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Gonzaga Basketball

Gonzaga’s offense shows considerable promise when turnovers don’t get in the way

Gonzaga guard Ryan Nembhard drives against Syracuse guard Kyle Cuffe Jr. during the second half Tuesday at the Maui Invitational at SimpliFi Arena in Honolulu. Gonzaga won 76-57.  (Tyler Tjomsland/The Spokesman-Review)

HONOLULU – There is Gonzaga’s offense when it is taking care of the ball and making the right pass. The scoreboard operator stays busy.

And there is Gonzaga’s offense when the turnovers stack up, the opponents convert at the other end, and the Zags’ momentum and point totals fade away. Head coach Mark Few stays busy with his vast array of reactions on the sideline when a soft pass is intercepted.

The Zags displayed both versions of those offenses in a loss to Purdue on Monday and a decisive win over Syracuse on Tuesday at the Maui Invitational.

Gonzaga had just six turnovers in the opening half, shot nearly 50% from the field and raced in front 39-25 at halftime against the Orange. The Zags had 12 miscues in the closing half – after committing 10 turnovers and scoring just 28 second-half points against Purdue – and saw their lead melt to six before pulling away.

Junior guard Nolan Hickman called the Zags’ offense “real smooth” when they are in rhythm and turnovers are kept to a minimum.

“Just making sure we’re playing off two feet and making the right reads,” he said. “That’s definitely when we’re at our best.”

If they’re not doing those things, watching Few’s reaction tells fans all they need to know. It happened too often against the Orange with GU committing 18 turnovers by seven players.

When Luka Krajnovic’s ill-advised pass was picked off by Syracuse’s Judah Mintz, Few tapped Hickman on the knee to go check in before Mintz had a chance to take a dribble.

Syracuse registered 11 steals and had a 17-15 edge in points off turnovers. The latter would have been a bigger discrepancy, but the Orange coughed up 13 turnovers of their own.

After a turnover by Graham Ike early in the second half, Few was left hunched over, hands on his knees. Seconds later, another turnover and Few barked at a player to jump stop.

A Ryan Nembhard turnover prompted Few to put his palms up toward the sky, as if to say, “Why?” A careless pass by Dusty Stromer left the head coach running in place as a way of protest.

And there was the old standby after Ike fumbled a ball away in the paint: Few with hands on his hips and a piercing glare.

Gonzaga Bulldogs head coach Mark Few watches his team during the first half of a college basketball game in the Allstate Maui Invitational on Tuesday, Nov. 21, 2023, at SimpliFi Arena at Stan Sheriff Center in Honolulu, Hawaii.  (Tyler Tjomsland/The Spokesman-Review)
Gonzaga Bulldogs head coach Mark Few watches his team during the first half of a college basketball game in the Allstate Maui Invitational on Tuesday, Nov. 21, 2023, at SimpliFi Arena at Stan Sheriff Center in Honolulu, Hawaii. (Tyler Tjomsland/The Spokesman-Review)

“It’s hard,” Few said. “We obviously want to be in attack mode, Ryan loves to play fast and we give those guys a lot of freedom. I’ve been on them to look at contextually, about what just happened and on the two prior possessions.”

Case in point: Anton Watson’s gorgeous pass in transition to Braden Huff – think an NFL quarterback whizzing a pass by a linebacker’s ear covering a tight end with his back to the ball. Except then Huff was then whistled for traveling.

“I even jumped up and was a little fired up when Anton made a really nice pass to Braden,” Few recalled. “Great decision, phenomenal pass, but the context of it came after two turnovers prior to that.”

The offense, when turnovers are down, has been productive – save for the second-half 3-point-shooting woes vs. Purdue – and reminiscent of how the Zags have operated for years. Ike and Watson combined for 28 points and Hickman and Nembhard contributed 30 with Nembhard adding seven assists.

They had 18 fastbreak points, connected on seven 3s and worked the offensive glass with bigger lineups to the tune of 25 second-chance points.

Gonzaga is just four games into the season with a lot of new players in the rotation, but Few can see the potential, particularly when the Bulldogs are in single digits in the turnover column.

“We’re just starting this journey,” Few said.