The PK80 Invitational not only provided us with a relentlessly exciting holiday weekend of basketball, it also provided insight into who and what these Gonzaga Bulldogs actually are. The Zags went 2-1 during the tournament, playing a total of three overtimes (a double and a single) in the process.
It was the first test of the season, and for all purposes, the Zags passed it with relatively flying colors. There are still some good battles coming up: Creighton on Friday and Villanova next week, but we can finally start to talk about Gonzaga with more than mere observations under our belts.
Here are a few of the key takeaways from the weekend:
This team is going to be scary in March
Considering everything the Zags lost, even the optimists in Spokane thought it would take a few weeks, maybe even months, for this team to gel. The PK80 Invitational, however, shows that the squad is much further along than we thought. Johnathan Williams was the leader he needed to be against Florida, scoring 39 points in the heartbreaking loss. Josh Perkins has stepped it up from beyond the arc, shooting over 50 percent on the year. Corey Kispert has established himself as the starting winger, and Silas Melson showcased his penchant for big plays.
Florida, which is one of the best long range shooting teams in the nation, couldn’t put Gonzaga away. Texas, which mounted a furious defense over a gassed squad, couldn’t quite get over the hump. Ohio State never had a chance to begin with. The Zags aren’t as dangerous as they were last year, but the games against Florida and Texas showed they can pretty much hang with anyone. And in March, if you can hang with anyone, you have a chance to beat anyone.
Corey Kispert is the dude
Guess who leads the Gonzaga Bulldogs in offense rating? That would be our dear freshman Corey Kispert. Kispert is hardly going to lead the team in scoring. There is a good chance he never even leads a game in scoring this year, but it is everything else he is doing. He is at elite-level glue guy status, and he has only played six collegiate games in his career. He does a bit of everything: hit outside shots, hustle for key rebounds, always be in the right place at the right time, and most importantly, he rarely turns the ball over.
He isn’t going to do a lot of things during the game that will make the highlight reel. For example, two of his eight points during Texas came on a coast-to-coast fastbreak, which he finished with a lay up. Hardly a Sportscenter Top 10 play, but the key part is how Kispert went to his left hand, used the rim to protect the shot, and didn’t hurry a single part of it. He plays the game as if he has been playing college for 10 years already.
Josh Perkins can’t sit for long periods of time
One of the biggest question marks about this squad was realized late in the game against Florida after Josh Perkins fouled out. Silas Melson is perfectly capable to bring the ball up the floor, but the offense started to look a bit slowed down at that point. Perhaps it was the fact that some players were entering their 40+ minute of basketball, but the more likely culprit is that Melson just isn’t a point guard. Jesse Wade has some experience, but a lingering shoulder injury has slowed his return to the lineup. This squad will have to rely on Perkins to pull out wins, or at least to keep the offense moving as it should.
The bench isn’t quite there yet
In a game where the Zags scored over 100 points, the bench contributed five points. Things got a bit better against Texas, but that was thanks to Rui Hachimura’s 20 point explosion. Zach Norvell was the only bench player who chipped in any points that game—to the total of three points. Things were a bit more normal against Ohio State, with four players combining for 22 points.
However, if the NCAA Tournament was starting tomorrow, the Zags would be a five person team—perhaps six. The bench hasn’t consistently shown an ability to score just quite yet. Rui played 21 minutes against Florida and only attempted four shots. Norvell tried the same number, but he missed all of his threes. Jeremy Jones has never been an offensive minded player, and Jakob Larsen is still easing into the game. It is alright if the Zags can have four starters on the floor and one bench player, but the drop off is steep at the moment. This is an aspect of the squad that is going to take some more time.
Gonzaga is obviously the team to beat in the WCC
I feel bad for poor Saint Mary’s. I honestly do. They were finally in the limelight, and they wasted no time to completely fall out of it.
Ok, enough sympathy for the Gaels. It was laughable that Saint Mary’s was picked the unanimous team as the preseason winner of the WCC. That was on full display over the weekend without the two teams playing each other. Saint Mary’s rapidly played its way out of a potential at-large bid (their last “big game” is on the road against Cal—a team that has lost to UC Riverside at home and to Chaminade...) depending on how the bubble bursts. Meanwhile, the Zags hung with one of the better teams in college basketball for 50 minutes.
There isn’t much more need to harp on this then to be able to officially tell the rest of the national media: we told you so. Sure, we can be homers on this blog, but we aren’t idiots all the time.
The floor for this team should be the Sweet 16
Predicting how deep a team will go in March is the dumbest possible thing to be doing at the end of November, but here we are. The team looked every bit as solid as it needed to against Ohio State, and then, against Florida, pulled out every bit of effort for one of the best college basketball games of the entire season. That game against Florida was a Final Four caliber game, and Florida is a Final Four caliber team.
What is interesting about this Gonzaga team is people are quick to point out all they lost from last year’s championship level team. But, what people forget, is Perkins, Williams, Melson, and Tillie all played meaningful minutes on last year’s squad. Jeremy Jones, Hachimura, and Jack Beach were along for the ride as well. It isn’t like you are looking at a Duke squad featuring Grayson Allen and 100 freshmen. The Zags have been there before, and that experience in big time games showed over this weekend.
The only way this tournament could have gone better was to beat Florida and beat Duke. As it stands, the Zags came away with two quality wins and a loss so quality it will count better than most wins. This team looks like its ready to compete about a month ahead of schedule, and that bodes well for the rest of the season.