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Sports >  Gonzaga basketball

‘Really good and going to be very good.’ It’s early, but ESPN’s Jay Bilas, Seth Greenberg see promising Gonzaga squad

Nov. 15, 2022 Updated Tue., Nov. 15, 2022 at 6:24 p.m.

Jay Bilas and Seth Greenberg recently shared their opinions of Gonzaga, with one important disclaimer.

“This is a little bit of an odd time,” Bilas said. “Teams aren’t set yet.”

In other words, even the observations of ESPN’s leading college basketball analysts – 38 years of broadcasting experience between them – should be taken with a grain of salt.

Bilas, ESPN’s color commentator for Gonzaga-Michigan State, and Greenberg, an analyst who co-hosted a pregame SportsCenter segment on Friday in San Diego, had some of the best seats in the house on a night where there weren’t many bad ones.

After dissecting the pieces of Gonzaga’s reconstructed roster this offseason and wedging in a few film sessions last week, the ESPN duo got their first in-person glimpse of the 2022-23 Bulldogs on board the USS Abraham Lincoln.

“They’re obviously really good and going to be very good,” Bilas told The Spokesman-Review on Monday. “It’s just a different team.”

Gonzaga passed Bilas’ eye test – as well as the real test in a gutty 64-63 win over Michigan State – but the Emmy-nominated analyst doesn’t believe the game, played in a unique one-off setting with the college basketball season just five days old, offered much insight into what the Bulldogs will look like later on in the season.

“Gonzaga is probably better offensively than they were able to show because after a while it becomes pretty clear that every perimeter shot you’re taking has a reduced probability of going in based on the conditions and so that makes guys a little bit gun shy,” Bilas said. “Then obviously, the defense adjusts, so they’re kind of giving you those things and taking away some of the other stuff. So, I’m not sure, that’s a long-winded way of saying I don’t think it’s necessarily representative of how good these teams are or can be, but I would (also) say that if they played indoors.”

Gonzaga’s resume one week into the college basketball season includes three real data points, none particularly informative: a 19-point exhibition loss to Tennessee, a wire-to-wire rout of North Florida and Friday’s come-from-behind victory over Michigan State, played on the cold, at-times windy flight deck of a naval warship.

Some who attempted to draw conclusions following the Tennessee exhibition, played in a setting where players were unable to foul out, may be walking back their statements after watching the Volunteers lose 78-66 to Colorado, two days after the Buffaloes dropped a game to Grambling State.

“Looking at the game Gonzaga played against Tennessee, Tennessee looked like world beaters, they hit a bunch of shots and you’re thinking, ‘Holy cow maybe they should be on the shortlist for the Final Four,’ ” Bilas said. “Then they run out and they can’t throw it in the ocean against Colorado and get beat.”

The ocean may have been the only place a 3-point attempt didn’t wind up on Friday, with the Zags shooting 22% from beyond the arc and the Spartans faring worse than that, at 18%. The environment wasn’t conducive to perimeter shooting, free-throw shooting or offensive basketball in general. Gonzaga is still working through questions in the backcourt after losing lead facilitator Andrew Nembhard to the NBA.

“Let’s face it, Andrew Nembhard was a surgeon,” Greenberg told the S-R on Thursday. “I think that’s the big question for Mark (Few). Who will have the ball, short clock in that ball screen and can make a play? Who will have that ball, the decision making of Nembhard I think was so underappreciated and how easy he made all that look.”

Gonzaga may not space the floor as effectively as it did last season, with Anton Watson and Drew Timme manning the starting frontcourt positions, as opposed to Timme and Chet Holmgren, the latter of whom was a 39% 3-point shooter in his lone college season.

“People talk about spacing all the time in basketball. Spacing is only good if you can stretch the defense,” Bilas said. “You can get your players to stand where you want and really space the floor, but if the defense doesn’t go with them, so what? So, you have to have guys that can stretch the defense, that cause the defense to go out and cover them.

“That opens up not only driving lanes but cutting lanes where Gonzaga was really, I thought, the best team the last two years in their passing and cutting.”

There’s no Holmgren in this frontcourt, but Greenberg still believes GU can be among the country’s best, and not only because it returns a first team All-American/national player of the year candidate in Timme. In a 20-minute conversation, Greenberg touched on just about every rotational Zag, but kept coming back to Watson, who’s apparently made a fan of the ESPN analyst.

“I was really, really impressed with Watson’s floor game,” Greenberg said, referring to the senior’s four-assist effort against North Florida. “He passed the hell out of the ball, really impressed with his floor game.

“I think (Watson), his patience is going to be rewarded and I think it’s a great, great lesson for people. He might be the best blend player in college basketball and I think calling him a blend guy is almost insulting, because he is a really good player right now.”

Both analysts are bullish on Chattanooga transfer and reigning SoCon Player of the Year Malachi Smith, who’s come off the bench in both games but logged more minutes (61) than starting guards Rasir Bolton (47) and Nolan Hickman (44).

“What’s great about Malachi is he doesn’t have to start,” Bilas said. “I don’t think he seems to care whether he starts or not, but he gives you a guy who’s being a load carrier out there and it’s just, I think he’s willing to blend in, but I’m not sure Mark Few wants him to blend in. I think he wants him to ball out. Sort of go in and be you, and take over when it’s time to take over and all that stuff. He doesn’t have to be apologetic about being one of their best players.

“They’ve got pieces and so it can be a different guy every game, it doesn’t have to be the same. But over the course of the season, I would say the guy that has the most potential to kind of step forward is Smith.”

Smith replaced Hickman with 17:05 remaining in the second half against Michigan State and never came back out of the game, recording six steals, converting a key putback with 3:11 left and grabbing two defensive rebounds inside the final 2 minutes.

“Malachi’s going to have an impact and I think Hunter (Sallis) is still a work in progress, is my take on it,” Greenberg said. “Hunter might play some backup point guard, who knows? But I just think when you talk about Gonzaga, Mark’s done an amazing job with his transfers but at the guard position without a redshirt year. That’s a pretty easy transition. I think Malachi will be fine. He’s more of a strong, physical specimen.”

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