At Gonzaga, the term "go-to guy" has been something synonymous with the program as it has risen to the top of the non-BCS conferences. From Dan Dickau to Blake Stepp to Adam Morrison to Derek Raivio, Gonzaga has usually had one player that had to show up game in, game out for the Zags to be successful. Things have changed a bit in Spokane as balance has become the name of the game. Instead of having two or three players score 17 or more a night, the Zags have developed a style of play that can facilitate five or even six guys hitting double figures on any given night. Last night, Gonzaga welcomed Washington State to the comfy confines of the McCarthey Athletic Center. This Cougar team, for better or worse, is currently forced to rely on the play of one go-to player: Klay Thompson. This is not to say that the rest of the Cougar team isn't skilled because they are. At this point however, they are very young basically all over the court. Heck, even Thompson is a 19 year old sophomore that is being asked to play like a vet. Leading up to this game, there was no surprise as to the man Gonzaga had to stop. In the end, they did, and it led to a big win in the Kennel.
It's almost scary the type of numbers Klay Thompson was putting up before last night's game. In the previous four games he had never dipped below 50% from the field. When you consider the fact that Klay had...oh 76 attempts in those four games, that stat is pretty damn impressive. Although WSU wasn't playing great teams in those four games, it is a situation where he was hitting those shots when you knew that they were doing everything they could to stop him. If you watched his movements on the court last night, it's pretty obvious why he is starting to blow up on the national scene as one of the top scorers in the country. First of all, he's just an immensely talented player. Sure he was off last night and a bit frustrated but just watching him move on the court and shoot the ball, it's clear that if a few more bounces would have gone his way, we'd be a much more depressed fan base this morning. Secondly, he has great length for a guard and is a match up nightmare. Much like Adam Morrison, Klay is long, lanky, and very slight. He's a polar opposite guard in comparison to someone like Matt Bouldin as you will rarely see Klay bump around in the post. He uses his length to get off screens and hit jumpers on the move much like we saw with Adam. He can also thrive in any offense. Since he is so lanky, he can absolutely go crazy in half court sets and since he is probably bigger than 90% of the players that guard him, he can frustrate smaller guards in fast break, Ken Bone type settings. In WSU's first six games, Klay killed opposing teams in both facets. Last night against the Zags, Thompson struggled to get anything going. Was it just an off night or was it Gonzaga-induced? Read on after the jump...
In past years, Gonzaga has been torched by players as versatile as Klay. Not only has perimeter defense constantly been an issue but the Zags have been historically bad in tracking players off screens and stepping out. So now the question is...why did Klay struggle so much last night and shoot 6-21 from the floor? Enter the maturation of Steven Gray and the presence of Mangisto Arop. Steven Gray has always been a solid defender at Gonzaga. He has typically always drawn the most difficult match ups from opposing teams whether it was Stephen Curry with Davidson or last night with Klay. What I saw last night from Steven was an aggressiveness and desire to be great that gives me so much hope for this season. He did a great job tracking Klay all night and showed great hustle. For as much as it seemed like he was invisible on offense, it felt like he was defending everyone at once. Part two of this new defensive excellence in Manny Arop. Manny hasn't played as much as we all thought he would early on but last night his length was exactly what the doctor ordered. Manny is one of the few players that can match Klay Thompson's overall size and it showed in his limited minutes. I really feel that having Mangisto come off the bench this season for Gonzaga as a defensive stopper and rebounding extraordinaire is just what we need and he's already shown that he can do both thus far this year. Look for him to really start to have a great impact when WCC play rolls around.
So what does Steven and Manny shutting down Klay Thompson mean for Gonzaga in the long run? I truly feel like this may have been Gray's best game of the season and really carried on from what we saw in Maui. Against Cincinnati, we saw Matt Bouldin really play terrible offensively. Usually when a player of that caliber struggles offensively, it has a ripple down effect on the rest of their game. Instead, Matt dedicated himself on the boards and pulled down 10 rebounds. We've seen this before with Matt in previous years and it sometimes has affected his play. Typically with him, we see a lot of forced shots and increased urgency but against Cincy, he just thought it would be better to let the offensive work around him and dominate the boards. Last night, Steven Gray could have easily been frustrated with his offensive play and let it take away from the rest of his game. He had some careless plays with the ball, and just never got in rhythm with his shot. In the past two years, we've seen him have these kind of games and he sort of disappears from the floor. His defense goes down the tubes, he gets lazy, and it drives us crazy. Last night, he took his frustration out on Klay Thompson and flew around the defensive side of the court. He was diving for balls, creating contact (smartly), and showed great leadership. To me, this tells me that, although Matt and Steven are our offensive leaders and catalysts, they are also team first players. They understand their roles extend beyond offensive production and that this team has enough skill to help them when they struggle. Steven could have forced up 15 bad shots last night and lost this game for the team. It didn't happen and that cleared the way for Matt and Elias to explode offensively and Steven did his job and made sure Klay Thompson had his worst night of the season in WSU's biggest game yet. The result: the Zags are now 6-1 and have defeated a team from the Big 12, Big 10, Big East, and the Pac-10.
Will a team from the ACC be next? That test comes Saturday with Wake.