusev went down with an apparent right-ankle sprain.
After a few minutes on the ground, Petrusev rose – under the arms of two trainers – and so did much of the sold-out crowd, clearly understanding the sophomore forward’s importance.
Petrusev’s absence didn’t matter on the scoreboard. If anything, it seemed to invigorate the home team.
Junior Corey Kispert, the team’s most versatile player still standing, scored on the next two possessions, and the Zags were off. Within 4 minutes, their lead had doubled from seven to 14.
Still, for the next 14 minutes the Zags played with a one-man bench, the rest of them still wearing their hoodies.
And even with the game seven possessions in hand with under 5 minutes to go, it wasn’t until the final 49 seconds that Few opted to empty his bench, inasmuch as he was able to: Freshman Drew Timme, who played 17 minutes up until then, had to play out the final 49 seconds because, well, there was no other benchwarmer to throw in there.
Now the Zags are seemingly one injury away from becoming the Division I version of the Mullan Five, the local high school boys team that played the 2018-19 season without a substitute.
BYU coach Mark Pope didn’t bother to match scrubs for scrubs. He went all-in with his impression of Lt. Daniel Kaffee from “A Few Good Men,” holding Childs as Airman O’Malley in the back of the courtroom as an empty threat.
Maybe Mark Few could sit Watson in the same spot as his own Airman Rodriguez.
Surely, though, it’s not going to be hard for teams to identify a way to exploit Gonzaga’s short bench: Attack the basket.
You can bet, too, the Zags will be ready for it and will be judicious with their fouls.
“You gotta be smart on the risks you take, especially on defense, because we just can’t afford to lose another guy to foul trouble or injury,” Kispert said.
Watson’s 14.8 minutes per game can be divvied up. The Zags want him on the court, but as their eighth man, they don’t need him on it the way, say, BYU needs its first man, Childs.
But with Petrusev – Gonzaga’s first man, at least in scoring – now down for an unknown length of time, replacing his and Watson’s combined scoring output of 21 points per game is a task more fraught.
And to have to do so without a trusted seventh or eighth man in the rotation will be all the more difficult. It is doubtful Gonzaga can run the table with such an arrangement.
Then again, if BYU, with both teams down their top scorer, can’t keep the final score within 20, can anyone beat these Zags?
“BYU doesn’t give you anything,” Few said. “You gotta earn it.”
Pacific gets its shot next weekend, and Gonzaga gets the full week to prepare.
Even if the Zags do lose once, twice, maybe three times, their road to the Final Four will almost certainly start with a 2-mile drive from campus to the Spokane Arena.
Reinforcements are coming next year, when Gonzaga should expect to return a whole lot more than it did this year. The 2020-21 campaign looks awfully bright.
Until then, though, Few will just need to go with the men he has to get this team to late March.
But to April?
Maybe they can sit Watson three chairs down as a decoy, just in case.
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