PORTLAND – Gonzaga’s breakdowns were widespread in Friday’s loss, from the 27.5% shooting from players not named Drew Timme or Nolan Hickman to a defense that “got torched,” in the words of coach Mark Few, in the second half.
It added up to an 84-66 setback to No. 24 Purdue, Gonzaga’s second double-digit loss to a ranked opponent. With two wins over teams in the top 15, it’s apparent the sky is neither falling nor clear blue for the Zags. It’s also apparent there’s a lot of square footage between Gonzaga’s ceiling and basement.
The Zags have issues to address, and in a November schedule filled with marquee matchups, they’re playing talented teams fully capable of exposing their shortcomings.
And that includes Xavier, which also enters Sunday’s third-place game against Gonzaga in the Phil Knight Legacy trying to shake off a discouraging loss. The Musketeers (4-2) made a spirited comeback before falling short against No. 8 Duke 71-64.
Xavier, picked second behind Creighton in the Big East Conference preseason poll, has a seasoned roster and balanced offense. The Musketeers, like Gonzaga, sputtered on offense against a disciplined opponent and have several players highly motivated to make amends.
Topping that list are senior forwards Jack Nunge and Zach Freemantle, limited to a combined nine points on 3-of-19 shooting. The 7-foot Nunge came in averaging 16.8 points while Freemantle was right behind at 15.2.
Sean Miller, who is in the first season of his second stint at Xavier, faced the Zags several times during his 12 seasons at Arizona. He was fired after the 2021 season with the program entangled in the federal investigation into corruption in college basketball and replaced by longtime Gonzaga assistant Tommy Lloyd.
“It’s going to really test us again,” Few said. “It’s interesting, that’s usually what we are, the post-strong kind of teams, and they have a couple guys that can really do that. I think Sean, like, I don’t know, watching our stuff and watching Tommy’s stuff and now they’re running it now.
“He’s got some experienced guys. He’s obviously a heck of a coach. Defensively, they’ll be hard-nosed and they really seem to be clicking offensively.”
The starting five has played in 489 career games, including Souley Boum’s, Adam Kunkel’s and Nunge’s stops at other schools before transferring to Xavier. Kunkel’s status wasn’t known, but he was sidelined against Duke after absorbing a hit to the head.
“We’ve got a big challenge with one day (to prep),” said Miller, several hours before GU-Purdue tipped off. “Whether we play Purdue or Gonzaga, we recognize the two programs are very similar to Duke right now, so it’s going to be another great challenge.”
Miller said he pleased that his team didn’t “fracture” during tough times against Duke, but he’s not pleased with one aspect of his defense.
“Our underneath, out-of-bounds defense is unlike anything I’ve ever seen,” Miller said. “We have to fix that. That’s on me. Until we’re a harder team to score against and we’re connected on that side of the ball, we’re going to continue to be not quite as good of a basketball team as I know we’re capable of.”
Few can relate. His squad yielded an uncontested dunk to Caleb Furst on an inbound play after a timeout. The Zags were worked over inside by 7-4 Zach Edey and stung by 10 3-pointers.
“It (was) just kind of in whole,” Few said of the defensive miscues. “We were doing part of the things we wanted to do, whether it was a hard double team on (Edey), but then we weren’t rotating out of it quickly enough to get to the 3-point line.
“They stepped up and started making some shots there. We had a couple where we were switching coverages, we didn’t communicate it or just had four guys on one page and one guy not on a page. Purdue executes so well, they make you pay when that happens.”
Nunge, who was at Iowa from 2018-21, is shooting 44.4% on 3-pointers, even after going 1 of 6 vs. Duke. Freemantle was connecting on 65.2% of his attempts inside the arc before struggling against the Blue Devils.
Boum, who played his freshman season at San Francisco, picked up the slack with 23 points. Junior guard Colby Jones is versatile (14.4 points, 5.4 rebounds, 54.5% on 3-pointers and a team-high 28 assists.) Kunkel averages 11.5 points and leads the team with 11 made 3s.
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