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Sports >  Gonzaga basketball

Former Zag John Rillie: Creighton a ‘good matchup’ for Gonzaga in Sweet 16

UPDATED: Wed., March 24, 2021

Creighton head coach Greg McDermott talks with Mitch Ballock and Marcus Zegarowski on Saturday during the second half of the Bluejays’ NCAA Tournament first-round game against UC Santa Barbara.  (Associated Press)
Creighton head coach Greg McDermott talks with Mitch Ballock and Marcus Zegarowski on Saturday during the second half of the Bluejays’ NCAA Tournament first-round game against UC Santa Barbara. (Associated Press)

Gonzaga’s coaching staff is in full preparation mode for Sunday’s Sweet 16 date with Creighton.

John Rillie, who led Gonzaga to its first NCAA Tournament berth in 1995, can relate. UC Santa Barbara’s associate head coach spent last week preparing for a first-round game against the Bluejays.

If not for a gut-wrenching final 20 seconds, Rillie and Gauchos might be the ones lining up against Gonzaga instead of Creighton. Christian Bishop, a 57% free-throw shooter, made two with 16 seconds left to put the Bluejays up 63-62. UCSB’s Amadou Sow’s attempt from close range trickled off the rim.

“Everything went right for them and nothing went right for us in those last 20 seconds,” Rillie said.

Rillie sized up the Gonzaga-Creighton matchup, one that features quality offenses that score in different ways.

“I’m biased to some degree, but I think it’s a good matchup,” said Rillie, who made 20 of 28 3-pointers and averaged 32 points as GU went 3-0 to win the 1995 West Coast Conference Tournament. “This Zags team is very physical and has good size at their positions.

“It’s a good matchup in the fact Gonzaga will enjoy playing at the pace (Creighton) wants to play. With Gonzaga’s shot-making ability and (Drew) Timme’s post presence, he’ll put foul pressure, offensive pressure in general on Creighton’s defense.”

Top-seeded Gonzaga (28-0) has made quite a bit of history this season, going wire-to-wire at No. 1 in the AP poll and entering the tournament with an unbeaten record.

The fifth-seeded Bluejays (22-8) made some history of their own by handling Ohio 72-58 on Monday to reach the Sweet 16 for the first time since the tournament expanded to 64 teams in 1985. They were in the final 16 in 1974 after posting one win in a 25-team tournament.

Creighton’s offense, packed with 3-point shooters, gets most of the attention, but its defense contributed by holding two tournament rivals to an average of 60 points.

UC Santa Barbara limited the Bluejays to 7 of 25 from deep, but they hit three or four in transition, a prominent part of their attack.

“They’re a prolific and potent 3-point-shooting team, especially in transition,” said Rillie, in his fourth season at UCSB after seven years on former GU assistant Leon Rice’s staff at Boise State. “The transition 3s, when you’re playing a game in the 60s, it was a big amount of their points.”

Junior point guard Marcus Zegarowski directs a balanced offense with all five starters scoring in double figures. Creighton ranks sixth nationally in 3-point attempts (788) while Gonzaga, which likes to operate inside the arc, is 110th (569) in two fewer games. Zegarowski, Denzel Mahoney and Mitch Ballock have attempted more 3s than GU’s Corey Kispert’s 179.

Zegarowski and Ballock launch shots well behind the 3-point line.

“Zegarowski is a very good player, dangerous out of pick and roll, hitting the roll guy at the rim,” Rillie said. “At the end of the first half, he peeled off eight points by himself.

“Heavy ball-screen offense, they want to create an advantage and keep it. All of them are more-than-capable 3-point shooters. Ballock is a deadeye shooter. Mahoney is like an X-factor. He can drive and shoot it and if he feels he has a physical advantage, he’ll back you down and post up. Versatile player.”

The Bluejays start an undersized lineup with the 6-foot-2 Zegarowski, 6-5 Ballock, 6-5 Mahoney, 6-5 Damien Jefferson and 6-7 Bishop. Mahoney, Jefferson and Bishop are listed at 220 pounds.

Bishop doesn’t shoot from the perimeter, but he’s a “very active, high-motor athlete and he can put the ball on the floor and challenge your ‘5’ man,” Rillie said. “It is small ball, but in modern-day basketball those guys are ‘3s’ or ‘4s’ because of the way they’re playing on the perimeter, shooting 3s or driving the ball.”

Creighton focused on UCSB guard JaQuori McLaughlin, the Big West Conference Player of the Year. He faced constant double-teams on ball screens to try to get the ball out of his hands. He finished with 13 points and seven assists.

Gonzaga’s Jalen Suggs and Andrew Nembhard will probably see similar tactics, but the Zags could present problems with their ball movement and multiple scoring options.

“They’re going to be disrupting whoever stimulates the offense,” said Rillie, whose son, Jaron, started six games and not surprisingly shot 48% from distance as a freshman for Samford. “The rest of the way, they’re trying to keep in front and contain and make you take shots you’re not used to taking.

“They definitely don’t want to foul. They’re walling up. Bishop will probably wall up on Timme.”

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