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Gonzaga Basketball

Four out: Gonzaga writers Theo Lawson, Jim Meehan discuss WCC awards, pivotal moments of season

In our last edition of “Four Out,” we explored Gonzaga’s chances of getting back to the NCAA Tournament and whether an at-large bid was still realistic for a Bulldogs team that had just suffered its fifth loss of the season at Santa Clara.

How things have changed…

Two months later, the Zags have cleared up of the most uncertainty surrounding their resume and enter the West Coast Conference Tournament riding an eight-game win streak, having picked up Quad 1 wins at Kentucky, San Francisco and Saint Mary’s.

In the latest “Four Out,” Gonzaga reporters Theo Lawson and Jim Meehan tackle a few of the pertinent postseason questions facing the Bulldogs as they head to Las Vegas.

After the WCC awards were released on Tuesday, the consensus among GU fans was that the Zags – who didn’t receive any of the individual awards – got a raw deal. What do you think and who were your picks?

Lawson: Like most Gonzaga fans, I had to do a double-take when I got my first glance of the All-WCC awards Tuesday morning. Gonzaga ranks No. 19 in the AP poll, No. 15 in KenPom and No. 17 in NET. The Bulldogs had two players – Graham Ike and Anton Watson – up for national honors (Erving Award, Karl Malone Award) until watch lists were trimmed down this week. I didn’t expect Gonzaga to sweep the individual awards, but even that felt like a more realistic scenario than the Bulldogs being shut out completely.

Graham Ike was my choice for WCC Player of the Year, as long as the Zags managed to split their season series with Saint Mary’s. Ike’s numbers against the best teams in the conference were stronger than the other WCC POY candidates and there wasn’t a more dominant player in the conference the last three weeks. That part isn’t disputable. I don’t have a big issue with WCC coaches handing the top honor to Augustas Marciulionis, who was the most reliable player for Saint Mary’s while leading the Gaels to a regular-season title. My biggest qualm was with newcomer of the year, which went to USF’s Jonathan Mogbo. The transfer’s best outings came against the bottom of the conference and he wasn’t one of the three or four best players on the floor in either matchup with GU.

Meehan: That was an eye-opener when the list came out. I made my picks on Monday’s Zags Basketball Insiders Podcast with Richard Fox and went 1 for 6! I correctly predicted that the coaches would go with San Diego’s Deuce Turner for sixth man. My pick was GU’s Ben Gregg, though I’m not sure he qualified with 13 WCC starts. I was slightly surprised Marciulionis was named player of the year, but to the victors go the spoils. Saint Mary’s won the regular-season title and that rightfully carries significant weight with individual awards. His numbers (12.4 points, 3.2 rebounds, 5.1 assists) aren’t off the charts, especially compared to my pick, Ike, who averaged 18.4 points in conference games, but Marciulionis was crucial to the Gaels’ title run. I recall Kevin Pangos winning POY in 2015 (11.6 points, 4.8 assists) and Jeremy Pargo in 2008 (12.1 points, 6.0 assists) and both were well deserved.

The biggest surprise was Mogbo winning top newcomer over Ike, or Ryan Nembhard for that matter. Ike outplayed Mogbo in two series meetings and got the better of defensive player of the year Mitchell Saxen in the regular-season finale March 2. Mogbo has been outstanding, but, as Theo mentioned, he wasn’t nearly as effective against the WCC’s top teams. For the second straight year I picked Anton Watson to win top defender and it didn’t happen. It’s hard to believe Watson didn’t win the award once in his career.

As a team, Gonzaga has shown incredible growth since losing to Saint Mary’s on Feb. 3. Which player or players, in your mind, have been the most pivotal during this recent stretch?

Meehan: Nembhard and Ike certainly have spurred the Zags’ eight-game winning streak, but they’ve had plenty of company. Nembhard has been superb running the show. He’s scoring at all three levels. He’s putting up points when needed but more often, he’s distributing and getting everyone involved. Ike has been nearly unstoppable in several big games – Kentucky, Santa Clara, San Francisco and Saint Mary’s – during his streak of seven consecutive games with at least 20 points. He’s demanding the ball more and being more aggressive, something coach Mark Few has hounded him about all season.

Nolan Hickman actually leads GU in minutes played in WCC games (36.0). He’s been terrific, averaging 15.2 points, 45.5% on 3-pointers, 82.9% at the foul line, 3.1 assists and just 1.1 turnovers. Gregg’s insertion into the starting lineup has made a big difference and freshmen Braden Huff and Dusty Stromer have made timely contributions.

Lawson: The obvious answers would have to be Ike and Nembhard. I think it’s also important to note what Ike’s done over the past seven games wouldn’t be possible without Nembhard operating the offense at an elite level, and Nembhard wouldn’t be piling up huge assist numbers if Ike wasn’t converting at the clip he has. It’s taken time, and some early-season growing pains, for their partnership to evolve into what it is now but it was clearly worth the wait.

Hickman also deserves to be highlighted here. Nobody on the roster has taken more criticism – most of it from Gonzaga fans – than the junior guard. That started last season and Hickman’s performance in the NCAA Tournament – eight points in four games – frankly didn’t inspire much confidence that he’d become a central offensive figure for this team a year later. Reverting back to an off-ball role has paid off for Hickman, who also had to endure a rough stretch at the start of the year to become one of the WCC’s top perimeter players. After making 24 of 46 from the 3-point line over seven games, I thought Hickman took an incredibly mature approach to the Saint Mary’s game. He didn’t shoot a single 3-pointer and still made a handful of key plays while dishing out a season-high seven assists.

Gonzaga and Saint Mary’s split their two regular-season matchups, with the winning team controlling the tempo. Assuming they both make it to Tuesday’s WCC championship, how do you see that game playing out?

Lawson: I expect we’ll see that matchup on Tuesday night in Vegas, but it’s not a lock. The Gaels are thin in the frontcourt without Joshua Jefferson – and possibly Harry Wessels – and that could be a big factor in a potential matchup with Santa Clara, the fourth-tallest team in the nation. If San Francisco makes it through to the semifinals, I expect the Dons will be eager to give the Zags their best shot considering how the second half went last Thursday in the Chase Center.

It does feel like the Zags and Gaels are on a collision course to meet for the third time this season, and frankly it wouldn’t feel right if anybody else was playing Tuesday night at the Orleans Arena. Saint Mary’s coughed up the ball 14 times in the last game, leading to 13 Gonzaga points. That’s unlike the Gaels, and I’d expect them to keep that number to single digits in a third meeting. I also think Gonzaga will get a little more out of Anton Watson, who was quiet with two points, on 1-of-6 shooting, and two rebounds in Moraga, California.

There wasn’t much separating these teams when Jefferson was healthy, but it’s hard to overlook his absence. That, coupled with the homecourt advantage the Zags tend to have in Vegas, have me inclined to pick GU in a close game. Final score: Gonzaga 72, Saint Mary’s 68.

Meehan: Hey now, one game at a time (I’ve heard that about a billion times from coaches). Gonzaga will have its hands full in the semifinals, likely vs. San Francisco, trying to beat the same team three times (I’ve heard that about a half-billion times). The same applies for Saint Mary’s, without Jefferson, if it faces Santa Clara.

Should Gonzaga and Saint Mary’s advance, I give the nod to the Zags, who have been playing at a high level. Minus Jefferson, the Gaels have limited frontcourt depth, not ideal when facing Ike, Watson and others. Still, Randy Bennett has 531 career wins for a reason and the Gaels coach will undoubtedly have a new wrinkle or two in the game plan for Round 3.

What’s your prediction for NCAA seeding, and how far in the tournament can this Gonzaga team go?

Meehan: I seem to have misplaced my bracketology hat, but I’ll take a stab at this anyway. The Zags have played their way back into the bracket and they’re seemingly safe, though a WCC Tournament first-round loss Monday could leave them with a double-digit seed.

It gets interesting if Gonzaga posts a pair of wins, likely a Quad 2 in the opener and a Quad 1 if it’s against Saint Mary’s in the final. That would give GU a 10-game winning streak, including four Quad 1s, three on the road and one on a neutral floor. That scenario could bump the Zags to a No. 7 seed with a shot at a No. 6 depending on how teams projected in the 5-9 seed range fare in their last regular-season games and respective conference tournaments. If the Zags win their opener in Vegas and fall in the title game, presumably to Saint Mary’s, they’ll probably end up as a No. 8 or 9 seed.

I’ll stick with my preseason guess – making the Sweet 16 – on how far the Zags can go in March Madness. That will be a tall order as a seven, eight, nine or 10 seed, but they’ll be a tough out if they continue playing the way they have over the last month.

Lawson: The Zags have landed nothing worse than a No. 4 seed the last six years – err, tournaments played – so regardless of where they fall, it should be their lowest seed since they were seeded No. 11 in 2016. That’s about where this team was projected before a Feb. 10 breakthrough at Rupp Arena, representing Gonzaga’s first Quad 1 win and a high-level one at that.

It’s taken a combination of things for the Bulldogs to climb the seeding totem pole since and would obviously require a few more next week in Vegas to line up for Gonzaga to achieve its highest possible seed on Selection Sunday. If GU’s pathway at the WCC Tournament lines up the way many expect, with a semifinal game against USF (No. 64 in NCAA NET) and championship against Saint Mary’s (No. 16), the Bulldogs would have a chance to bump their record in the first two quadrants to 8-6.

In that scenario, I’m not sure the selection committee will be able to find 30 resumes better than Gonzaga’s, and I’d expect the Bulldogs to wind up with a No. 6 or 7 seed. For now, I think anything from a No. 5 to No. 10 seed is in play.

I’m slightly more optimistic than my colleague about Gonzaga’s chances in the tournament itself. The depth is concerning, but the Zags will be fresh having played only two games over roughly 20 days. My bracket probably won’t reflect it, but I don’t think winning three games is completely out of the realm of possibility for a veteran group that seems to be clicking at the right time.