The outcome seemed pre-ordained. Gonzaga would defeat Dixie State on Tuesday night to open the 2021-22 season and do it like the Zags always do, with efficient offense and solid-if-not-spectacular defense.
Uh, maybe not. Sure, the No. 1-ranked Bulldogs rolled, defeating the Western Athletic Conference’s Trailblazers 97-63 before an actual crowd – 6,000 of them – in the McCarthey Athletic Center. Along with viewers from around the Spokane area via KHQ and the usual crew, Greg Heister, Dan Dickau and Richard Fox.
But how it happened, that’s part of a new look. And a new team.
What they saw …
• It had to happen. With the Zags losing the three engines of an NCAA-record offense (Jalen Suggs, Corey Kispert and Joel Ayayi) the offense would have a tough time purring in the same manner. It didn’t, especially in the first half.
The Bulldogs shot less than 50 percent in the first 20 minutes, mainly due to a 2-for-13 mark from beyond the arc. But that wasn’t the worst stat. Eleven in the turnover column probably bothered acting head coach Brian Michaelson more.
Dickau and Fox certainly honed in on them.
But they also highlighted the one facet that built the 15-point lead. The defense.
It’s not that the Zags were bad last season. How could they have been? No bad defensive team makes the national championship game. Gonzaga finished 11th nationally in Ken Pomeroy’s adjusted defensive stat, a number that was hurt by Baylor’s outstanding performance in the final game.
This year’s young-but-athletic group? After one half, Dickau and Fox were already impressed. And not just by uber-skilled 7-foot Chet Holmgren’s presence around the rim.
It started with Gonzaga’s guards.
“Defensively, they have an opportunity to be better than last year’s group,” Dickau said after about 10 minutes, when Dixie State was 3-of-20 from the floor.
“(They’ve) got more length and they have a couple extra bodies coming off the bench,” Fox added, as the Zags forced 20 Trailblazer turnovers.
But the second half was different, as Dixie State settled in, Gonzaga’s pressure faded and the game tightened to within 10 at one point. A quick 11-point run changed that – and ended the Trailblazers’ hopes.
• One player who started fast and stayed that way was the touted freshman Holmgren.
Suggs’ former high school and AAU teammate was exactly as Fox succinctly put it before intermission: “He’s good Greg.”
At that point Holmgren’s stat line was nine points, nine rebounds, three assists and four blocks.
He finished with 14, 13, seven and, according to an on-screen graphic, a school-record seven blocks. When Heister posited early Holmgren could be GU’s first quadruple-double producer, it seemed like a little hyperbole. Maybe not.
Holmgren’s length inside is what may lift Gonzaga’s defense from good to elite. Not only did he block the seven shots, he altered many more. And Drew Timme, who sat quite a bit due to foul trouble, also seemed rejuvenated around the rim
defensively. The junior may have blocked just one shot, but his presence was felt by the undersized Trailblazers.
What we saw …
• Which returning players looked to have taken a step in the offseason?
The most obvious choice is Anton Watson. And not just because he has a new tattoo. The 6-foot-8 junior also seemed quicker, stronger and more comfortable in every facet.
The Gonzaga Prep product defended well in space, was active off the ball – he led the Zags with five steals – and was the best passer on the court with a game-high seven assists.
“He’s been solid offensively,” Fox noted. “Playing within himself when he’s looking to score but doing those other things.”
“You can tell, he’s had a good summer,” Dickau said, noting Watson’s improved health.
• When the Zags are on KHQ or SWX (and Root outside the Spokane area), the broadcasting trio and their arguing-while-agreeing interaction has been around longer than Michaelson has been an assistant coach.
Heister mentioned the trio had reached 10 years together, which seemed to if not surprise, at least impress his two analyst partners. So often they sit courtside for blowout wins, which means they have to be ready to fill time, to provide a local angle to whatever is happening and provided historical context. A 20- or 30-point lead also allows them to stay positive, something at which they excel.
“How lucky are we,” Heister asked with four minutes left and the Zags leading by almost 30.
One thing that did stand out in this one, however, was not addressing why Mark Few was not on the bench.
They mentioned the sure hall-of-fame coach, suspended for three contests due to a September DUI citation and ensuing guilty plea, would be back for Saturday’s visit from fifth-ranked Texas. But the why he wasn’t there in this one wasn’t mentioned.
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