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Gonzaga is getting "big" again

So I had planned to write a formal recap regarding the Memphis game yesterday morning but I was so entertained by the discussion in the initial postgame thread that I didn't think it was even worth diverting the conversation away from it.  Now that the convo has come to a bit of a halt and we are all moving on to the rest of the WCC slate, I just wanted to point out a few things that I gathered from the Memphis game and from your comments in the postgame thread. 

It has been four long years of Memphis heart break in the making for this excellent late season boost and I don't think it could have happened to a better team.  That's not to mean that I like them better as people but I generally think they needed it more than any other group in year's past.  Up until San Francisco, the Zags had sort of been sleepwalking through conference play and we all know what happened against the Dons.  Now, with that Memphis game under their belts, I think it will serve as a reminder of how good they can be and the fact that it came on the road against a hostile environment is just another added bonus.  I expect to see a very confident team from here on out that thinks they can beat anyone, anywhere. 

Individually, it has been obvious to me the past few games that Coach Few and the staff have been making a conscious effort to get the ball to Robert Sacre and, at the same time, leaving Elias Harris on an island to work for his own shot.  This would have been hard for me to believe before the season started but with Harris' shot creation abilities, I do think it is a wise choice.  Harris' 21 point game against USF was one of his most impressive outings of the season because he put so much work into those points.  Whereas Robert doesn't really work from anywhere beyond six feet and out, it seems that they are trying to get Elias outside more to give Rob more room to operate.

This coaching decision and the response by Robert has been a pleasant surprise and I don't think there is any question he is the key to a deep run in 2010.  He's not alone, however, as another big man in a Gonzaga uniform has risen to the occasion...

Just to continue on what I was writing about before the jump in regards to Elias Harris and some coaching changes; I have to give some credit to EDZ who has been writing in nearly every game preview since Maui that Gonzaga had to keep working the ball inside out.  At the beginning of the season (especially against Michigan State), it felt like we were watching a completely new Gonzaga basketball team.  We had this powerful center that had refined post moves, we had a versatile power forward that really had no issue with working down low and taking contact, and our guards were acting more as facilitators than creators. 

It was honestly very refreshing to see this kind of basketball because there really is nothing like having a tandem that can dominate in the low post.  College basketball is becoming more and more guard and wing oriented and the true "center" is being replaced by 6'8''-6'9'' guys that can move outside and knock down the outside shot.  With Rob you've got that true center and I still believe he is really scratching the surface of his potential.  In high school all he really had to do was catch, turn, and dunk.  Now he's realizing how to deal with double teams, pass out of a trap, and make strong post moves in traffic.  These things are really hard to learn for someone that has really never been tested and I think Sacre has really excelled thus far.

I was trying to pinpoint for quite some time exactly when Robert seemed to lose his mojo and it looks like it was right after the Illinois game.  Rob scored 19 points against the Illini and was in double figures for nine of Gonzaga's first 15 games.  Then conference play started and Rob's production really hit a wall.  He didn't get out of single digits for a majority of January and that really coincides with some of the frustration we felt.  Meech started turning the ball over a lot and driving into traffic, the bench was erratic, and we really just rested on our big three to take over.  Some close calls and a loss later, we were all scrambling to find out why and I would say to look no further than Robert.

I do admit that I should eat a little crow because against USF I was so mad because it seemed like we were trying to force things into Rob and it led to some turnovers and I just wasn't sure why we seemed to be going away from Elias.  Now I understand.  Having Rob become a consistent threat to score every time in the post opens up things for Elias to work with the ball.  It forces the defense to pay more attention to him and maybe suck down low and leave Matt or Steven open for a jumper.  It also makes Meech a more competent guard because Rob can open up lanes for him to drive with more success. 

The other big X-factor (and I mean BIG) is the insanely efficient play of Will Foster.  I'm still a bit amazed that I am watching the same Will Foster that I saw time and time again for the past three years.  His offensive skill set has gotten so much better that it is obvious he was working all summer expected to start for this team.  What is even better about Will's success is that the guards have finally learned how to pass to him.  For some reason, Jeremy and Matt always passed it right at his stomach instead of hitting him up high where no one really in the nation can challenge him.  You notice now that basically every one of his converted field goal attempts are alley-oops where he barely even has to elevated to dunk it.  He's such a threat if the guards can continue to make solid passes to him and put him in favorable spots.  The one spot where I need Will to still improve late in the season is on defense.  For him to only have nine blocks this season is insanity.  He's got to use his length to bait offensive players down to him and block shots without fouling with his body.  If he can do this, I think he's going to be really hard to get off the court.

Whenever I read message boards or blogs of teams we are playing in coming days, Will's height is always mentioned.  It usually reads "Holy (expletive)! They've got a 7'5'' guy!" Then someone follows up with "Ya and they can also bring out a couple 6'11''-7'' players in Sacre and Olynyk!"  Up until very recently, I always dismissed Gonzaga's size because Foster was still a liability, Sacre is a work in progress, and Olynyk is a freshman.  Now with Will playing so well and Rob getting his confidence back, our size is going to give Few a lot more versatility with his lineups.  I'm not saying you'll ever see it but he could run Olynyk at the three, Rob at the four, and Will at the five.  I can't imagine a taller front line in the history of the game than those three out there.  While we're at it, why not put Elias at the two and Matt at the point? 

There will still be some growing pains here and there for our post players.  Rob will miss shots and get stripped, Will might still draw silly fouls but I think getting these two kicked into high gear with March right around the corner is vital.  The good news for Gonzaga fans is that some of Rob's best games have come against top talent.  He was phenomenal about Michigan State, solid throughout Maui, and killed it against Illinois.  If he can put up 10-14 points a game in March, I'm very confident that this team can go very deep in the big dance.