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10 observations from the men’s non-conference slate

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Halfway threre, and halfway to go.

NCAA Basketball: Indiana - Purdue at Gonzaga James Snook-USA TODAY Sports

Now that we are basically halfway through the season and West Coast Conference play is right around the corner, let’s take a quick look at some of the lasting themes and storylines that emerged in the 2017-18 season.

  1. This team is probably a top 20 team for the remainder of the season. Realistically, the Zags are going to end up much higher than that in the polls, because as long as you win, you keep rising. The Zags were the preseason No. 18 team, and right now are ranked No. 20. That sounds about right. After the Florida game, a lot of people (especially me) were a bit too quick to say the Sweet 16 is the floor for this squad. After a couple weeks of strong, lackluster, and all around poor play equally spread out in multiple games, it is clear that this Gonzaga squad hasn’t completely figured itself out yet. No doubt they are good, and no doubt they can beat good teams, but can they beat good teams consistently? That is the real question.
  2. Zach Norvell is the real deal, and he is in some rarified territory in school history. Since 1992-93 (the longest Sports Reference’s play index goes back in college hoops), he is one of four Zags to average at least 13 points per game as a freshman, joining Matt Santangelo, Kevin Pangos, and Elias Harris. We’ve seen some extreme shooting splits from Norvell since he joined the starting lineup, but he has a scorer’s mentality the Zags need when the offense is sputtering.
  3. Jacob Larsen will never be Przemek Karnowski, hell, only Shem will be Shem, but he is doing his best damn impersonation sometimes. Larsen’s offensive game, relying on footwork and finesse, often resembles Karnowski, minus a hundred pounds or so. The Zags are working him in slowly this season and Larsen has shown to be a dependable player. He is still a bit foul prone, averaging 1.7 fouls in just 11 minutes. But when he is in, Larsen is a capable defender, a pretty decent blocker, and one of the best rebounders on the team. As he gets more confident in his offensive abilities, he will be a solid anchor in the front court for years to come.
  4. This team will live and die by how far its point guard play can take it. Although Josh Perkins has come out of his shell to become the best shooter on the team, his ball handling and playmaking decisions have taken a couple of steps back—he is averaging a full turnover more than he did in his freshman year when he was the primary ball handler. The biggest issue appears to be roster construction right now. Perkins is the trained point guard, and Jesse Wade, who many of us thought would be the backup, hasn’t backed up much more than a member of the bench mob. Perkins is playing more than he ever has before, and when he sits, the offense tends to sputter and try to survive for those minutes. As long as the Jekyll and Hyde act continues, this team’s fate is hinged to his play. Good Perkins (Ohio State/Washington) makes this squad look unbeatable. Bad Perkins (Texas/San Diego State) makes this squad incredibly mortal.
  5. Ken Pomeroy wrote about how using three-point defense is a myth, and, although I completely agree with him, the Zags are getting beyond burned by the threes, while still holding true on their two-point defense—in his view, the better overall indicator of a defensive squad. The Zags are ranked No. 41 in two-point defense, but an astounding No. 268 in three-point defense. The perimeter defense is sorely missing Nigel Williams-Goss, but it shouldn’t be as bad as it has been lately. One of those two numbers is either too high or too low, it will be interesting to see which regresses to the mean.
  6. Despite being picked second in the preseason WCC poll, the Zags should win the conference this season. BYU is a hard pick to make: the Cougars own one win over a KenPom top 100 team this season (although the road win at Princeton looks nice). Saint Mary’s, although riding a good win streak, showed against Washington State and Georgia that it will struggle against big, athletic teams. Right now, KenPom’s algorithms have the Gaels and the Zags splitting their series, and sharing the crown. This seems like a completely viable prediction.
  7. Corey Kispert is the dude, and having him will be like having four seasons of David Pendergraft’s senior year. Kispert came in as a bit of an unknown, since an injury kept him sitting for a majority of his senior year of high school ball. He hit the ground running, taking over the starting spot at the three and not giving it up until an ankle injury against Incarnate Word forced him out. Kispert’s numbers hardly pop out (especially since his limited minutes in games have lowered his per game averages), but he is a stellar shooter who plays the game like a college senior. He very well could never be the face of the squad, but he could easily be the best player on the team at some point in his career.
  8. Killian Tillie is getting some NBA draft talk, but his sophomore season has been a bit up and down. He has shown that brilliance against teams like Florida and Creighton, but has laid up some real stinkers this season, such as the games against Texas, Villanova, and San Diego State. The biggest issue, as we noted earlier this week, is the turnovers, although fouls play a part as well. Tillie has four games with over four turnovers, and has five games with over four fouls (including three foul outs). These two factors are really limiting his production, and if he can shake these issues, he can really stand out in WCC play.
  9. Rui Hachimura is still figuring it out. The 20 point, nine rebound performance off the bench against Texas was beautiful to watch. But for all the times Hachimura has looked ready to take over a game, he’ll look a bit lost off the ball—unaware of off the ball movement or struggling with defensive reads.
  10. We still have no idea what the identity of this team is. The Zags own some great wins (coming from behind to topple Creighton, holding off the flurry of Texas to win in overtime, stomping Washington at home), some ok wins (holding off the flurry of Texas to win in overtime, taking down Ohio State), some bad wins (what the hell North Dakota), some feel-good losses (can’t feel two bad about a double-overtime loss to Florida, honestly the Villanova game wasn’t great but they are probably the best team in the nation), and some ugly losses (hello San Diego State residual vomit taste). The real team is somewhere in between all of that.