James Snook-USA TODAY Sports
Perplexing rotation and struggles defensively send Gonzaga to its first loss of the season
When Selection Sunday arrives in a couple of months, this Gonzaga team will look back at a home loss to a very impressive Illinois team and cringe. There is certainly no shame in losing to this explosive and well-coached Illini team. However, the way in which the Zags lost should raise a couple of flags, as this was a team that really struggled defensively against the athleticism of Illinois.
While execution certainly was a part of the struggles, it's very hard to look at the rotation and minute distribution and not have a handful of questions. The use of Mike Hart over the first eight games of the season was about as perfect as it gets. He played spot minutes at the end of each half and typically overwhelmed a fatigued opponent with his energy. Unfortunately, over the past two games, the coaching staff has fallen back into a cycle of not utilizing him properly. Although Hart was essential in the win against WSU, one performance is not a reason to change the rotation that propelled this team to eight consecutive dominant wins. Against Illinois, Hart scored two points in 21 minutes, and also kept the more explosive Kyle Dranginis on the bench. If the logic is to have Hart on the court to play defense, why not have him match up with Brandon Paul, who ended the night with 35 points? If your trying to rally from a deficit, what is the point of having a guy on the court who doesn't take a shot in 21 minutes?
Heading into the game, the one area that Gonzaga clearly had advantage was with the size in the paint. Despite the clear advantage of size and skill in the post, there were numerous times where the Zags ignored the paint and settled for shots from the perimeter. With Przemek Karnowski putting together arguably the best performance of his young career, the staff only managed to find him nine minutes on the court. This is despite the fact he scored nine points and grabbed two rebounds. As the second half progressed and Karnowski continued to sit on the bench, I have to imagine that most Gonzaga fans were wondering when the freshman was going to get back on the court. In the first eight games, Karnowski played double-digit minutes in all but one game. However, over the past two games, the staff hasn't been able to find minutes for him.
Later on this week we will take a look at what happened defensively, as Gonzaga seemingly forgot how to defend the screen-and-roll. The key takeaway from this game is to not forget what got you to the point of being a Top 10 team. This is a deep and talented team and stripping down the rotation to eight guys doesn't make sense. This team will bounce back and should pick up a win next week in Seattle, but the real key is to see improvement both on the court and on the sideline.