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Gonzaga improves at Notre Dame but road gets no easier

Going into Saturday's game against Notre Dame, I think it is very fair to say that most of us around here had very low expectations.  After the Washington State no show by Mark Few's team, it seemed plausible that the Zags would fold in South Bend.  This type of adversity to start a season is not something this program has been used to dealing with over the past decade and some. 

With that being said, I can't help but be pleased with what I saw from this team on Saturday.  Obviously, there is nothing pleasing about another loss and a 4-5 start to the 2010 season.  However, we saw some things against Notre Dame, both individually and as a team, that I hadn't seen before.  More than anything, the Notre Dame game was an improvement.  Is this team anywhere near relevant nationally or a finished product? Heck no, but Saturday was a glimpse of some of the things we expected to see before the 2010 season began.  

The schedule does not get any easier.  After a mid-week "get your mind right" game against Lewis Clark State, the Zags will be back in the fire against Baylor.  Soon after that comes Xavier, Oklahoma State, and Wake Forest.  Some opportunities for decent nonconference wins are still out there.  If Mark Few can get this team to build off some of the things from Saturday, I think it is possible that the Zags could right the ship (in a manner of speaking) before it is too late.  It must be quick, because the opportunities are dwindling.

more after the jump....

What I enjoyed most from this team last night is that they showed some semblance of resiliency in a hostile environment.  There were several occasions in Saturday's game against Notre Dame where I was bracing for a rout.  Against Washington State, I believe this team quit in the second half at the first sign of trouble.  Numerous times against Notre Dame, the Irish expanded their lead to double-digits, as high as 13 points.  Each time, however, the Zags either toughened up on defense or hit some clutch shuts to squash the rally.  Whether it was Steven Gray with a drive to the rim, or Manny Arop with a three from outside, Gonzaga did a good job at answering the call when Notre Dame was sensing they could run it up on the Zags.

While resiliency is all good and cute, the fact remains that Gonzaga lost on Saturday night in South Bend.  What's it going to take to put all the pieces together?

It isn't rocket science that Gonzaga's perimeter defense has been putrid.  Max and I have maintained that there is a basic strategy issue with how this staff approaches defense.  If you look at Gonzaga's losses this season, there seem to consistently be 2-3 minute stretches where a certain player or cast of characters lights this team up from deep.  Whether it is Mike Tisdale from Illinois or Abromaitis from ND.  My opinion on these spurts where opponents go unconscious is that it is a product of Gonzaga not switching up their defensive looks enough.  To be honest, this problem not only allows teams to settle in but it also can lull Gonzaga to sleep causing them to be late in rotation and get killed from the field.  I'm not asking Mark Few to run a full court press for forty straight minutes.  But he should be taking some notes from his best defender, Demetri Goodson, and try to take opponents out of their comfort zone.  I think some spurts of token pressure or some 3/4 court zone press could pay some huge dividends for this club.

I've been reading a lot of comments saying "Marquise Carter is a bust" and similar thoughts.  I couldn't have been happier with how Mark Few used him last night and I thought he performed well.  It is painfully obvious that he is still getting use to the speed difference between D1 and junior college.  If you expected Marquise to come in and light the world on fire from day one, you need to watch a video of junior college basketball.  It is a completely different world from D1.  The one great equalizer for Marquise is that he has a solid offensive game.  Before you tear into me for this comment, I urge you to consider that Marquise is in the midst of a tremendous slump.  I watched a number of his games when he was in junior college and the kid can shoot and he can score.  I find it imperative that Few continues to give him 10+ minutes because he will snap out of this funk.  The Zags will need him too.  David Stockton is a cute story but gives up too much on defense, he really does.  Demetri Goodson has improved his distribution 10000% and is a superb defender but hasn't shown anything in terms of scoring the basketball on a consistent basis.

Like I said, there are a number of problems this team still needs to work out.  The biggest thing that could be slowly working itself is the Elias Harris injury situation.  Over the past four games he's played in, he's been in double figures and has been pretty efficient from the field.  On Saturday, there were points where I got frustrated that the offense seemed to be working away from Elias rather than towards him but that may just be a product of him re-gaining his comfort level on the floor.  His presence as an actual threat rather than a decoy makes things easier for Rob and should also bolster Sam Dower.

While Saturday was a small step in the right direction, there are still plenty of places where the Zags must improve.  The beauty and fear with such a hard schedule is that you are constantly playing teams that don't allow you to test out adjustment and learn in-game.  Instead, you have to just go with what you know and that can (and has) led to a number of the things I discuss in this post.  The best way to describe it is that this team has a number of bad habits.  We'll know a lot more about how well the Zags can break those habits after Saturday.