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10 Observations from Gonzaga’s win over Utah State

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NCAA Basketball: Howard at Gonzaga James Snook-USA TODAY Sports

Gonzaga got its first taste of adversity in this young season and handled it well. Here’s what else I took away from the win over the Aggies of Utah State:

  1. Killian Tillie was phenomenal on both ends of the floor and was the player of the game in my opinion. Coaches and players alike love having a guy like him on the floor because his player profile fills in so many cracks. Tillie doesn’t require a single play to be called for him to score in the high teens on a nightly basis. He can reach double digit scoring on pure hustle and effort alone because he’s so good at getting to and fighting for loose balls in the paint. On the defensive end, his agility allows him to switch on the perimeter without being a liability and he’s good at playing angles and passing lanes. His best work, however, comes at the rim where’s adept at making himself as tall as possible when contesting/blocking shots without fouling.
  2. The first 15 minutes of the game was grisly for Gonzaga from a defensive standpoint. The coverage on pick-n-rolls was so lackadaisical that Utah State easily pried open its shooters for open looks from the three-point line. The Aggies are a good shooting team and capitalized on the acres of space, starting the game 5-6 from the arc (Sam Merrill did make a tough stepback 3 from the corner on Silas during that stretch but otherwise the rest of their looks were too easy).
  3. Coupled with the poor defensive pressure throughout the first 15 minutes was poor effort on the defensive glass. On the few occasions that Utah State players missed a shot during the opening period, they outworked the Zags on the boards to give themselves second chance opportunities. Gonzaga has sufficient size, especially against a team like Utah State, where it shouldn’t be dominated on the glass like it was for the first 15 minutes. Chalk up those lost battles on the boards to effort and energy.
  4. Corey Kispert got lost a few times on his man (Brock Miller) who made him pay by draining a pair of wide-open threes. On one of those plays, Kispert stayed on the wing to help to double a big man who was 23 feet from the basket instead of recovering back to his guy who was wide open in the corner. The miscue was an example of knowing the personnel scouting report, and I don’t expect that Kispert will make too many more mistakes like it the rest of the season. Also have to highlight Kispert’s tough left-handed finish in traffic in the second half and his near annihilation of the entire Utah State defense on a missed dunk that would have blown the roof off The Kennel.
  5. Gonzaga used a 9-0 run to overcome an eight point deficit and sneak ahead of Utah State 40-39 late in the first half, and then a 17-0 run in the second half to establish a 77-57 lead that buried the Aggies. Defensive intensity keyed both of those runs (example: Tillie’s steal that led to a Zach Norvell breakawy dunk propelled the first run and got the defense back on track) and is something the Zags need to keep in mind moving forward as the competition improves.
  6. Josh Perkins attacked the basket more against Utah State than he had in the previous two games combined which is an evolution in his game that he needs to make. The results, however, were mixed. On one play he converted a tough shot in traffic and drew an and-1 foul, but his floater was very ineffective (Tillie did catch one for a reverse lay-in, but that was definitely not an alley-oop pass) and he missed a layup where he would have been better served searching out the contact rather than avoiding it. He also passed up an open point-blank layup attempt on the baseline after pivoting away from pressure, instead passing the ball back outside. While the results weren’t great, I’m encouraged that he made a concerted effort to attack the rim. He needs to continue working on this aspect of his game as he can’t be a one-dimensional shooter.
  7. Johnathan Williams III got saddled with foul trouble early and often throughout the game, and most of them were highly suspect calls. When Williams was on the floor, he was able to make some nice plays highlighted by a sequence early in the game where he channeled his inner Karnowski. Williams posted up on the low block and felt the backside double coming. He trusted Tillie to fill the space vacated by the helper and then made a tremendous pass for an easy dunk.
  8. The switch to a hybrid 2-3/1-2-2 zone defense midway through the second half was a great call from the coaching staff as it really flummoxed the Aggies. It was during that stretch that we saw Jacob Larsen dominate the game without having to score a single point. Larsen notched three blocks as he anchored the zone with Williams on the bench with foul trouble. His development as a defensive stalwart will be key for Gonzaga moving forward. Larsen also showed that he learned a thing or two watching Karnowski last season as he made an excellent one-touch pass to Tillie in the paint to free up his fellow Euro buddy for a two-handed jam.
  9. Gonzaga did an excellent job of taking care of the ball, finishing the game with only 3 turnovers to 14 assists. The low turnover count is encouraging considering the pace the Zags like to play on offense, but also highlights how poor the defensive effort was through the first 15 minutes that they went into the half only up by three points despite only coughing up the ball twice.
  10. Silas Melson made a trio of big shots that buoyed the Zags. The first was a long two late in the clock when Gonzaga was making its initial run late in the first half, followed up by a three at the buzzer to give the Zags a lead at the break. Melson made another three in the second half that felt like the nail in the coffin that buried Utah State. With Perkins in foul trouble during the half, he was a great steadying presence as the backup point guard and kept the show running.