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Sports >  Gonzaga basketball

Zags Basketball Insiders Podcast (episode 1): A roller-coaster start, a streak snapped and a Gonzaga team still seeking a defensive identity

Jan. 24, 2023 Updated Fri., Jan. 27, 2023 at 3:22 p.m.

 (Tyler Tjomsland/The Spokesman-Review)
(Tyler Tjomsland/The Spokesman-Review)

A new lineup. A big loss. A slow start. And finally, victory. 

If anyone can appreciate the roller-coaster season that is Gonzaga basketball so far in 2022-23, it’s The Spokesman-Review’s Zags Basketball Insiders Podcast crew.

Back for the first time since March, the podcast – after a few technical hiccups – finally made its season debut on Monday, with Spokesman-Review reporter Jim Meehan and TV analyst and former Gonzaga center Richard Fox returning to the fold. Missing is longtime S-R columnist John Blanchette, although we’re hopeful a little NIL money might entice him to join for an occasional future episode.

Putting the first episode together was the S-R’s glue guy, photographer and producer Jesse Tinsley, who saved the day with his computer wizardry.

Monday’s podcast examines GU’s up-and-down start, looks back at a week that saw the end of the Zags’ 75-game home winning streak, and previews Saturday’s matchup with Portland.

Catch the entire first episode here. It’s also available on Apple podcasts, Spotify and Google podcasts. 

Below is a transcript from the first show (edited for brevity):

Jim Meehan: Welcome back to the Zags Insiders Podcast. We’re back in the game again and we’re going to be with you the rest of the season. Look for a new show each Monday. Our starting lineup has changed a little bit, so let’s introduce ourselves. I’m Jim Meehan with The Spokesman-Review. I’ve covered the Zags for about 15 years. We have Richard Fox, (who) works for SWX, KHQ (and several) outlets that show Zag games as a TV analyst. And we have Jesse Tinsley, a photographer for The Spokesman-Review with many more talents. He’s the only guy who could actually pull this together. The production of it … I’m obviously not the guy because I cost my companions here about an hour that they didn’t need to lose. I mean Jesse is the only guy who can pull that off, isn’t he Richard?

Richard Fox: I wasn’t much help. So, yeah, I agree with that.

Meehan: Hey, one thing I share with Mark Few, I probably couldn’t coach a team like he does, but we’re both challenged technologically. And me probably even more so. Anyway, we’re going to hit on all the news Zag-wise. But first, a little bit of an overview of the season. It’s been a little bit of a roller coaster for the Zags. They dropped to 14th in the latest (Associated Press) poll from sixth, with a loss at home to Loyola Marymount last week. Snapped an 11-game winning streak, and they had won 75 in a row at the Kennel. So, you have these close games that the Zags have been in on the road with San Francisco, with Santa Clara, with BYU. And a close game (at LMU) that did not go their way. Richard what did you see against LMU? That was a pretty sizable upset. I think the Zags were about 18-point favorites and they just never seemed to lose at home.

Fox: Well, I think some of the issues they’ve had throughout the year just kind of all coalesced in the same game. They were outrebounded by nine. In the second half, they really struggled to score. Collectively, they shot under 40%. And you see just the power of having a ball handler that can create their own shot late in games. I thought (LMU’s Cameron) Sheldon was masterful just controlling the tempo. They really slowed things down the last 7-8 minutes. You have a guy that can either break somebody down one-on-one or can create a switch, like we saw a few times with (Drew) Timme. Obviously the last shot out of the game, (Shelton) is able to get around and hit a shot with his off-hand off the glass. Some of the inconsistencies we’ve seen on the perimeter (showed up against LMU). (Rasir) Bolton and (Nolan) Hickman were really good on the first half, and I think Hickman may have hit a 3 late, but that was the only bucket he had. And I don’t believe Bolton scored in the second half. And obviously, Julian (Strawther) struggled quite a bit throughout the game. You just see a matchup that creates some problems. Against Pacific, they decided not to double at all, (and) they didn’t have anybody with any kind of size that could bother Drew, as a result he had 38 (points). But versus LMU, who’s got (Rick) Issanza and (Michael) Graham, who both have size, who are both long and athletic, you’ve got a little more room for error. If you are going to go that route. And I thought those two held up pretty well against Drew. As a result you don’t have to help as much, you don’t leave as many shooters open.

Meehan: Yeah, you’re right. It underscored some of the things from the start of the season that we’ve seen. You know rebounding has been an issue from time to time. Offense dries up from time to time. If Drew isn’t on, which he is on nearly every night, but he is human and does have an off night, and when teams have that size that can handle him or at least try to handle him one-on-one, and make the other guys create their own shot and the kickout isn’t wide open, those kind of things. I think the Zags are still trying to develop the consistency around him offensively. And I think defensibly, there is some things that continue to pop up. Defending Shelton is all penetration. Whether it was a big or a guard, the guy was getting to the rim a lot. And I think that has been an issue throughout the year, and not just one single guard, it’s kind of been the guard line and which brings us to Pacific. That’s what Pacific did, they went small. Bunch of wing-type players. 6-6, 6-5. They handle it and can shoot it, and they really presented some problems I thought getting to the rim and hitting 3s against Gonzaga’s defense.

Fox: It’s hard at any level for a post player to keep quicker guys in front. You know, I actually thought, oddly enough, that Drew held up fairly well. Either staying in front or at least forcing contested shots as those guys attacked. But what is does is it does force help. It exaggerates some of the deficiencies defensively for GU because you maybe have to rotate over or dig down and try to help on that drive and almost compromise defensively. But, you know that’s an issue for anybody. I mean Shelton can probably do that against just about anybody in the country, but it’s more about how hard is it for him to create those shots. And that LMU game, (Malachi) Smith had some decent stretches against him where he made him work, but generally speaking, Shelton was super comfortable kind of getting where he wanted to get. He was never rushed in getting the shots he wanted. And you know he handled it so much, his turnovers were a bit high. But generally I thought he made good decisions. Against Pacific, (Gonzaga) shot 8 of 12 from 3 in the first half, which as you know is kind of the ultimate equalizer. They really struggled in the second half, I think 1 of 9. So I think Gonzaga figured that out a little bit and I mean in the first half they gave up a couple really easy, quick 3s and transitioned off of made baskets that they cleaned up in the second half. They probably won the game in the first 5 minutes or so where they built that lead, that cushion, and they were able to whether a couple little runs from Pacific.

Meehan: Let’s take a little broader picture of the Zags. As you know, you’ve been around here a long time, when the Zags lose, it elevates the heart rates of Zag nation. They’ve actually dropped four games this year. Given their nonconference schedule, which was loaded, they’ve run into four or five teams ranked currently, two more receiving votes and scrimmaged against a team that is No. 4 in the nation (Tennessee). They’ve actually played the No. 1 and No. 2 teams (Purdue and Alabama) and split with those guys, so the notion that the sky is falling probably isn’t accurate. The notion that the Zags are national title favorites, which they were starting the season, that’s probably not as prominent either. So let’s get your stats. Where are they in the big picture? Are they a national title contender? Are they a Top 10 team? Are they Top 20 team? Let’s put it this way. The poll comes out, they’re 14th. If they hit a bucket at the end of that (LMU) game, or get a stop at the end of that game, they’re probably going to be third or fourth in the country.

Fox: Right.

Meehan: So the sky’s not falling, but there are some issues. Where do you see the Zags in the bigger picture?

Fox: It’s like anything where you choose something in the middle. I mean, I think coming into the year, I had difficulty considering them a bonafide Final Four team. (But) this is (still) a really talented group. They lost to Baylor by one, and LMU by one, they’ve been in a lot of close games. If a ball bounces a different way in a couple of those games, they might be No. 3 in the country right now. But my expectation is that this is a Sweet 16 (team). Their room for error is just so much lower than what they’ve had in the past. And if you think about the rosters that they’ve had. Really since that (2015 team that lost) to Duke or the two that lost to Carolina (and Baylor) in the National Championship. Those rosters were all built to make a deep run, and they all had bonafide pros on them. And the collective talent and polish of those groups was just higher. The one we have now, we have a lot of guys who are stepping into completely new roles or who are trying to get adjusted to new roles. I think that makes it more interesting, over the course of the year. It tends to lend itself to some growing pains and I think we’ve seen that. They’re still searching for that second guy that’s there every night. They just don’t have that. As good as Julien is, he can have those LMU games, 1-of-6; as good as Rasir is, he can have those stretches where he struggles to score. And sometimes I feel like he is caught in between wanting to deliver what it is Gonzaga needs as a point guard, but also satisfy or bring his ability to score. Threading that needle is really difficult. It reminds me a lot of Josh Perkins’ first year after he broke his jaw, where there were a lot of growing pains. I think Hickman is probably more polished than Josh was at the time, but that year Josh was trying to figure out “when am I a point guard and when am I trying to score?” And I think we see that from time to time with Nolan. This is a good team, and if you and I are having a conversation (about the Final Four), I’m not going to be shocked. But if we’re wrapping up the season heading into the Sweet 16 weekend, I’m probably not going to be shocked (either).

Meehan: I think with who’ve they played to this point, and obviously in a league where Saint Mary’s is ranked sixth in the net ratings, they are going to get a lot more tests. I think they’re going to have some more battle wounds, some more bad and tight games to the end, where every possession is huge. I think that helps them in the long run. It’s maybe nerve wracking for the fans to follow and watch, but I think that will help them. The one catch with this team is defense, probably the area that if they can shorten up some of the coverage on rotations and … stop ball penetration, I think that is where their biggest area of improvement can come. I think offensively, for the most part, they’re fine. They’re not 2021. That team was a generational type of offense. But defensively, they need to find some answers. Where they’re different for me, they don’t have the size of the guards with (Jalen) Suggs or Andrew Nembhard. I mean those are 6-5, 6-6 guys. You know, they are smaller at the guard line and they just don’t have the aircraft carrier in there to block shots (with) Chet Holmgren going to the NBA. I think I wrote this last week, I think he had 68 blocks at the 20-game mark last season. And the Zags as a team had less than that when they lined up against Pacific. Something like 63. Last year’s team had almost double at this point. That’s something that they can’t replace. They are going to have to find a way without it. But, as far as second options, they haven’t had a consistent one, but they’ve had three or four guys who can do that. Anton Watson (for one).

Fox: He’s been their second most consistent guy all year.

Meehan: Yeah. He’s so dependable in what he does and defensively, what he does. Very impressive. Let’s move on to Drew Timme. He’s on this march up the scoring list, rebounding list, I think he’s right there with field goals in his career. He’s had three or four 30-point games – 38 the other night. He’s taken over Michigan State, I think two or three games, he’s just taken over in the second half. All the moves, all the scoring, all those things. I think what makes it more impressive, obviously, he’s tops on the (opponents’ scouting reports) but he’s playing 5 more minutes a game and he’s being required to do more defensively. They’re trying to isolate him with guards up front. He’s really had to work his tail off there. He’s improved his rebounding, which is very important with this group. What do you make of his season? How he continues to deliver most nights out and just what is being asked of him? I mean the kid’s carrying a heavy load.

Fox: I think I said this earlier in the year, and I thought about it before I said it, I’ve looked through (Gonzaga’s) rosters. I don’t think (Mark Few) has ever asked a player to carry more of a load offensively. As great as Kyle Wiltjer was as a scorer, he had Domantas (Sabonis). As great as Adam Morrison was, he had (J.P.) Batista. And as talented as some of the guys on this roster are, they just don’t have that consistent scorer that both Sabonis and Batista were for those guys. He’s to do so much, they have to have his scoring. As crazy as it is to say, you’d almost like for him to be more aggressive scoring the ball because of how easy it comes to him. He’s become a really good passer, both in transition and in the high post. But also if teams do elect to double him, he’s really figured out where the open man is. Against LMU, (Hunter) Sallis entered him the ball and he kind of barked at Sallis to clear out. But of course, Sallis does that and he ends up in the opposite corner and Drew lines him up for a 3. He just has an incredible feel. He’s a good rebounder, competes on the offensive glass, and I think defensively he holds up better than probably what he looks like. You know, he’s got good feet, doesn’t have great quickness, but I think he’s just a smart player that even though he may get beaten off the bounce, he just has a way of getting in the way enough to try and create a contested shot. I’m having to talk about it all the time, and I’m finding it difficult to find a new way to say that he’s incredible. They’ve got Chicago State on the schedule (at the end of the regular season). I don’t know they can probably go ahead and retire his jersey now if they’d like. We all know what’s going to happen so … no, he’s been tremendous and definitely been one of the all-time guys.

Meehan: Let’s take a quick look ahead and maybe scan the conference as well. Zags are 6-1. That loss to LMU game knocked them out of their first-place tie with Saint Mary’s. Saint Mary’s 7-0, No. 22 in the AP poll this week, first time they’ve been in the poll since the end of last season. And then you’ve got kind of three or four horses in the race trying to stay in that upper level and maybe even challenge the top two – with Santa Clara surprising, LMU, this is kind of the LMU team I thought last year, they waited a year on me and now they’re delivering. They’re a handful. I think they’re going to stick around. But you’ve got USF that has kind of run hot and cold this year. But at the start of the year, LMU and Pacific were the last two teams in the league. Now I think that’s probably San Diego and Pepperdine. But I like Santa Clara and I was really impressed with Saint Mary’s. I watched quite a bit of their game against Santa Clara and just controlled it from start to finish. Now freshman guard Aiden Mahoney is very solid. They’re got a couple nice bigs, (plus) Logan Johnson, Lucas Bowen. They’re all veterans. This is not going to be an easy team to catch in this race, is it?

Fox: No, you’re going to have to beat them … at least once. So no, I think the conference, and we say this every year, people say this every year, and I typically I kind of scoff at the idea that the league has made some incredible jump or increased its step. You know, its almost every year, it’s either Gonzaga or Saint Mary’s, and depending on the year, BYU. But I do think legitimately this year that we saw LMU knock off Gonzaga. That’s a team that can beat anybody in the conference and, if they can find a level of consistency, could go on a run. You know I was at that San Francisco game. They are really well-coached and they’ve got a couple guards that can get their own shot. Maybe, not as dynamic as Shelton, but still they’ve got the pairing of the two. They’ve got big guys who know how to play, they still can beat anybody. I mean, you think about Gonzaga’s schedule: You survive the road trips but those teams get to come back up to Spokane and play. And this team just doesn’t have that room for error, as we saw against LMU, so I’d expect those games to be tight as well. So you know Saint Mary’s, you drop a game, you know you’re going to have to beat them. I think you knew that going into the year, though. And Saint Mary’s has a knack for dropping one that we all look back on and kind of scratch our heads and wonder how that happened.

Meehan: BYU does that too. Every year it seems like.

Fox: Gonzaga is accustomed to be at the head of the pack, and Saint Mary’s has a lot of that experience as well. But it’s a long season and if I’m Gonzaga, I’m just thinking let’s just take care of what’s in front of us. The Saint Mary’s game is set, we know when we’re playing them and we’ll be ready for that game. In a weird way, I like that they get to play them down there first, just to kind of get their first taste of them and to get a feel for what they play like. I’ve heard from people in the league that they think this is the best defensive team (Randy) Bennett has had. And obviously we know what they want to do offensively, they’re very methodical, they can shoot it. But they’ve got some size and they’ve got guards that can really play. I’ll be fascinated to see what the spread of that game is when we get there.

Meehan: I’ll tell you what, they are impressive defensively. What they did to the better guards in the league. Tyler Robertson, the kid at Portland, now he was just coming off an injury. I heard that maybe he shouldn’t have even tried to play but he’s an Australian kid and he knows all the Saint Mary’s kids. They shut him down. The kid from Santa Clara, Brandon Podziemski, who has made huge strides. He’s been impressive after transferring from Illinois, he got shut down pretty well by Saint Mary’s. So that team can really guard, and the thing is they can guard inside and out. It’s well balanced that way. So it will be very interesting. The most they’ve given up all season was 70 points in the season opener. Some of that’s the slow tempo, the methodical offense. They held (down) Houston, No. 1 team in the nation.

Fox: Yeah, but as good as they are, they’ve lost to (Washington), they’ve lost to New Mexico. This is a team that can certainly be beat. But this is bringing it back to your point about (Gonzaga) playing good defense earlier, Jim. I don’t anticipate you and I describing that this has become a great defensive team in the next six weeks. But what they have to do is become a good one on a night-to-night basis. And that’s part of the challenge they’ve had is they’ve had stretches where they defend, where they rebound, but then they’ll go on long stretches where that just isn’t there. And if you’re not a great defensive team, then you’ve got to be a solid one. A consistent one. And I’ll be interested to see as we kind of move through conference, too, if they just shore up that end, kind of bend-don’t-break, versus having these stretches or these games where it’s just not there. Because as well as they score, they just don’t have the room for error.

Meehan: No, and they can’t do what they’re doing in league. They’re giving up 78 a night. They’re giving up 40% from 3. I actually thought they would drive those numbers the other way but they were higher in league for opponents than they were for the nonconference. In all those great teams that they played in the nonconference, you’re right, if they can get that number back to 70, where they’re not having to score 85 or 90 every night to win games, just marginal improvement on that side of the ball could be a game changer for them. Not only in league, but where they’re going to go eventually because I think quite a bit of it hinges on their defense. But, we’ll take one look ahead to Saturday’s game against Portland. We mentioned all the teams. You know I think Santa Clara, I think BYU, USF, LMU, they can beat anybody in the league. Portland, when they’re right, and I’ve seen them right, in the PK85 down in Portland, I watched them play North Carolina, watched them beat Villanova, watched them do everything but beat Michigan State, they can be a handful. They’ve got some perimeter shooting, they’ve got some bigs that can stretch it, Tyler Robertson, who I mentioned before, one of the craftier and more versatile players in the league. I think they’ve got Mike Meadows back. The Zags dusted them by 40 here a week or two ago. Just scored at will. I think Portland continues to get healthier, they continue to be a little up and down. They had a nice win over USF but they’ve had trouble backing it up sometimes. I think there is a reason to be concerned with Portland, especially there. But these are the types of games the Zags are going to have to take care of on the road to get where they want to go. What do you see is the biggest challenge on Saturday against Shantay Legans’ crew?

Fox: Oh, they shoot it well enough. 38%. That’s the nature of the game now. If they can knock down shots in their home gym, it’s going to be interesting for GU because (Portland) can score the ball. They averaging about 77-78 a game, which certainly isn’t where Gonzaga is but on the right night at home, they can get going. They don’t rebound it particularly well, to your point they haven’t been healthy, I think it’s been hard for them to get some consistency out of that group but when they’re on point they’re really talented. And they’ve got some athletes. You know Shantay is a good coach. Gonzaga isn’t going to see what they tried to put together at the Kennel. It’s going to be something completely different. I’ve got a feeling that the game plan is probably tossed in the bin. Was not working for them. But you know what’s hard, Jim? Gonzaga, as long as Mark’s here, there’s always going to be an aura about them and they’re always going to be the biggest game in town when you play them. But I do think the league smells some blood in the water. And there is a confidence seen in some of these opponents where there is just not a lot of fear. Versus when you’ve got Chet Holmgren up front, and Suggs, and (Przemek) Karnowski and (Zach) Collins you know, engulfing the paint. Gonzaga still has the most talent collectively and is still the best team. But the gulf between them and the rest of the league, outside of maybe the bottom two, it’s just not as wide as it was. And so these games, going to Portland, most years, you expect it to be tight the first 10 minutes, 12 minutes, but Gonzaga just based on ABCs is just going to pull away, there is just not much Portland can do. But I would expect Gonzaga to win, but they just don’t have that room for error. If they go down there and they don’t want to guard and they aren’t willing to rebound, then that will be a game.

Meehan: Another shootout.

Fox: This game just isn’t complicated and if you’re not going to guard and you’re not going to rebound, Portland can beat you. That’s it.

Meehan: Most anybody in the league, honestly, can beat them.

Fox: Yeah, and you can say well that’s just anybody, that’s basketball, and that’s true. But for this team in particular, if they don’t want to rebound or they don’t have it dialed in defensively, they can get beat. You would not have said that about a lot of the teams we’ve seen the last few years, even on an off-night, it’s not a game.

Meehan: I think you’re right. I think a lot of it hinges on that defensive side of the ball. I wrote very early on, this team is not boring, they’re not going to be boring. They have the same high ceiling, but I think the floor is lower than it’s been. Especially these great run of teams they’ve had in the Sweet 16 every year. So, hey that’s going to do it. We’re glad to be back with everybody out there on this Zags Insiders Podcast. I apologize once again to my cohorts. Hopefully this will never happen again where I get waylaid technology-wise, but with me, it’s always a possibility. Anyway, you can find us on Apple podcasts, Spotify, Google podcasts and also the website for our newspaper. That way you can get the audio or video version. I recommend the audio only.

Fox: Me, too. I co-sign on that!

Meehan: Anyway, thanks for joining us. Catch us every Monday. We’ll be back with you next week.

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