SEATTLE – Well, it turns out that this is a great season for Gonzaga to still be in the West Coast Conference.
A winter in a more competitive conference like, say, the Big 12, might have turned into an onslaught of tough nights.
Because among all the things this team needs – after taking another beating at the hands of the Connecticut Huskies on Friday night at Climate Pledge Arena in the Continental Tires Tip-off – the most crucial is time.
Time to find ways to shut down or match firepower with a top-level team. Time to figure out ways to maximize their talent.
Time for the Zaglets to mature.
Coach Mark Few said afterward that the defending national champion Huskies have “championship DNA” in their blood now.
These Zags, at least for now, are a few chromosomes short.
As it turned out, Continental Tires sponsored a blowout – 76-63.
Based on historical precedent, the Zags have been able to fatten up on WCC foes after registering some quality nonconference wins in the fall. That recipe has led to high seeding and preferential regional placement.
Thus far, GU hasn’t beaten a ranked team.
The Zags came in ranked No. 10 with losses to Purdue and Washington on their record. Those were the result of rapid unscheduled disassembly in the second halves of both games. Twice they fell apart under pressure.
Everybody hits cold stretches at times. And the Zags are young at places, and inconsistency is the hallmark of young teams early in the year. The Zags played well for 40 minutes against UCLA and USC, but a true top-level opponent?
Saturday? No, this was a thorough spanking. The No. 5 Huskies dominated in all phases.
They’re legit, of course, having won nine of 10 games with wins over Indiana, Texas and North Carolina, all on neutral floors, with their lone loss against Kansas.
The Zags didn’t appear to have closed much ground on UConn, the team that ousted them in last spring’s Elite Eight.
Maybe the WCC will be more challenging this season, but the Zags still have roughly 10 weeks to earn a spot in the NCAAs and become more competitive against teams like UConn.
Over the next couple of months, center Graham Ike needs more minutes. He was the Zags’ leading scorer coming in, at 14.2 a game, but was playing only 22 minutes. Saturday, Ike played less than 18 minutes and scored five points. That’s not enough.
But let’s not forget that Ike missed all last year with a foot injury. By building up his strength and endurance, they could gradually get him more minutes, which should mean a boost in points and rim protection.
Anton Watson, with 20 points against UConn, seems to realize he needs to be a consistent offensive force. Still, he’s averaging just 10 shots a game. Saturday, he put up 15 attempts. Keep it up, Anton.
Even in the loss, transfer guard Ryan Nembhard flashed further assimilation with the Zags. He scored 15 points and played the full 40 minutes, which spotlights GU’s lack of depth in the backcourt.
Nembhard came in shooting just .194 from 3-point territory, but at times Saturday he made aggressive lane drives when nothing opened up outside. This is the Nembhard the Zags are looking for, the one who led Creighton to a second-round win over Baylor last March (30 points, hitting 4 of 6 3 pointers).
Time, and games against softer opponents, should help build the confidence of freshmen Dusty Stromer and Braden Huff. Stromer has a nice floor game and has been surprisingly strong on the boards.
Remember, it was a knee injury to Steele Venter that caused Stromer to get tossed into the breach at a wing. Venter had been a career 40% 3-point shooter at Eastern Washington. The Zags still haven’t found a way to match his expected output.
Huff has led the Zags in shooting and 3-point percentage, but was 0 for 3 behind the arc on a night when the team was only 2 for 12.
Both of them look at times as if the game is a little big for them. Two more months of games will slow it down and make them more comfortable in tense situations. The talent is there.
UConn coach Dan Hurley assessed the Zags as a team that is “going to be a brutal team (to face) in March.”
Few cited the Zags’ rebound advantage (32-26) as a positive statistic, since the Huskies came in dominating the boards this season.
But short of somehow getting a transfusion of championship blood from somebody, his Zags have a long way to go, with a lot of work to do, before reaching the elite level of a UConn.