It's rather fascinating how perspective changes from season-to-season in the world of college basketball. Last season, after watching Gonzaga absolutely dismantle St. Mary's in the WCC tournament final, I lamented the fact that the team had 10 days off before they would play again. I was afraid that not having any competition would take that experienced group out of the great rhythm that they had developed throughout the final month of the season. Although that team advanced to the Sweet 16, I'm still convinced that they never regained the chemistry and flow that made them so dangerous and impressive in February and early March.
While I found the 10-day break to be a negative last season, I feel the complete opposite way about the break this group will have before beginning the NCAA Tournament next Thursday or Friday. I don't remember seeing a team at Gonzaga (maybe the 2006/2007 team that had to deal with the Josh Heytvelt and Theo Davis suspensions) that needed a week of practice and fundamental work more than this team. Even more important is the fact that guys like Matt Bouldin, Elias Harris, and Steven Gray will have a chance to rest their bodies and sleep in their own beds for at least a week. Instead of preparing for an opponent, this next week can spent improving this team and finding the rhythm and competitive streak that made this group so appealing and highly-regarded back in November and December.I know we have debated and discussed all the struggles that this team has gone through since the loss to USF, but I continue to believe that the most important thing the coaching staff can do is improve the psyche and confidence of this team. The first thing I would do when practice starts again (hopefully tomorrow, because I think this group needs two full days off) is show them clips of the wins over Cincinnati, Illinois, Memphis, and St. Mary's. The reason I chose these games is because the key factors were Elias Harris dominating on the offensive end, Matt Bouldin looking to be a play-maker and scoring when the opportunity was there, and Rob Sacre being a force in the middle on both ends of the court.
While I am a fan of doing what it takes to get Sacre involved in the offense, I don't support this idea of force-feeding him at the expense of getting Elias Harris the ball on every possession. Elias is the best combination of offensive skill and athleticism that we have seen at Gonzaga in awhile, and it baffles me that he isn't the primary option on the offensive end. This team was at its best when Elias was taking 15-20 shots per game, with Bouldin and Gray getting open looks and attacking because the defense was so focused on slowing down Harris. As we saw at St. Mary's and at Illinois, Elias is good enough to carry this team to victories, and I have to believe that this will be the case if this group is going to advance in the Tournament.
The other big issue facing this time heading into the NCAA Tournament is how to replace the impact of Mangisto Arop (random sidenote: Has anyone actually seen a press release on Arop's injury. Besides speculation by ESPN and this site, does anyone actually know that he is out for the rest of the season?). If we are under the assumption that Arop is out, that means the coaching staff has to put its faith in Bol Kong. At this point of the season, it's not time to start seeing if Grant Gibbs and GJ Vilarino can make an impact.
Kong played the best he has all season in the win against LMU, scoring nine points in 24 minutes, and showing the ability to attack the rim. However, Kong played only 13 minutes in the loss to St. Mary's, despite it being a game where Gonzaga was in desperate need of his creativity and ability to score on the offensive end. Without taking into account a potential injury or foul trouble, the coaching staff must stick with an 8-man rotation featuring Kong, Foster, and Olynyk off the bench. With Mangisto out, Kong should be seeing around 20 minutes off the bench. Also, I don't buy that Kong is a liability on the defensive end, since I saw him do a tremendous job on Drew Viney throughout the LMU game.
Lets not forget how explosive and difficult this team can be to play against. There are only a handful of teams that can match up with the trio of Bouldin, Gray, and Harris when they are clicking and healthy. That's why getting those three rested and on the same page with Demetri Goodson and Rob Sacre is the most important thing this staff can do before they start preparation for their first and potential second round opponents. This biggest challenge for this coaching staff is making sure that each minute spent with this group before next week is used to improve the flow of this team and get everyone on the same page and playing loose like this team did at the start of the season. The talent and maturity is there, but the main question facing this team is whether or not this group can find it again.