For the first time this season, I was able to see this Gonzaga team play in person. As any fan can attest, there is no better way to evaluate a team then to see them play in person so you can get a better sense of the chemistry and rhythm that they possess. First off, I want to discuss just how impressed I was by the Gonzaga fans that flooded the Chiles Center. This is the first time I have ever seen Gonzaga play in a road venue, and I couldn't believe just how loud the Gonzaga fans were and how much they dominated the overall atmosphere of the arena. Its funny to look back on, but the loudest chant I heard during the game was the classic "Derek's better" while his brother was shooting free-throws. There is no doubt that the crowd made the Zags feel like they were at a home venue.
This game also allowed for Dan Dickau to be in attendance (surprisingly he was joined by former Coug Daven Harmeling). Some other people of interest for Gonzaga fans that were in attendance: 2011 recruit Kyle Wiltjer and his family, NBA scouts from the Trail Blazers (including Kevin Pritchard, the Trail Blazers' GM), Nuggets, and Hawks, and SportsCenter anchor Neil Everett.As for the game, there are some key things I noticed being able to watch the offense/defense in person. The most important thing that I got from this game is that anyone thinking that Meech needs to be removed from the starting lineup is absolutely nuts. I will even go so far as to say that behind Matt and Elias, Meech is the most important player on this team. There a couple of reasons I feel this way, with the most glaring being that there were three points in the game where it looked like Gonzaga was finally going to put the game away and easily secure victory. However, Portland rallied on each occasion, and not surprisingly, all three rallies occurred with Meech on the bench because of fouls.
The one area where Meech is completely dominant is on the defensive end. He did an absolutely fantastic job of hounding T.J Campbell all over the court, and when he is out there, it makes the overall team defense better. Matt, G.J, and Grant just don't have the ability to keep up with opposing point guards, so when Meech is out, you will see more open three's from the opposing team and much easier entry passes to the post.
The other part of his game that Meech needs to get more credit for is how much better the offense runs when he is in. I know people like to look at the low assist per game number, but I want people to start thinking of assists in the way they do in hockey. Meech might not have a ton of passes that directly lead to baskets. However, I'd say half of Matt's assists last night came off a nice drive and kick which opened the passing lane for Matt, or from Meech pushing the tempo and then getting the ball up to Matt to look for the open man. Also, the offense in the half court has much better movement and quicker passing when Meech is in the game.
One guy that I have bashed on more than one occasion is Kelly Olynyk, and I need to apologize, because I was flat out wrong. When you watch Kelly in person you get such a better sense for his ability to move without the ball, and also for the small things he does that make plays easier for his teammates. The subtle pump fakes and the ability to swing the ball quick in the offense makes Kelly a player who I truly have a much better appreciation for. I still don't think he should be in the post so much, but he will be scary good when he develops into the 4/3 he is capable of being. After the game, I caught up with Kelly and he discussed the comfort level that he is starting to feel playing at this level.
"Once you get more comfortable with the system, what the coaches are looking for, what you can do out there to compliment the other players, I think you get more into it, and you can look for your shots more. Then, you feel more comfortable and settle down a bit and knock them down."
After thinking about this game some more, I'm starting to believe that this team is one of the most talented Gonzaga has ever had 1-8. Obviously, you have Matt and Elias, who both must be considered among the top 20 players in the country. The rest of the starting lineup may be inconsistent, but it has the talent and size and athleticism to be elite. Along with Kelly, I would really like to see the coaching staff settle down on an 8-man rotation, which would also include Manny/Grant (depending on the game/match up) and Bol.
This group would provide the depth that being an elite team requires, and I think once the coaching staff finally gets comfortable with how the minutes will be distributed, this team will be scary good, When I spoke with Coach Few after the game, he really emphasized how important the bench will be, and just how key guys like Kelly and Bol were in securing the win.
"It's one thing they have pretty much shown, especially Bol all year....he has pretty much stepped in, with the exception of maybe the Duke game, and gave us a lift off the bench," Few said of the depth this team has. "They (Kelly and Bol) did that today when we were kinda in a dry spell. I thought Kelly showed a lot of poise and made a lot of big plays with the clock winding down."
Kelly also mentioned how important it is for this team to receive production off the bench, because there will be games like this, where key starters battle foul trouble or just flat out struggle over the course of 40 minutes.
"I think it's really important for our team to keep it going here," Olynyk emphasized after the game. "We are going to need some production off the bench to give the starters a rest. People off the bench are going to have to contribute, and I think we are doing a good job of that right now."