Coaches mull rotations and strategy at both ends of the court 24/7, but Gonzaga’s Mark Few reached a comfort level recently with his new-look roster.
And then projected starting wing Steele Venters went down with a torn ACL in practice, brutal news for the Eastern Washington transfer and the Zags just days before Friday’s season opener.
“We’re kind of scrambling after the Steele (injury),” Few said following Gonzaga’s 86-71 win over Yale. “I think we were all in a pretty nice (place), at least I was very comfortable with what our rotations were, what we could run and what we could do defensively. We had to reset after all that.
“I think we’re settling in now and we’ll figure that out.”
The coaching staff pushed the right buttons in the opener, but the adjustment process is on-going with big games looming at the Maui Invitational in the next 10 days.
Here’s a look at GU’s options minus Venters, using a three-big lineup and starting guards Ryan Nembhard and Nolan Hickman rarely leaving the floor in our takeaways from the victory over Yale.
Freshman Dusty Stromer moved into the starting lineup and he’s expected to play extended minutes with Venters sidelined for the season. Stromer was poised in 28 steady minutes, hitting two 3-pointers and finishing with eight points and three rebounds.
Jun Seok Yeo, a sturdy 6-foot-8 forward from South Korea, came in for nearly 3 minutes when Stromer picked up his second foul in the first half. Luka Krajnovic, a 6-5 guard from Croatia, did the same when Hickman was called for his second foul with 1:27 remaining. Yeo and Krajnovic didn’t play in the second half.
“I think it’s important, I have to continue to grow our bench. I have to get Jun in there, Luka in there,” Few said. “Luka has had some good stretches for us, but that’s a lot to throw them in there when you’re playing against fifth-year (players), really smart Ivy League guys that are going to cut you, draw fouls.
“That’s a hard ask for guys that are new to our program, new to the United States, new to the language and all that. Those guys are going to be fine, though.”
Krajnovic, who has a solid grasp of English, didn’t arrive on campus until August. The language barrier is tougher for Yeo, who joined the team last January but wasn’t eligible to play in games last season.
Few employed three-big alignments, an option made possible by having four capable forwards in Graham Ike, Anton Watson, Ben Gregg and Braden Huff. Gonzaga typically has used a three-big rotation, including starters Drew Timme and Watson last year with Gregg the first sub off the bench.
Against Yale, Huff essentially split minutes with Ike at the ‘5,’ but there were several instances when GU had Watson, Gregg on the floor with Ike or Huff. Watson’s versatility on defense helps make it work and so does Huff’s and Gregg’s perimeter shooting prowess.
The Zags still used a three-quarters court press and continued to play fast in transition while stretching their lead with three bigs playing simultaneously.
“B-Huff has had to adjust to playing more ‘5’ than he’s used to, but he’s done a nice job,” Few said. “It’s a good combination playing those two (Huff and Ike) and we’re still finding minutes for Ben and now we have to slide Anton over and play some ‘3’. We’re just kind of figuring out how to play with that lineup, too.”
Gonzaga punished Yale with 14 offensive rebounds and a 42-28 advantage overall. The Zags piled up a 44-20 edge in paint points.
“They’re really big, they have a lot of options, coach (Few) does a great job and he’s going to put guys in the right position to be successful, so I don’t think you have to worry too much,” Yale coach James Jones said. “I don’t know if they’re going to win a national championship. They’re going to have a really good year.”
As expected, Nembhard and Hickman logged heavy minutes. Nembhard sat out 3 seconds at the close of the first half. Hickman rested for 87 seconds. They operated seamlessly together with Hickman focusing on scoring and Nembhard as the primary ballhander. Hickman still handed out three assists.
Few repeatedly asked Nembhard if he needed a break, but the Creighton transfer insisted on staying on the court. It appeared that Krajnovic was waiting at the scorer’s table in the final minute to check in for Nembhard, but there wasn’t a break in the action to substitute.
Nembhard tweaked his ankle pursuing a loose ball and Stromer was seen grabbing at his right knee or ankle almost at the same time. It didn’t appear to be anything serious as the final seconds ticked away.
“A little tired, but get some rest, have an off day (Saturday) probably,” Nembhard said. “Get some rest and get back at it. I’d just rather be on the court than sitting on the bench.”
The two guards combined for 31 points, 10 assists and just two turnovers in 78-plus minutes.
“We’ll lean into those guards pretty hard, especially early,” Few said. “He (Nembhard) turned the ball over a decent amount early in some or our scrimmages and some of our exhibitions, so (Friday) was a great sign.”
Nembhard did most of his damage against Bez Mbeng, the reigning Ivy League Defensive Player of the Year. The 6-foot Nembhard made seven of his last 12 shots after a slow start.
“I know (Few) needs me to and Nolan to be aggressive and put some foul pressure on and try to get some buckets,” Nembhard said. “I think it helps everybody when I’m trying to score the ball first.”
He scored his first basket by freezing Mbeng with a fake on the perimeter and finished inside over 6-10 Samson Aletan. Nembhard forced a few attempts early, but he and Hickman had success scoring with drives into the lane.
“They can (finish inside),” Few said. “There’s still room for improvement on those because I think we’ll see that a lot with how people guard us.”