Gonzaga made a seamless transition when guards Jalen Suggs and Aaron Cook were sidelined by injury for two games earlier this season.
The Bulldogs’ latest challenge is in the frontcourt, with reserve center Oumar Ballo sidelined by a left thumb injury. Gonzaga tweaked its rotation and allocation of minutes slightly without Ballo and cruised past San Diego 90-62 and Pepperdine 97-75.
Coach Mark Few said early indications have the redshirt freshman center missing 3 to 4 weeks, but that could change depending on medical exams on Ballo’s thumb early this week.
Ballo, the biggest Zag at 7 feet and 260 pounds, can be a defensive and rebounding presence inside. He had played in every game before the injury and was averaging 8.3 minutes as Drew Timme’s backup.
Ballo’s absence resulted in an extra 90 seconds or so for Timme beyond his average playing time and additional stretches at the ‘4’ for wing Corey Kispert and the ‘5’ for forward Anton Watson.
“Corey’s a big, strong kid,” Few said. “They (the Waves) tried posting him up several times, and actually when some of our guards really dig in and front the post and fight a little bit, Jalen is good at that, even AC (Cook) is tough down there.
“We’ve been able to get our way through at least this weekend, but obviously it’s nice to have size every once in a while, and when they have multiple bigs it’s nice to have some size, too.”
Gonzaga has been even more of a handful to defend when Kispert shifts to the ‘4’. Watson, at 6-8, 225, has the size to play in the paint. He shares the team lead with Timme with 14 blocks.
“On the flip side, if we can’t shore it up (defensively), then they have to guard us at the other end,” Few said, “and we feel like that’s really an advantage for us when you have those bigs chasing Corey around, or sometimes they put them on Joel (Ayayi), and they have to chase him around.”
Timme, who battled foul trouble at times last season, fouled out against West Virginia’s and Iowa’s physical posts, but he’s had three fouls or fewer in the past 13 games.
“I think most importantly, my post defense has been better,” Timme said of his biggest improvement this season. “I was kind of scared to pick up some fouls at first. I’ve been with the coaches a lot, we’ve watched film and we’ve watched other people play post defense, and I think we’ve found a little formula that’s been working.”
Freshman Julian Strawther also saw a bit more court time, including an 11-point effort in 10-plus minutes versus San Diego. The 6-7, 205-pound freshman can play multiple positions.
“He’s a really good shooter, he came in as a really good scorer,” Few said. “He just had a really rough time with injuries and COVID and COVID protocols being around people, but now we’re starting to see why we were all so high on him.”
Kispert one of a kind
Kispert did what he’s been doing all season in victories over San Diego and Pepperdine. The senior wing hit 13 of 24 shots, including 6 of 13 from distance, and all three of his free throws to finish with 35 points.
He’s shooting 57.7% on the season, 48.6% on 3-pointers and 90% at the free-throw line. He averages 20.2 points per game.
Those just aren’t stats you see every decade or three.
According to a tweet by ESPN Stats and Info researcher Jared Berson, no Division I player in at least 30 years has averaged over 20 points per game while making 55% from the field, 45% from deep and 90% at the foul line.
“Likely has never happened,” Berson added.
Gonzaga could be in for a quiet week, a busy one or something in between.
The Zags are scheduled to entertain Loyola Marymount on Thursday, but the Lions called off Saturday’s game against San Diego because of COVID-19 issues in their program.
Santa Clara postponed Saturday’s matchup with Gonzaga in response to COVID concerns in the Broncos’ program.
Where does that leave the Zags? Perhaps trying to add a high-profile nonconference game, or maybe lining up an available WCC opponent.
“We just got through this (Pepperdine) game, so now we’ll start trying to figure it out,” Few said. “There’s league games to be made up and who’s available and who isn’t. Those will be decisions we need to make in the next 24-48 hours.”
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