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10 Observations from Gonzaga’s win over Illinois

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NCAA Basketball: Gonzaga at Illinois Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

Before Gonzaga’s Maui opener, Mark Few told anyone who would listen how difficult of a matchup Illinois presented. After the Zags survived by the skin of their teeth, it turns out he wasn’t kidding. Illinois runs a unique high spread offense, which Few identified as difficult to prepare for since he hasn’t seen one like it in all his years as a head coach. Paired with 40 minutes of pressure defense, you get games like last night. Here’s what else I took away from Game 1 in Maui:

  1. In Year 2, Brad Underwood is beginning to see his system take hold. Illinois is built to bring a lot of adversity and plays with great intensity that requires you to battle on every possession. The Zags struggled to handle their pressure and the Illini succeeded in forcing a lot of turnovers and getting Gonzaga out of its comfort zone.
  2. Foul trouble along the frontline has been an issue during the first 4 games of Gonzaga’s season. That can’t afford to continue while Tillie is out. Brandon Clarke picked up two fouls inside the first two minutes of the game, and Gonzaga’s rim protection took a big hit with him out. After the game, Few pointed out that without Tillie, they’re much smaller and lighter and therefore much of the rim protection duty falls to Clarke.
  3. Illinois wants to create chaos with its defense, and it did a great job of dictating the tempo and style of play. Gonzaga scrambled at both ends of the floor on seemingly every possession outside of the first 10 minutes of the second half. There were so many ugly possessions, and every trip up and down the floor felt like a street fight. The Zags needed to be strong and decisive with the ball to get through the teeth of the pressure and earn some layups behind the defense, but there were too many offensive possessions where they were reactive instead of proactive.
  4. Filip Petrusev showed lots of toughness with Brandon Clarke in early foul trouble and did a decent job in the first half. But he didn’t have that same aggressiveness in the second half, and got the quick hook. Few identified that as the biggest area of learning for him. Petrusev has all the skills, just needs to figure out that if he doesn’t compete on every play someone’s going to put it on him.
  5. Crandall’s used that drive and drop multiple times in the last three games and it’s becoming increasingly less effective as teams have surely taken note that he likes going to that move. He struggled with his distribution and after racking up five turnovers, didn’t see much action in the second half which forced Few to ride Perkins even though he probably needed a mental break late in the game.
  6. 7 turnovers from your senior point guard and 4-year starter is tough. Perkins has been significantly improved at not getting sped up, but he had a tough night against Illinois as they oscillated back and forth between the 34 court press and the 1-3-1 halfcourt defense. He fared pretty well against the 34 press in the first half, but was missing a release valve against the middle of the defense like Tillie to help him out. The Zags won’t see another defense like that during the regular season, and I expect Perkins to be back on track against Arizona on Tuesday.
  7. Jeremy Jones showed how effective he can be simply by putting himself in the right position. Illinois stretches its defense high up the floor to maximize pressure on the perimeter, and he freed himself up frequently by making simple and timely cuts to the basket which is how he collected all those easy lay ups. He contributed in every way possible during this game, making a crucial three late in the first half, grabbing 11 rebounds, and then icing the game at the free throw line after Frazier’s airball. He’s a hard working guy who seized his opportunity, and Few had nothing but praise for Jones’ work ethic and singled him out as the reason Gonzaga won the game.
  8. Norvell was able to find open space on the wing in transition and spot up for a couple of threes in the second half by creating a better angle for the kickout pass. Good adjustment after seeing how Illinois was collapsing on penetration.
  9. You would expect the seasoned team in Gonzaga to put away a team like Illinois, and there were a couple of moments where it seemed like the Zags were poised to land the knockout punch but failed to do so. Yes, there were lots of mental errors from just about every player on the floor in the closing minutes, but you also have to tip your cap to Trent Frazier for putting up a big time performance in the second half to keep Illinois in the game. He made a lot of tough threes that as a defense you’re willing to concede. He just ended up making most of them. Fortunately, he didn’t make the last one.
  10. Gonzaga faces off against Arizona for the millionth time in the last few years. These coaching staffs know each other well, so there won’t be any surprises when it comes to what each team is running and I think we’ll see the Zags play a lot more comfortably against Arizona’s defense after surviving Monday’s test.