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Gonzaga Basketball

Gonzaga-San Diego takeaways: Chet Holmgren accepts teaching moment during second-half outburst

Gonzaga Bulldogs head coach Mark Few smiles as he talks to Gonzaga Bulldogs center Chet Holmgren (34) during the second half of a college basketball game on Thursday, Feb 3, 2022, at Jenny Craig Pavilion in San Diego, Calif. Gonzaga won the game 92-62.  (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)

SAN DIEGO – From the perspective of NBA talent evaluators, Chet Holmgren’s freshman season at Gonzaga may equate to nothing more than a series of data points.

Thursday’s game against San Diego was another major one for the 7-foot freshman, who put on a dazzling offensive display, scoring 23 points on 9-of-12 shooting from the field while shooting 3 of 5 from 3-point range. The West Coast Conference’s top rebounder was dominant on the glass, grabbing 12 boards, and added four blocked shots to his conference-leading total of 68.

Holmgren’s 20th game in a Gonzaga uniform, and one specific moment within the game, also provided a subtle reminder that this season – presumably his only one as a college player – is about teaching points as much as it is data points.

In our day-after takeaways, we focus on a key learning moment for Holmgren that was sandwiched between the freshman’s show-stopping alley oops, silky-smooth 3-pointers and momentum-changing blocks.

Teaching point

“He’s only 19.”

It’s been a common refrain for college basketball fans who’ve tuned in to see Holmgren play this season, but Gonzaga coach Mark Few used it in a slightly different context when his freshman big man got carried away with a celebration late in the second half.

After a sequence that saw Holmgren block Terrell Brown-Soares, dribble the length of the floor and finish a layup while drawing contact over the 6-foot-10 USD center, Holmgren stuck his hand out and lowered it to the ground as he jogged back down the floor.

The gesture, recently made popular by pro and amateurs players across the country, is supposed to convey an opposing player is “too small” to guard them.

Few’s retort from the bench came with words and hand gestures – the GU coach sliding his hand across his throat as a way to tell Holmgren to cut it out.

During a timeout, Few pulled Holmgren aside to speak with the player and the two engaged in another private conversation when Holmgren checked out of the game for the final time.

“That’s between Chet and I,” Few said. “He’s still 19, so there’s still a lot of room for growth there,” Few said. “But again, what he was able to do tonight, that’s so impressive at 7 feet and the way he runs, the way he defended. He rebounded as good as I think he’s rebounded all year. Obviously, the way he can stretch the floor is pretty special.”

Holmgren offered reporters more insight as to what Few told him after the celebration.

“Don’t celebrate during the game unless it’s with your teammates,” Holmgren said of Few’s message. “Coach Few doesn’t want us trying to get involved with the other team or the fans or anything like that. He told me just let my game speak for itself and leave all the extra stuff out.”

Take 2

Five days after swishing 18 3s in a 104-72 win over Portland, Gonzaga was never in position to threaten another building 3-point record Thursday night.

In fact, the Zags were on pace to do just the opposite, attempting only three 3-point shots in the first half and making their first of the game when Julian Strawther connected more than 4 minutes into the second half.

San Diego took a vastly different defensive approach than Portland, which packed the paint, forcing Gonzaga to attempt a season-high 41 3s. The Toreros offered more defensive resistance on the perimeter, giving the Bulldogs more midrange and low-post opportunities.

“They’ve done that all year. Their stats are pretty impressive,” Few said of USD. “They guard the line and not only the defensive percentages are low, but the amount of attempts you get. We knew that coming in, so that’s why you saw most of our guys getting downhill and doing some things around the rim early.”

GU took just 12 3s, six fewer than its previous season low, set on Jan. 20 against San Francisco. The strategy was ineffective against GU, which has been the nation’s most efficient inside the 3-point arc, shooting 62.8%.

“Hard to say which approach we prefer. The best thing this team’s doing is they’re recognizing what all these different approaches were,” Few said. “As you know, a couple days earlier they just planted themselves in the paint and let us launch 40 3s, so this was vastly different than that.

“These guys switched their ball screen coverage halfway through the game and Andrew (Nembhard) immediately recognized and made some nice plays out of that. That’s probably what I’m most excited about is just their ability to read and react.”

Hoopfest ties

San Diego brought back fifth-year senior guard Joey Calcaterra and a handful of other players the Bulldogs have grown to know through annual encounters in the West Coast Conference, but Gonzaga was also familiar with one of the Toreros’ newcomers.

Wayne McKinney III came to San Diego as a three-star prospect and the top-ranked recruit in program history, but Few and his youngest son, Joe, a freshman walk-on at Gonzaga, know the freshman guard in another capacity.

“Wayne actually played Hoopfest with my son, Joe,” Gonzaga’s coach said after the game. “So I think it was back maybe when they were in sixth or seventh grade. He showed up and when you’re talking about getting a ‘ringer,’ he was definitely a ringer for our squad.”

McKinney graduated from Coronado High School in the San Diego area, but his Pacific Northwest roots may explain how he wound up on a Hoopfest team with Few more than a half-decade ago. Before moving to Southern California to wrap up his prep career, McKinney was a standout at Lake Oswego High in the Portland suburbs.

He chose San Diego despite holding offers from Boise State, TCU, Eastern Washington, Portland State, Fresno State and UC Santa Barbara, according to 247Sports.

McKinney has carved out a starting role for an upstart USD team that entered Thursday’s game as the only other team with six WCC wins. The 6-foot, 190-point guard scored 10 points to go with two rebounds and one steal.

The elder Few briefly reconnected with McKinney in the handshake line Thursday night.

“I just shared those memories and I was very impressed with him,” Gonzaga’s coach said. “Impressed with how strong he was on his finishes, his (3-pointers have) gotten much, much better. At least now than it was earlier in the season, so he’s going to be a heckuva player.”