Thanks to the fine people of Spokane, I was able to snag a ticket to the game last night and see the Zags in person for the second time this season. While I wasn't able to sit in press row (strange how University of Portland will allow this site media access, yet Gonzaga University won't....kinda ridiculous. Can someone please explain how any institution has a no blog media policy? Especially a blog that has to be approved for its content and quality to be part of SBNation? Consider this rant over), I had an excellent seat in Section 116, which presented me the opportunity to see the spacing in the offense, and zone in on a few select guys that I really wanted to watch and focus on.
Before I get into my evaluation and the things I saw, I first want to applaud and give some praise to Omar Samhan. I know the guy has been a terrific villain for the Kennel Club and all Gonzaga fans to hate, but that kid is an excellent basketball player with a terrific work ethic. His skill set in the paint is the best I have seen from any big man this side of DaMarcus Cousins, and seeing him improve over all four years is a truly great accomplishment.
I also want to give a big round of applause to the Kennel Club for their performance last night. The buzz and atmosphere around the arena when I was walking around campus during the day was tremendous. In the arena, the Kennel Club was loud and into the game for all 40 minutes (I adore the "Spokane hates you" chant towards Omar). Equally impressive was the fact that the entire crowd was into the game, with numerous standing ovations and seemingly everyone in the arena screaming at the top of their lungs and on their feet. I had the pleasure of sitting a couple of rows in front of the St.Mary's contingent, and to watch them just go quiet and look so miserable during the final 15 minutes was an awesome experience.As I stated the last time I did something like this, I feel you learn and understand a team in a whole new way when you see them in person. When you watch a game on television, you only see what the camera shows you and not what is going on away from the ball or during timeouts. I think last night was the perfect game for the relationship between myself and Mikesequim to develop (just messing with you Mike...you know I respect your opinion). Both Meech and Matt were brilliant, and I continue to maintain that everyone on hear who bashes on Meech would change their tune if they could see the team operates in person with him.
The thing I love about Meech last night was that he asserted himself early and made himself a threat on the offensive end. He shot 4-5 from the field, with the one miss being a heave at the end of the shot clock. Meech did an excellent job of controlling the tempo and knowing when to push the tempo. Another aspect of his game that I appreciate as a former point guard is how he allows the secondary break to occur. You will notice in the past couple of games that Meech hasn't been in a straight line from baseline-to-baseline. He now is doing an excellent job of allowing the big man (Sacre, Harris, or Foster) to get down the court, and then he reads how the defense is set. On at least five occasions, he kept his dribble and then found a seam to attack the rim or drive and kick to the perimeter. It was excellent point guard play. I think we also need to point out the defensive job he did on Mickey McConnell. McConnell came into the game averaging 13.2 points and 5.2 assists. Last night, McConnell scored 0 points and dished out three assists. Big cheers to Meech! Steven Gray must also receive major props for his defensive performance on Matthew Dellavedova. Gray did an excellent job of being physical and not allowing Dellavedova any room in the second half. One of the better individual defensive performance I have ever seen by a Gonzaga player.
One thing that I believe Matt does better than any guard in the country is change his tempo and pace with the ball. His ability to lull the defender into a moment of laziness, and then blow by for a layup, or get up an uncontested shot is extraordinary. Matt is doing an excellent job of getting to the lane, and the only thing I would critique from his performance is the fact that he took six three-pointers. Matt is nearly unstoppable when he gets into the paint or gets in the post. I think the ideal night for Matt is about four three-pointers, with the other two shots being in the paint or at the rim. Also, there is no chance that Matt only had four assists last night. If this was an NBA game, Matt would have been credited with seven assists by the end of the night. With the way the offense was executed and how the team played in the second half, no one can tell me with a straight face that the team only had 10 assists. In conclusion, it was just another excellent performance from Bouldin.
The other huge development I got from last night is the fact that there are three guys off the bench that can have a huge impact. I think we can now expect energy and contributions from Foster and Olynyk every game. Also, we can expect contributions from Manny Kong or Bol Arop. What I mean by that is that each game, either Manny or Bol will give a spark or excellent performance off the bench. I really think that the coaching staff just plays it game-by-game to see which guy is going to fit into the flow and make a big contribution. It has been Manny the previous four games or so, but last night it was clearly Bol. The staff has clearly been emphasizing aggressiveness from Bol, and from the second he stepped on the court, he was looking to drive and looking to shoot. I also couldn't be more impressed by the defensive strides he has made so far this season.
Now that the praise has been given, it's vital to emphasize this is a far from perfect team. One of my big issues has been how this team is starting games. While they may be able to fight back from 8-10 point deficits against the WCC and Memphis, for this to be a Final 4 caliber team, which I think is possible despite what some other people have written in the comment section, slow starts must be avoided. Teams like Georgetown, Villanova, Kansas, and Kentucky won't allow you to comeback from an early deficit. While it doesn't seem like a big deal currently, I think that will be a point of emphasis from the coaching staff the rest of the season.
This team must also continue to improve. Unlike many of the recent squads we have seen at Gonzaga, this group is nowhere near their ceiling. Guys like Meech, Rob, Kelly, Manny, and Bol can still continue to elevate their game and bring so much more to the table on a consistent basis. The key for the coaching staff is to make these guys realize how good they can be if they each continue to individually improve on both ends of the court. As we have discussed before, many previous Gonzaga teams have peaked in November and December. This group is completely different, and still has much to improve on before the NCAA Tournament. If the staff can get this message through, and each practice and game leads to improved play and chemistry, this will be a scary team in the Big Dance.