After what seemed like the longest offseason of all time, real basketball has returned to Spokane. Gonzaga picked up where it left off in its exhibition and came out of the gates against Utah Valley looking like a team that was in midseason form.
In a contest that featured a nice under-the-radar storyline with Gonzaga assistant coach Donny Daniels coaching a game against his son, Eric, it was their family friend and Gonzaga’s shiny new toy, Jordan Mathews, that helped secure a comfortable win for the Bulldogs in the season opener.
Mathews knocked down four 3s on seven attempts and Nigel Williams-Goss scored the first five points of the season in an 8-0 run that opened the game, but it was Silas Melson who stole the show with his forays into the paint as he led Gonzaga in scoring with 17 points.
Going back to last season, Melson demonstrated he was a much more effective offensive weapon attacking the rim as opposed to settling for jump shots from the perimeter. That continued in the first game of the new season as the junior went 0-3 from deep, but shot 8-10 on all other attempts with most of them being strong finishes at the rim. Coupled with his pesky defense, this is what the Zags need Melson to bring to the table for the season. As Melson conducted his assault on the paint, Mathews and Williams-Goss went a combined 6-9 from the three-point line to provide 47 points from the three starting guards.
With the strong performance from the backcourt, the return of a healthy Przemek Karnowski should not be overlooked nor understated. Gonzaga’s defense, which is behind the offense at this point, was at its best when Karnowski was on the floor. Karnowski is a force on both ends of the court, scoring 14 points to go with 7 rebounds, but it was his defensive presence that stood out. Karnowski’s ability to alter shots and protect the rim is an element that Gonzaga missed last season, and his proficiency in this area of the game was highlighted by a resounding block on a poor Utah Valley player.
While Utah Valley was able to find its footing after an early flurry by Gonzaga, they were never truly in the game and the Zags were able to rotate in their impressive depth highlighted by the performances of freshmen Zach Collins and Killian Tillie. The young big men brought a lot of energy and physicality off the bench, showcasing an ability to contribute immediately on an experienced squad that hopes to be playing deep into the year.
The coaching staff will see lots of areas of improvement as the season gets moving, but as assistant coach Brian Michaelson put it during a halftime interview, Gonzaga played “a decent game.” The defense remains a work-in-progress, with rotations being a little lackadaisical with so many new faces still learning how to play with one another. Utah Valley was able to shoot 6-12 from deep in the first half, but the perimeter defense improved as the game went along, with the Wolverines held to just 3-13 from three for the second half.
Gonzaga will have the weekend to recover and focus as they prepare for a much tougher test on Monday night against the Aztecs of San Diego State. Though the Zags may be moving on to the next opponent, check back in throughout the weekend as there’s definitely more to discuss from this game.