Zags Basketball Insiders Podcast (episode 3): Big 12 rumors, a rough OT loss at Saint Mary’s and a final Kennel farewell coming up against BYU
Feb. 6, 2023 Updated Thu., Feb. 9, 2023 at 2:18 p.m.
From more Big 12 rumors to a Saint Mary’s showdown, it was quite a week for Gonzaga basketball.
In the latest Zags Insiders Podcast, Spokesman-Review reporter Jim Meehan and TV analyst and former Gonzaga center Richard Fox discuss the latest Gonzaga-to-the-Big 12 talk, look back at Saturday’s loss to the Gaels that saw GU drop two games behind Saint Mary’s, and look ahead to this Saturday – BYU’s final WCC appearance at the Kennel.
Catch the episode here. It’s also available on Apple podcasts, Spotify and Google podcasts.
Below is a transcript:
Jim Meehan: Welcome back to the Zags Basketball Insiders podcast. I’m Jim Meehan. Richard Fox back with you as well. Richard’s an analyst on the Gonzaga television broadcasts for KHQ, SWX and Root. I’ve covered the Zags for 15 years approximately. Kristi Burns is back with us. She’s helping us put the podcast together. We appreciate that. Let’s get on with it, Foxy. We’ll get to Gonzaga’s 1-1 week but we’ll first take a look at the AP poll that came out. Gonzaga dropped four spots to No. 16. Saint Mary’s up three spots to 15 after beating Gonzaga in overtime on Saturday in Moraga. Gonzaga is No. 11 in the NET rankings. Saint Mary’s No. 6 – they interestingly did not change up or down either team after the outcome of Saturday’s game. In the bracket projections, the one I looked at this morning was Jerry Palm from CBS Sports, Zags had been a 3, they’re down to the 4 line. The Gaels moved up, they are on the same line as the Zags as the 4 seed. Richard, six league games left for both teams, what do you think is the ceiling and the floor for both teams in terms of where they could get to on the seed lines with the regular season winding down?
Richard Fox: I think that 4 to 6, maybe once you get through the entirety of the conference schedule and you see some of those NET wins or that record against the Quad 3 and Quad 4 side of things kind of increase – and you see the Pac-12 teams start to continue to kind of bank those Quad 1 games – maybe they drop an extra line or two but that feels about right, between a 4 and a 6 for both these teams.
Meehan: Yeah, not too many chances to impress the selection committee. But the Zags and Gaels play again on (Feb.) 25th and then most likely another meeting in Vegas. They always seem to play down there so that will be each team’s best opportunities. Say Gonzaga wins both and ends up winning out, I could see them getting back to the 3-line, with an outside shot at No. 2 just because those you know Power 5 teams beat up on each other but they don’t usually drop too much. They’re NETs and that stay pretty consistent because they’re almost always Quad 1s. A loss or two more, the zags are probably down on the 5-, 6-line and then it gets real interesting in that first round. But with the parody in college basketball it’s going to be interesting either way. And on the topic of college basketball, there was some chatter again last week about Gonzaga in the Big 12. They’ve had a couple of discussions, the powers that be in both sides, and it was a topic of conversation on the Big 12 meetings, which were held over the weekend in Dallas. Not an action item as far as I could tell. If it was Chris Standiford, the (Gonzaga) A.D. and Thayne McCulloh, the president, probably would have been in in the building to give some info to the Big 12 presidents and A.D.s. Lots to consider: Gonzaga wants to join in all sports if it were to make a move to any conference. There’s the financial picture. Big 12 schools are going to get $31.7 million per year on their new media rights deal. Now obviously, without football, Gonzaga wouldn’t be included to that full share, but there would probably be a pretty fair amount of money coming their way if it happened. Not much rumble came out of the meetings, which was interesting. You’d figure the rumors would be flying, but didn’t hear anything, but obviously there’s some level of interest each way. Foxy, what’s your take on this? It’s an incredible basketball league. All 10 teams in the Big 12 — that’s right, 10 teams in the Big 12 — are between 8 and 71 in the NET, and it’s the best conference in the country. They’re bringing in Houston, who’s No. 1 in the NET right now, next year. Is this kind of a ‘careful-what-you-wish-for’ type of endeavor if it were to happen? Or is it, ‘hey, line up with the best and see what happens?’
Fox: I think it’s a question of survival. You look at what’s going on in the Big Ten and the SEC, they are ahead of schedule, I think. When you see what the Big 12 is doing, I mean this is my perspective just being somebody who’s following it avidly, but not in the room or certainly in that field, but it felt like for a while there, the Big 12 was reactionary. Now they’re trying to be proactive. And with Texas and Oklahoma leaving to go to the SEC, they’re obviously bringing in four members including BYU, Houston, Central Florida and Cincinnati. I think they’re looking at it like we need to get up to 18 teams. So what I’ve read, is they’re looking at the Pac-12 and saying Arizona looks awfully good. Arizona State, Colorado, Utah for a geography perspective, that gets us to 16. San Diego State and Gonzaga give us that West Coast, and that commissioner for the Big 12 has been pretty consistent in saying he wants to be across all four time zones. So I think from Gonzaga’s perspective, you don’t want the music to stop, where the majority of these alignments occurring are been being driven by football. And now with conversations about expanding it the NCAA tournaments and what does that mean? Are leagues like the WCC, Big Sky, Big West that are up and down the West Coast, are they still going to have an automatic qualifier? There’s just so much unknown I think you’d rather get ahead of it, get at the table even if you’re not a full-fledged member because you don’t have football, you’re in the room, you have a voice, you’re not waiting to see what happens, you’ve hopefully got some ability to try to shape what happens. That feels like that’s the motivation for Gonzaga. I think there’s obviously competitive aspects to it. They want to be in a better conference. They’ve obviously been a big fish in a smaller pond for a long, long time. That’s worked for them, to be fair. They haven’t been able to break through and win (a national title), but they’ve been to two of the last five (championship games) and were pretty well positioned during that COVID year to maybe make a third run to a Final Four. So I don’t think you need to throw the baby out with the bath water as it were but it sure feels like there’s a lot of momentum, rather I should say a lot of energy, being given to this idea. If I’m Gonzaga I think if the move is there and I can make it work logistically, and obviously the money needs to work, I think you have to go, even if it’s painful, even if maybe the Big 12 isn’t the ideal fit from a geographic perspective, style-of-play perspective. I think I’d rather make the move and control my own destiny than continue to be where I am right now, which is kind of sitting and hoping things work out.
Meehan: Things might still get interesting. The Pac-12 is working on its media rights deal as well, and that that could come about here today, next week, next month, but I think that’s still a possibility as well. Probably a better fit for Gonzaga in terms of the travel schedules, most align with the WCC travel schedule. But again lots of issues with that. Washington, Washington State … not sure how they’d stand on that. Not sure where the Pac-12 stands in all the realignment, or if the Big 12’s trying to pick off a few more schools or not, so we have to wait and see. Let’s get back to basketball. It’s week three of our podcast, week six of the WCC season just finished, and that was an interesting couple of games for the Zags. They go 1-1 – not the week they were looking for, but not all was lost either. Santa Clara, Zags win that one 88-70 on Thursday and they fall to Saint Mary’s in Moraga. The Zags played about as complete a first halves as they have all season in both games. In the second halves, were a little more turbulent, especially Saint Mary’s, but let’s start with Santa Clara. Zags were able to get out and do what they like to do: run, get in transition, capitalize on turnovers, pound the paint, and hit some 3s. Santa Clara did not have many answers, particularly in the paint. The Zags were up 19 at the half. What’d you see out of the Zags in that first half, Foxy?
Fox: We’ll talk about it when we get into the Saint Mary’s game. I thought in the first half, their defense was about as dialed in as it’s been all year. And you’ve been talking about this now the last couple weeks, Jim, which is when they’re dialed in on that end of the floor they may not be ‘elite,’ but they’re awfully good. And it feels like they’re trying to turn that corner to make that a consistent part of what they’re able to do. But in both games in the second half – part of it’s just the flow of a game, but particularly against Saint Mary’s, and saw this a bit against Santa Clara – it just isn’t quite as dialed in, then it loosens a little bit. But in the first half I thought what they did defensively was really impressive. You know Drew (Timme) was good, but not great for what he can do. But you saw Anton (Watson) – he’s got this knack where, when Drew draws so much attention, he’s able to step up you know (and be) perfect from the field. I thought they shared the ball really well, 20 assists on 35 field goals made. Look, (Keshawn) Justice and Brandin (Podziemski) at Santa Clara had 39 and shot the belt ball fairly effectively. Just 26 points at the Kennel, but 8 of 26 from the field. I think Gonzaga did a really good job of making life uncomfortable.
Meehan: That defense was really good, but I thought offensively – the movement, the energy, the sharing, the cutting – they got easy baskets, they hit 3s. That’s as good as they they’ve looked offensively – and offense hasn’t been the problem, don’t get me wrong – but I thought they were really motivated. I don’t know if it was because the first one was so close, but they came out with a lot of energy and I thought the crowd was into it from the jump, which doesn’t always happen if it’s not one of the bigger games. Now the second half, the Zags somehow shot 63 percent from the field and got outscored. That’s a statistical oddity and you saw some of the same issues kind of rear their head with the ball penetration, but still I think, as I’ve tried to describe it, those baby steps defensively keep happening. If they can stitch it together another 5 minutes here and there or another 10 minutes in a second half, they become a team that could be very dangerous next month. Let’s go on to Saint Mary’s. That was a just a heck of a game. It was a great first half by the Zags. I don’t think they could have followed the game plan much better. I think that was a Brian Michelson gameplan. Led by as many as 11. They were scoring it pretty good against a team that does not give up points very easily – 57 on the season. I thought even better than offensively was what they were doing defensively. They kind of controlled that backcourt of Aidan Mahaney and Logan Johnson – tough shots, contested shots. Now they did miss some open ones but I thought the Zags, for the most part, kind of did what Saint Mary’s does: they made them shoot over them. They just tried to be in the right spot, body up, contest, and I thought scored it so well at the other end. You know, the Gaels don’t usually do that, they weren’t easy shots, but they were just kind of doing their thing and executing. I think the only problem I saw in that first half was the lead was just eight. Could have been 12, 13 very easily, and you kind of wondered, ‘can you keep that up in in the second half?’ Recap that first half, Richard. What did your eye catch?
Fox: Saint Mary’s only got one free throw in that first half. I thought Gonzaga’s ability to defend without fouling was really obvious. They were really deliberate about how they were defending and you saw guys exaggerating, you know, getting their hands off of them when they were driving. I thought the rotations were really dialed in and you can tell when a scouting report is being well executed, when you know with the Layman’s eye, you look at a guy like Johnson and think, ‘well, they’re making a mistake, he’s wide open.’ But what they clearly said was look, we’ll let him try to beat us. He shoots 26% from 3, we’re going to shore up these other areas, Mahaney in particular. It just felt like they were really connected on that end. And Saint Mary’s can certainly struggle to score. We’ve known that. Part of it is the pace in which they play, but they’re not deep, they play six guys effectively, they don’t score at a high clip, they’re relatively efficient scoring the ball but they just don’t score it a ton. I think what you saw there was, you know, at halftime to your point, it felt like Gonzaga was in control. It felt like Gonzaga should have been up maybe 14 or 16, but that’s the power of being able to defend and to rebound on your defensive glass. That’s really what kept Saint Mary’s in the game was just A.) the lack of possessions and B.) their ability to defend. Not letting their offense and struggles on that end impact what they’re trying to do defensively. How often do we see that in basketball, generally, but we probably could say that at times this year with this GU team, which is when they’ve struggled to score, you see that impact them defensively. You wouldn’t have said that Saint Mary’s in that first half.
Meehan: Well, the second half was a whole different story but not until about the 7-minute mark. Really, the Zags did a great job of fending off Saint Mary’s. They would get within six or seven, and the Zags would answer. It got to maybe 7 minutes or so, the Zags were up eight, and that’s when Logan Johnson kind of finally found his offensive game. I think he had 10 points in the second half and then he fouled out, which I thought after he fouled out, and the way Mahaney had been held in check, I didn’t count it as a ‘W’ in the win column but it sure looked like it was gonna be tough to catch Gonzaga. And then Mahaney decided to just kind of go otherworldly. I mean he was hitting some shots that you wouldn’t even try in H-O-R-S-E against your best buddy. He played a long time with four fouls, too, that was interesting and he managed to stay on the floor throughout and into the overtime period. He was responsible for 19 of 21 points over a stretch at the end of regulation and into overtime. Hard to believe. He scored 16 points in that time frame, had three assists – I want to say all the big ones – there’s only three in the game. The kid was unreal. You have to give them credit. I didn’t see it coming after what we’d watched in the first 33 minutes but he’s done that before – a big bucket against BYU to win it after he struggled most of the night. Big 3 against USF after he struggled most of the night. Of course, afterwards, the armchair coaches on Twitter were enraged as you might expect. I think probably the biggest question they had was should Hunter Sallis have gotten some time on him in the closing stretch or maybe even whatever defensive adjustments. Foxy, when a kid gets going like that and the Zags did try maybe three, four different defenders, including Watson, on him, and he just must be seeing a bucket the size of a bathtub. I don’t know what you can do but should they have tried anything differently or what do you do in that situation when a guy’s just hit that zone?
Fox: I love that perspective, like the guy who wasn’t playing for whatever reason the coaches decided, if he’d been in the game, he would not have hit those shots. I mean we all watched him hit the same shots. It didn’t matter. The level of difficulty on those drives and finishing off the wrong foot, left hand, high off the glass, over, if not Watson, multiple defenders. As we say all the time, those other guys are on scholarship, too, and sometimes the guy’s just better than you in a game, in the moment, whatever it might be. I just thought he was the best player on the floor the last 5, 6 minutes and then in overtime. That happens, you know, I didn’t think Gonzaga’s defense broke down where he was getting uncontested looks, easy drives to the rim, easy passes into the low block. Everything he was doing was difficult and he made those shots. I think that’s one of those games where you’re flying home and you’re disappointed and you certainly feel like you should have won the game. You were in control of it, for the most part, but then you watch the tape and you say, ‘look sometimes a guy just goes off,’ and going back to the LMU game with (Cam) Shelton, it was different. It felt like Gonzaga made some mistakes in that game they weren’t able to control the matchup defensively to the same degree. This wasn’t Timme trying to stop Mahaney. I mean Watson’s your best defender, has been all year. You had the matchup you wanted on a couple of those drives and he just happened to knock them down. I would imagine if they play again, and they’re in the exact same situation where Johnson and (Mitchell) Saxen are out, they’ll probably just double (Mahaney) on any pick and roll and make him give it up. But it’s a whole lot easier to say that in hindsight, and if you do that, your defense is obviously compromised on the back end and I’m not sure this is the group that I’d want that to happen. I don’t have Chad Holmgren back there to clean things up. That’s a long way of saying it’s certainly a game Gonzaga’s gonna look back on and think they probably should have won. But sometimes you just tip your hat to a guy and and there’s a reason he’s an all-league guy.
Meehan: The other thing you have to consider is whoever the primary defender is on him, whether it’s Nolan (Hickman) or Malachi (Smith) or (Julian) Strawther, whoever it was, they were switching on the first ball screen and in several cases, it was Anton as you mentioned. So whoever the primary defender was, they were often guarding a big after that. At that point, Mahaney was smart enough to keep the distance. I thought Julian Strawther was going to be the hero again, just like he was at BYU with that late 3. He hit a couple of beautiful floaters – his float game is getting better and better – both of them put the Zags up by two. Then the very end, Mahaney had Malachi on him, drove the left side of the lane. Anton came out, just a brief hedge to kind of stop the drive, and although Malachi was in OK position, the kid instinctively just pivoted the other direction. Saxen went to the right side of the paint. Anton’s recovering, but he just threads a bounce pass in there, bad angle really, about a two centimeters from Anton getting a hand on it, gets through for a layup and on to overtime. I mean those are the kind of plays the kid was making. Not the highest percentage sometimes, I mean he banked in a 3 – he’s not trying to bank in a 3 in overtime – but you tip your hat. That game was so good that Randy Bennett, who has had a few famous walk-by handshakes on Mark Few at the end of games, just kind of zips through the the handshake line, he approached Mark (Few) and I think if I read lips right, he said, ‘what a great game’ to Mark, who kind of smiled and hit him on the chest like he does with his players when he subs them in and out. That’s how good that game was. Outcome, win or lose, those two teams, when they’re playing well, it’s pretty high level stuff.
Fox: Yeah, it was a great game. I think Mark was quoted saying effectively the same thing after the game. You know, it’s one of those games someone’s got to lose. You’re on the road. I think we’re all excited to see what that looks like up here in Spokane. And to your point earlier, Jim, there’s not a lot of these left. I mean, look, Saint Mary’s is a bonafide tournament team – a team that none of us who follow the league or follow college basketball are going to be surprised to be seeing in the Sweet 16. I don’t think we’re saying that about anybody else in the conference. So just to have those experiences as a team deeper into the season. I mean we’ve seen in years past Gonzaga gets in the tournament without any real challenges and it feels like they could get beat up a bit to start the tournament trying to get those legs back under them. You know these competitive games, 40-minute games, are invaluable. You look at what they’ve done throughout the year, they’ve got another opportunity up in Spokane in a couple weeks, and to your point, more than likely in the conference tournament. I just don’t think that there’s any disappointment in losing at Saint Mary’s. I just think it’s a bit magnified because of the loss at home against LMU, and you realize now I’m down two (games) to the Gaels, so even if I beat them at home, if we take care of business, they’re in control of the league. When’s the last time we can say that Gonzaga’s been in this position? I think that’s part of the shock of the loss is all of a sudden, this run of winning the league outright or at least having a share of it is in real jeopardy. I can’t really remember … I’d have to think about the last time that was the case.
Meehan: It’s been a long time, roles kind of reversed. Now the Gaels are in control. Let’s see it now the next couple weeks but I think you’re right. Nobody’s going to want to face St Mary’s in the NCAA Tournament. That style of play is like a trip to the dentist for a root canal. And then the Zags, if that defense continues to just make marginal steps forward, same deal because they can score it and they’re going to be a problem matchup if that defense catches up a little bit. So let’s move on: Big week ahead, two home games, no road trips, no planes for me, Foxy, I’m really happy about that. With these split weeks we’ve been dealing with one home, one away – seems like we’ve been on the road every weekend for at least one game. But home for San Francisco on Thursday and BYU on Saturday as it says farewell to the Kennel as a member of the WCC before they join the Big 12. Let’s start with San Francisco, although both teams gave Gonzaga fits the first time around. That was the Rasir Bolton game, if I remember right. He took over down the stretch and got a putback that drew a foul that ended up giving Gonzaga a victory on the road. Hard fought. The Dons have been kind of an enigma, hard to read. They beat some good teams, they beat BYU, beat LMU. But they had a rough week last week. They had St Mary’s down with 5, 6 minutes left, ended up losing by nine, and they lost by 13 to Santa Clara. This is a team that’s pretty reliant on the 3-ball – have been for years – and defense has been hit or miss. It’s giving up 80, 85. What really makes them go a little bit is when they hit the 3 and when they get a little production out of their inside guys. What do you see the Dons doing differently? I’m sure like anyone else they tweaked that gameplan coming in for Thursday. What do you see with that matchup with Gonzaga? Where the Dons make some alterations?
Fox: I’ve asked Kyle Bankhead this but he won’t tell me. I thought they pitched a perfect game down in San Francisco until about the last 4 minutes. When you’re trying to pull off that kind of upset – because San Francisco is just not at the level of Saint Mary’s – you can’t make some of the mistakes they made, which is just small breakdowns of what they were trying to do with their coverages defensively. And then Bolton was the guy who just made it hurt, knocked down shots, they went under screens when they shouldn’t have. The way they were hedging on those ball screens was incorrect, but I thought what they did with Timme, it was the first time in a long time – maybe even since the last Saint Mary’s game in conference – where a team was really able to bother him and shut him down with their scheme despite maybe not having the athletes that you’d expect to be able to bother him. If I’m San Francisco, I’m going to try to incorporate a lot of that. As good as some of these other guys can be on any given night for Gonzaga, you know it’s still about Drew. You don’t want to let him get going, but I would expect them to certainly change up how they how they defend him. They had a lot of guards doubling down on him on his catches. I’d be interested to see if they start throwing more of a big-to-big screen but then you think about Watson’s ability to hurt you when he did that against San Francisco, when you give as much attention to Drew, so I think for San Francisco is they’ve got to find some consistency. Since they lost to Gonzaga, to your point, they’ve had they’ve had some good wins but then they’ve had some of these head scratching losses. They just really struggled to be consistent, but they’ve got two guards in (Tyrell) Roberts and (Khalil) Shabazz who can get going. I believe this is Shabazz’s last year and last chance to play up at the Kennel. You’d expect him to play well and be up for that. So you know for GU, Jim, to me I think it’s about the defense. Saint Mary’s game aside, they score well enough. I’m not really worried about that. I mean how do they guard? You know, they’ve allowed one point per possession for the last five games and seven of the ten WCC games this year. To your point, I think they’ve had stretches that are better, but at some point we need to see that go from a half, to 30 minutes, 32, 35, and I think that’ll be would be the difference, and then we’re not really worried about what San Francisco is doing because they just don’t have the talent and the horsepower to really compete with you.
Meehan: You mentioned Kyle Bankhead, the former Zag player, he’s an assistant at San Francisco and he had the scout for GU. That scout was great and how they handled Timme, it was very similar to the Zag game the other night. They kind of did what they wanted to do for 35 minutes. And they were undone at the end, but Kyle did do a nice job with that scout and I’m sure he’ll have it again. You’ve got BYU coming in on Saturday. This team is different, too, they did hit 13 threes on GU. But the Zags won that game, came from 10 down late to win it. It was kind of looking against all odds at one point there but they came back and got it done. The Zags really controlled the glass in that game. I think they won by 17 on the boards. Some balanced scoring, but BYU is more defensively driven this year. They do have an ability to guard better than most of their teams. Probably not the firepower defensively in past years, but a team that gave Gonzaga fits down there. Do you see it unfolding similar up here or have the Zags maybe gotten a little better defensively? Homecourt shots go in that maybe rattle out on the road. How do you see this matchup on Saturday?
Fox: I think it’s hard to bottle up that effort at home and just say we’re gonna take that up to Spokane. Your best shot to pull the upset is obviously going to be at home and I’m not one to feel sorry for BYU very often, but certainly they’ve had a rough stretch here with the one-point loss to Gonzaga and then one-point loss to Saint Mary’s at home. Certainly their season would look a little different if they’d be able to pull both of those out. I just question BYU’s ability, on the aggregate across their roster, shoot it well enough. They don’t have great size. They’ve got some strength inside (in Fousseyni) Traore. He’s had some moments against Gonzaga but my instinct, Jim, is to say I just don’t see that one being much of a game up at the Kennel if Gonzaga is able to defend, control the glass. They’re going to shoot it better at home than they did down at Provo. And BYU’s gotta shoot it well enough up in Spokane. They shoot 33%, 34% from 3. They’re gonna need a big night from their shooters, and I’m not sure they have that.
Meehan: Well that’s going to do it for this week’s episode. We’ll be back next Monday. Catch us on Apple, Spotify and Google podcasts. Or maybe the easiest way is at spokesman.com, our website.
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