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Player Previews: Can Robert Sacre Carry the Load Inside?

The last time we saw Robert Sacre in a Gonzaga uniform was way back on December 10th, or, as we know it, the last good game Gonzaga played in December.  That night, Gonzaga demolished in-state rival Washington State on their home floor.  In that game, Robert Sacre connected on his only field goal attempt and pulled down two rebounds in ten minutes of action.   His minutes were a result of the fractured foot that he was trying to return from.  He would only play five games in 2008-09 as he re-injured the very same fractured foot as the team was preparing for Arizona.  After his injury, the Zags dropped 4 of their next five games.  During that stretch, the Bulldogs were assaulted on the glass, only outrebounding Texas Southern and Arizona.  Connecticut, Portland St., and Utah all dominated the glass in victories over Gonzaga.  Rob only played nine minutes a game during his short stint last season but he was able to grab three rebounds a game during that time. 

As we look towards this season and examine what this team truly needs, it is hard to point to a player that is more vital to Gonzaga's success than Robert Sacre.  While it's hard to ask a kid that has barely seen the court in two years at Gonzaga to carry the load in the paint, there's no doubt that this team will be relying heavily on the abilities of Robert.  The good thing is that I don't believe that he will be asked to do anything outside of his current skill set.  When you look up and down the roster, you'll see an excess of scorers and shooters and guys that can get to the rack.  The one major question mark on the roster has to be the interior play and who is going to control the paint.  Gonzaga fans have kind of forgotten what physical interior play meant during Josh Heytvelt's time at Gonzaga.  With Robert Sacre, there seems to be little question about the physicality being restored, but other questions still do linger.

Whenever a great player comes to a school and leaves a lasting mark on that program not only as a player but as a person, it is often difficult to find a replacement that everyone can rally around.  When JP Batista graduated from Gonzaga in 2006, he left as one of the most prolific post players to ever play at GU.  As a pure back to the basket center, JP scored nearly 20 points a game and pulled down ten rebounds per contest.  Since he left, Gonzaga has had some very good bigs with guys like Abdullhai Kuso and Josh Heytvelt but that void of the "true big" has never really been filled.  Kuso was a role guy, Heytvelt had a very interrupted college career with the suspension and injury problems and was just flat out more comfortable facing the basket.

When Robert Sacre committed to Gonzaga as a part of that vaunted 2007 recruiting class, he was slated to be the heir apparent to JP Batista.  In fact, I think that Gonzaga fans viewed his lack of a good outside shot to be a positive because it meant he would live in the paint.  With that being said, we have seen some pretty glaring inefficiencies in Rob's post game during his time here.  The first thing that I think that everyone remembers are his stonehands from his freshman year.  Rob really struggled with catching and holding the ball in traffic and it caused a number of turnovers and I feel like it caused his teammates on the perimeter to lose faith in his offensive abilities.  This problem isn't out of the ordinary for freshman as it is typical for young post players to struggle because they aren't used to playing against post players that can match and exceed their size and they aren't used to guards/forwards that are quick enough to swipe the ball in the interior.  I expect this problem to be taken care of this season.  There were also some issues with Rob's quickness in the paint and that translated into some failed post moves and traveling violations.  Obviously, I think we can chalk a lot of this up in the "freshman mistakes" category but, for next year, there is no room for error.

There are a couple things that really set up nicely for Rob Sacre this season.  Internally, I have confidence that Gonzaga now has a very solid understanding of the type of player Rob is and will use him accordingly.  The place where you will see a majority of Rob's points come from his on second chance opportunities and transition dunks.  As a strong and athletic seven footer, you won't see many big men more physically imposing that Rob.  He also plays with a great motor and that translated into a solid amount of rebounds in limited action that past two seasons.  Expect a majority of Rob's points to come directly off rebounds; whether that means on the offensive end when he grabs a board and tips-in a missed shot or as a trailer after getting a rebound on defense.  Both these should provide Rob with a solid 8-10 point scoring base.  The thing that will vault Rob to that next level will be his post moves and ability to create action on set plays.  This won't be a Gonzaga team of old where they sit outside and cast up outside shots all game.  Guys like Demetri Goodson, Matt Bouldin, Manny Arop, GJ Vilarino, Grant Gibbs, and Bol Kong are all guys that like to create their own shots.  With all this slashing to the hoop, Rob will have to be able to handle quick passes and have the ability to either go up, or kick it out.  This is something that I would be terrified about a season ago but with two years under his belt and a clean bill of health, I feel like Rob has the experience necessary to handle this task. 

On an external basis and looking more at the schedule, I like the way Rob sets up against Gonzaga's opponents.  Perusing the schedule, I see three frontcourts that really stand out.  First, there is Wake Forest that has an extremely deep and big front court.  Al-Farouq Aminu will be a lottery NBA pick, and the Deacons have three seven-footers with experience in Chas McFarland, Ty Walker, and Tony Woods.  Secondly, he'll have to take on Illinois who has one of the most skilled big men in Mike Davis.  He averaged 11 points and eight boards a game as a sophomore last season and is poised for a big junior effort.  Lastly, we have to give some credit to St. Mary's and Omar Samhan who has plenty of experience.  Omar, who Gonzaga fans love to hate, nearly averaged a double double last season with 14 and nine a game.  He's always a tough matchup.  With that being said, when you look at that entire schedule and can only see three teams that match up physically with Rob, you have to come away pretty happy as a Zag fan. 

We'll face some guys that will be more skilled than Rob when Duke's Kyle Singler and Michigan State's Raymar Morgan and Delvon Roe come calling but when you think about his physicality and energy that he bringnon the court, I think this could be a very successful year for Robert Sacre.