Happy Thanksgiving, everyone. There was no better treat than watching Gonzaga beat Duke yesterday and claim another Maui Invitational Championship. It was the first time they’ve beat Duke and the first time they’ve beat the number one team in the country. And they did it all without Killian Tillie. Here are 10 observations from another Maui instant classic.
- First and foremost, what an unbelievable college basketball game. The environment was incredible, the level of play was off the charts, and the referees called a pretty clean game, allowing two of the best teams in the country to go toe-to-toe for 40 minutes. This is game the country wanted and it delivered in every way.
- After beating Arizona on Tuesday night, Mark Few said the best way to play Duke was to play extremely smart offensively. They came out and did just that. The only way to keep Duke out of transition is to make open shots and not turn the ball over. Gonzaga at one point was shooting close to 70 percent. They ended up hitting 10 threes, shooting 52 percent, and only turned the ball over 11 times. They forced Duke to defend multiple ball screen actions and multiple ball reversals, and it was obvious that their youth was not ready for that. Gonzaga got open look after open look, especially in the first half. Because of it, Duke was not able to get out on the break. Gonzaga actually had more fast break points than Duke (17-14), a stat that no one thought would be possible.
- Defensively, Gonzaga tried their best to force RJ Barrett to his right, Cam Reddish to his left, and then play off Zion Williamson and force him to shoot jumpers. All three of them were forced into difficult shots all game, and in the case of Reddish, a tough performance altogether. Reddish, who I thought would have the biggest mismatch on the offensive end, went 3-for-9 and turned the ball over four times. RJ Barrett went 9-for-25 and only hit one three. Zion went 8-for-17 and all of his looks in the half court were contested. When Duke is forced to play the majority of the game in the half court, they aren’t as polished. Coach K said as much after the game, “[Gonzaga] is ahead of us.”
- Duke dared Rui Hachimura and Brandon Clarke to shoot threes. They each hit one on their first attempts to start the game. Once that happened, you knew Gonzaga was locked in and we were all in for a treat.
- Rui Hachimura said after the game, “I am the best player in the country.” If the world didn’t know about him before this, they do now. He put up 20 points, including the game-winner with 1:20 to go, plus 7 rebounds, 5 assists, and 3 blocks. His entire offensive arsenal was on display. He hit his patented pull-up jumper, he hit a three, and he powered his way inside against Zion and Marques Bolden. His beautiful pass to Brandon Clarke for an and-1 helped keep Duke at arm’s length. The two of them also tag-teamed the final defensive stop on Barrett.
- Brandon Clarke is an absolute monster. Gonzaga has had some decent shot blockers in the past, but nobody is like this guy. He’s going to shatter the single-season Gonzaga record for blocks in a season (70). He had six against Duke, and altered plenty more. Obviously, foul trouble has been a concern, but when he’s on the court, Gonzaga’s a different team on defense. Per ESPN Stats & Info, Williamson and Barrett combined to shoot just 14-of-33 (42.4 percent) in the paint. Clarke was also 7-for-10 on the offensive end and showed a nice array of post moves.
- The backcourt was absolutely incredible. After two up-and-down performances, Josh Perkins showed why he can be one of the top point guards in the country. The game was never too fast for him, he ran the offense to perfection, and dished out another seven assists. Zach Norvell was hot from the opening tip. He hit four triples, poured in 19 points, and played stingy defense on RJ Barrett and Cam Reddish most of the game. His perimeter defense has improved exponentially since the first game of last season.
8. The role of Killian Tillie was played very admirably by Filip Petrusev. We all know what Tillie brings – size, versatility, and the ability to stretch the floor. Petrusev used his size to grab three offensive rebounds and block a shot. He used his versatility to switch on screens and rendered Bolden and Javin DeLaurier irrelevant. He stretched the floor to knock down a three. In all, he put up 11 points on 5-of-7 shooting and didn’t turn the ball over. They threw the freshman in the fire and he delivered with a seasoned veteran performance.
9. Both squads were incredibly active on the offensive glass. The teams combined for 35 offensive boards and 27 second chance points. Zion had seven of those rebounds. We all knew this beforehand, but he is an absolute freak of nature. The fact that Gonzaga contained him all night shows how physical, athletic, and defensively sound the team is.
10. Every time Duke made a mini-run in the second half, Gonzaga responded. The Blue Devils cut the lead to single digits a couple times and the Zags would counter with an open lay-up. Obviously, Gonzaga’s offense went cold in the final few minutes and Duke made the ultimate final run to tie the game. But the Zags got three straight defensive stops after Rui’s basket put them ahead 89-87 to ice the game (we’ll save the free throw talk for another day). When Duke cut the lead to 10 midway through the second half, Corey Kispert came flying in for an offensive put back to squash Duke’s rally. Jay Bilas said on the telecast, “Gonzaga is unflappable.” I would say that’s a pretty good word to describe this team.