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Sports >  Gonzaga basketball

Gonzaga rewind: Tightening up defense a priority with opener approaching

Oct. 29, 2022 Updated Sat., Oct. 29, 2022 at 8:49 p.m.

More often than not during Gonzaga’s streak of reaching seven consecutive Sweet 16s, the Zags showed early polish and opened seasons quickly.

Tennessee assumed that role Friday with an impressive 99-80 win over Gonzaga in an exhibition game at Comerica Center in Frisco, Texas.

“They were terrific, especially in the second half,” Gonzaga coach Mark Few said. “They really turned the spigot off on our (offense) and they were really at a midseason or late-season level with how they were running, moving, cutting and executing.”

The Zags have time before the season opener arrives Nov. 7, followed by a string of nonconference showdowns, so they could very well sprint from the starting gate again. To do so, they’ll have to address several issues that surfaced during Friday’s second-half struggles at both ends of the court.

Atop that list is the defense, which also leads off our Gonzaga rewind.

Stops scarce vs. Vols

Gonzaga’s defense was out of sorts against an opponent that was effective inside and outside. Four Volunteers made at least two 3-pointers. The starting frontcourt of Julian Phillips, Olivier Nkamhoua and Uros Plavsic combined to hit 14 of 18 shots.

There was no drop off when Tennessee went to its deep bench. Reserve guard Tyreke Key, who missed last season with an injury and didn’t take a shot in the first half of a recent scrimmage against Michigan State, torched the Zags with 26 points.

“That’s a really high-level team right there,” Few said. “So now we have some things that we definitely need to work on. Obviously, defensively needs to get a lot better because our numbers were horrendous.”

Nobody is reaching for the panic button after only 40 minutes of exhibition basketball.

“I would say some miscommunications, obviously, giving guys some open 3s out there and being in the right spots to help each other out,” senior guard Rasir Bolton said. “I don’t think it’s a big thing to worry about. It’s just something we have to nip in the bud now and get those mistakes out early.”

Few experimented with different frontcourt combinations primarily between Drew Timme (28 minutes), Anton Watson (28 minutes) and Efton Reid (14-plus minutes). Ben Gregg played just over 6 minutes.

Asked about the pairing of 6-foot-10 Timme and 7-foot Reid, Few said, “They had some moments. Obviously, we’re going to have to guard better when they’re in there and we should have better rim protection, but we didn’t have good rim protection. That’s what the bigs are supposed to bring. Obviously, that’s one area we can get definite improvement on.”

The Zags blocked just three shots, one each by Watson, Julian Strawther and Malachi Smith. GU relied heavily on Chet Holmgren for rim protection last season. The 7-footer averaged 3.7 blocks per game and his presence influenced countless off-target shots in the paint in his lone season as a Zag.

Timme’s homecoming

Timme grew up in Richardson, Texas, about 20 miles from the Comerica Center. Thanks to a large contingent of family and friends, Timme received the loudest ovation during pregame introductions.

“It’s always awesome to get home and play in front of the people that have always supported me and been by my side,” said Timme, who finished with 17 points, three rebounds and two assists. “Coach (Few) has done a great job of making sure we somehow always get a game in Texas.”

Gonzaga hammered Texas A&M in College Station in Timme’s freshman season. Timme scored 29 points as a sophomore when the Zags crushed Virginia in Fort Worth.

GU visits Texas in Austin on Nov. 16, the return game from Timme’s 37-point eruption against the Longhorns at the McCarthey Athletic Center last season.

Tennessee defenders made Timme work for his points. He made 8 of 18 shot attempts.

“We’re big, strong, physical,” Volunteers coach Rick Barnes said. “What he does, his footwork, his touch, he has the hands of a surgeon. He’s just so soft when the ball is in his hands.

“We knew we had to do our work early with him. You could tell early he was willing to shoot the 3. When he starts adding that dimension to his game, he’s going to be really difficult to defend because he gets out there with his shot fakes and up-and-unders. It takes a lot of discipline to guard him.”

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