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10 Observations from Gonzaga’s win over Arizona

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

Breathe. The Zags took fans on a wild roller coaster ride on Tuesday night in Lahaina that provided ample fodder for both the haters and the true believers. The first half featured absolutely miserable basketball, with Gonzaga looking completely lost in all aspects of the game. The second half was...significantly better. Here’s what I took away from Gonzaga’s semifinal victory at the Maui Invitational:

  1. Josh Perkins led off the game with two very sloppy turnovers borne out of lazy passing. This set off consternation about him carrying over Monday’s 7-turnover performance into another game. But credit to Perkins for snapping out of it and elevating his game. He converted a pair of threes in the first and kept the Zags in the game when they really shouldn’t have been. His impact was underscored by how quickly the Zags fell apart when he had to take a seat on the bench with foul trouble for the final 7 minutes of the first half. In the second half, he picked up 9 assists to just a single turnover and added 10 points to fuel the comeback. That’s the performance you need from your senior point guard when things are looking bleak.
  2. Gonzaga needs to be better at the free throw line. 9-15 from the line in the first half can’t happen from a championship-level team. 5-6 in the second half was much better, but 14-21 overall (following up a 23-35 FT performance on Monday) is decidedly mediocre. Free throws are always a big factor in high level games, just ask the 2008 Memphis team. This needs to get cleaned up.
  3. Arizona plays hard on defense and plays tight on-ball pressure, but the Zags had a lot more freedom of movement to run their sets than they did against Illinois.
  4. Gonzaga’s defensive rotations in the first half were consistently late, and Brandon Clarke was frequently hung out to dry with no help to cut off penetration into the lane. The Zags switched to a 2-3 zone defense midway through the first half but Justin Coleman promptly made a 3 on it and they were still giving up drives. As an aside, because the Zags were arriving late to contest Arizona’s shot attempts, I suspect the refs were anticipating the foul—even if the contest was clean.
  5. Rui’s midrange jumper was the first consistently reliable weapon in his offensive arsenal, and we saw him use it to great effect at the start of his sophomore campaign. He’s added to it since then, obviously, but in a pinch he leans on it like he did against Arizona.
  6. Arizona was showing really hard when defending Gonzaga’s ball screens, but the Zags didn’t counteract it with quicker slip screens and pocket passes. The adjustments were made at the break, however, and Gonzaga was able to feast inside which freed up the perimeter.
  7. Zach Norvell was 0-8 from the field in the first half, including 0-6 from the three-point line. That didn’t alter his approach in the second half, however, and he didn’t shy away from his shots when they materialized in the second half. That level of confidence is so rare, even amongst high level basketball players. Good shooters just keep shooting, and that’s what Snacks did.
  8. The Zags came out on the better end of Chase Jeter’s decision to transfer to Arizona and not Gonzaga. Despite a full year to work on his development while redshirting last season, his skill set still doesn’t look like it has progressed very much, if at all. He gives the Wildcats size in the frontcourt, which they sorely lacked when he fouled out (fouling out on a technical in a 1-point game is a bad, bad look), but he’s not the impact player he was thought to be coming out of high school.
  9. After half time, Gonzaga made a defensive adjustment to switch 1 through 5 on and off the ball, and Justin Coleman acknowledged after the game that the switches made it really difficult to run their offense. Arizona only tallied 3 assists for the entire game, and were forced into a lot of desperation isolation plays. The Zags are the rare group that can pull this off thanks to the athleticism of their big men and the guards strength to battle with bigger players.
  10. The separating factor between these two teams is that Gonzaga has been through a lot of different experiences together as a group, and Arizona has not. That experience and resilience allowed the Zags to overcome their poor play and overwhelm the Wildcats, and saw Arizona fold in the face of Gonzaga’s momentum.