Everyone can take a deep breath now. Gonzaga's treacherous nonconference slate, save for a tricky matchup with Memphis, has come to a close. For as poorly as it began, I don't think you could have scripted a better way for Mark Few's team to head into conference play. Sunday morning's win over Wake Forest was Gonzaga's sixth in a row and it caps a pretty remarkable three week stretch. Since giving up 80+ points to both Washington State and Notre Dame, the Zags have given up, on average, about 60 points a game.
While the defensive performance is worth a good deal of praise, Gonzaga is getting it done in other areas where they had previously struggled. Things are coming easier for this offense, as well. Over the past seven games, Gonzaga has out-assisted their opponent. The three-headed point guard monster has been more consistent and the team appears to be settling into their roles and getting more comfortable with one another. Also, it helps when guys step up. Case in point, Manny Arop's 34 brilliant minutes against Oklahoma State and Mathis Keita's game against Wake Forest. We know Gonzaga has "the big three" of Steven, Rob, and Elias but this team can only go when it gets decent point guard play and some solid supporting help.
Over the past six games, everything has come together and the results have been ideal. The Oklahoma State game was easily the most complete game this team played all season. Now, we have to wonder if this is just another sign of an inconsistent team on a hot streak, or has this team truly turned the corner as we begin 2011?
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The defensive transformation this team has undergone over the past six games has fueled the Zags' current winning streak. In the most simple of terms, Gonzaga has cleaned things up defensively. Rotations are crisp, guys are playing smart, team defense, and the dividends have been huge. It really isn't that Gonzaga is going to play in your face defense for forty minutes a game, but for the past six games, this team has been the better defensive team. Has the competition level been a bit worse over the past six games than the previous stretch? You could argue that. However, Baylor, Xavier, and Oklahoma State are all very solid basketball teams that the Bulldogs largely were able to shut down. Demetri Goodson has, in my eyes, is the main cog of this defensive attack but the improvements across the board by this team (and the coaching staff) have been very noticeable.
While there is a lot of discussion about the arrival of the supporting cast, I think it would be a tremendous omission to leave out the arrival of Elias Harris. People tend to have varying opinions of Elias and seem to get caught up in his future rather than his worth right now. If you're one of those people, enjoy the ride and the stretch that Elias is currently on. Over the past three games, Harris has been ridiculously efficient. He's gone 18-29 from the floor, 12-15 from the line, and is averaging a little over seven boards a game. Injuries and just being out of shape has slowed Elias this season but he is without a doubt trending upwards as we hit conference play.
The last current team thing on my mind is the rotation. The Zags have been a bit shorthanded the past few games with Mathis Monninghoff being out. Just like when Steven Gray was out, others stepped up in his place. Against OSU, Mangisto Arop was all over the floor and against Wake it was Mathis Keita. With Manny and Keita playing so well, it will be interesting to see how Mark Few shuffles that small forward spot. Does Keita stay as the starter or will Monninghoff shift back in with Arop/Keita off the bench. At this point, the short rotation seems to be effective with Meech, Gray, Hoff (for now), Harris, Sacre starting and then Manny/Keita, Stockton, and Kelly off the bench. Sam and Marquise will get minutes but they must turn in more consistent efforts on both ends of the floor.
The last....last thing to discuss is Keegan Hyland. I know the news is old now but the lauded deep threat from Maine will transfer. Not to sound inconsiderate, but this is not surprising in the least. Keegan's physical health has always been question mark since his hip injury in high school and it is obviously clear that the staff does not believe he can compete at this level. It is a shame because as a shooter, he seems to have everything one would need. We wish him nothing but the best as he likely head back to the Northeast.