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Trio of Games Presents Huge Opportunity

With wins against Baylor and Xavier, this Gonzaga team has shown a toughness and level of improvement that I frankly didn't think was possible after watching the "Pillaging in Pullman" (patent pending on that title). However, unlike in previous seasons, this group has shown the ability to win games on the defensive end, and even win games by exhibiting more toughness than their opponent. I think one of the key reasons for this mentality is the improved play of Robert Sacre and the clearly healthier Elias Harris. In all honesty, the Zags are at their best with this group when they decide to play from the inside-out, thus allowing excellent shooters like Steven Gray and the Hoff to exploit open looks. With all this said, the upcoming set of three games will go a long way to defining whether this team is as good as it has flashed in recent weeks, and also whether the discussion of an at-large berth in the NCAA Tournament might be realistic.

I'm not going to sit here and pretend that Lafayette, Oklahoma St. and Wake Forest is some outlandishly difficult trio of games, but instead want to focus on what sweeping this set of games could mean. With wins in all three matchups, the Zags would enter WCC play on a six-game winning streak, including wins over three teams that should hear their names called on Selection Sunday. A 10-5 record against a schedule that has included San Diego St., Kansas St., Notre Dame, Marquette, Xavier, Washington St., Oklahoma St. and Wake Forest is nothing to scoff at, especially when you factor in injuries to Elias Harris and Steven Gray, as well as a seemingly endless experimentation with the rotation.

The main thing I want to see in these three games heading into WCC play is a set rotation so that an understanding of individual roles can develop. I think the one thing that isn't up for debate is the starting 5 which will look like this:

PG: Meech Goodson

SG: Steven Gray

SF; The Hoff

PF: Elias Harris

C: Rob Sacre

Beyond that is where the question marks arise. No matter what some of our loyal readers may suggest, I don't think David Stockton can see the floor, especially when this team is so committed to being strong on the defensive end. Stockton is an excellent walk-on option for this team, but I can't emphasize how big of a liability he is on the defensive end. Opposing point guards drool when they see Stockton matched up with them, so until he gets stronger and quicker, there is no excuse for him to be on the floor. Therefore, I see a backcourt rotation featuring Marquise Carter, Manny Arop and Mathis Keita all playing extended minutes. I would like to see a base six-man rotation on the perimeter, with the hot hand seeing extended playing time at PG and SF.

The post rotation is something that is incredibly difficult to setup. Every time I am ready to completely dismiss Kelly Olynyk, which in all honesty usually occurs the first time he misses a point black layup, he puts together a sequence like he did against Baylor. My big issue in figuring out the rotation revolves around the fact that I think Harris and Sacre are the keys for how far this group can go in March. No matter how inconsistent he has been in trying to return to form, Elias is the most talented and athletic guy on this team, and one guy I would consider to be a game-breaker. Sacre has finally morphed himself into an intelligent and confident player in the post, who is able to slow down and survey the court without turning the ball over. With those two being so important in the success of this team, I would like to see each playing 28-34 minutes per game. That doesn't leave much action for Olynyk and Sam Dower. However, I don't like the thought of keeping a guy who is such a naturally gifted scorer like Dower on the bench. While his defense leaves a lot to be desired, it's tough to consistently sit a guy gets buckets so quickly. I think the staff needs to find 8-12 minutes a game for both Olynyk and Dower, which in most games should present itself because of foul trouble.

I'll be the first to admit that this season has been a roller-coaster in terms of how I feel about the long-term succees of this group. At the start of the season I thought this group was a Top 10 caliber team, while after the loss to Washington St. I openly told Zach I was looking forward to catching the CBI on HDNet. After seeing some true adjustments by the coaching staff, mainly on the defensive end of the court, I am closer to a glass half full approach. I just can't help but notice how athletic this group can be and how many different looks the coaching staff can throw at opponents. The potential of this group is clear, but the big question is whether that potential can be harnessed and developed in two months. That is why these three games will provide such a litmus test for this young group and should give fans a clear depiction of whether or not this is a team that will join the great teams of previous season, or instead be forgotten the minute the season ends.