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10 Observations from Gonzaga’s win over North Alabama

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12-2

NCAA Basketball: North Alabama at Gonzaga James Snook-USA TODAY Sports

I’ll admit, it’s not easy to stay fully engaged during this portion of the schedule. If it’s difficult getting up as a fan for North Alabama, think about the temptation for the players to ease up a bit. That hasn’t been the case though for the Zags so far in another strong game against an overmatched team. Here’s what I took away from Friday night’s game against the Lions:

  1. Rui Hachimura and Brandon Clarke seem to have better synergy when they play their two-man game in the paint. It’s not like they were ever bad together, but after 2 months of game action to really get a feel for how to play as an interior duo, their positioning relative to the other looks to be occurring much more naturally.
  2. It’s always interesting to see what the team’s energy level is coming off a week with no games and half the team scattered around the country for 4 days. This team showed there was no rust to shake off which is a good sign about how focused they remain despite being in a stretch of the season where they know they could slack off and still win games. The energy level was good right off the bat which allowed them to put the game away in the opening minutes. After the game, Zach Norvell talked about how good the energy was in practice after the team reconvened following the Christmas layoff, which further highlights how mature and mission-oriented this group has become.
  3. Rui continues to showcase the breadth of his development. In a reverse layup in the first half, he remained stout on his pivot inside the restricted area to finish a difficult shot while the defender was in a good vertical position to wall off his initial look. He’s really able to finish in a variety of ways in the paint which makes him such a reliable go-to option when the offense is in a pinch.
  4. The Zags worked on switching up their defensive looks throughout the game, oscillating between the standard man to man, 1-5 switching, and ¾ court presses. They could have simply played a straight up vanilla defense and won comfortably, but the coaching staff uses these games to comfortably sharpen their mental acuity and communication for the tougher contests ahead.
  5. Phenomenal passing possessions on the offensive end in the first half led to some beautiful basketball. Unselfishness has really become the hallmark of this program over the last few years and it has resulted in a great product on the floor.
  6. On a midrange jumper about 8 minutes into the first half, I saw Clarke drift back a little bit into his old jumper at San Jose St. where he unnecessarily rotated his lower half through the shot. That will be something the coaching staff is going to bring up to him after the game. It’s hard to fully clean out all the old habits after undergoing such a dramatic mechanical change over the last 1.5 seasons, but Clarke has done a good job of staying fairly consistent with his mechanics. Hopefully that was a random blip and nothing more.
  7. North Alabama was completely unable to finish at the rim if a Gonzaga defender was contesting in the paint. Their players actually looked shook when Rui and Clarke gathered to jump.
  8. The Zags looked very, very sharp at both ends of floor until the last 4 minutes and change of the first half when they got a little squirrely. I guess a repeat of the Denver game wasn’t in the cards...
  9. Gonzaga wasn’t just beating up on some scrub team that was recently elevated to Division I status. North Alabama managed five point losses on the road to both Pitt and UNC-Greensboro this season. Both those programs are ranked inside the KenPom Top 100. That this game never seemed like a contest is a credit to this group’s mentality (see point #2).
  10. With Geno Crandall set to return as soon as Monday, I’m very pleased that Joel Ayayi had a chance to get extended minutes over the last few games. He acquitted himself well, so hopefully this stretch allowed him to build up some confidence that will springboard him into next season.