The Gonzaga Bulldogs picked up their first loss of the season against a then unranked but soon to be very ranked Michigan Wolverines squad. Two wins against Southern Miss (and in OT) against the No. 11 Oregon Ducks made the holiday trip worth taking. We unpack a few of our general observations from the tournament as a whole below.
Arden Cravalho: Overall, I was pleased with Gonzaga’s performance in the Battle 4 Atlantis. Corey Kispert looks like he’s back to his old ways and shooting really well from deep. Joel Ayayi came out of his shell and has become a key role player/the sixth man for the Zags. Filip Petrusev has put himself into the conversation as one of the best breakout stars in the country. The Bulldogs played with a lot of heart while having to deal with a bunch of injuries and just being absolutely gassed after three games in three days. Going 2-1 in that stretch is nothing to be angry about.
Gonzaga just needs to get back home and rest up. Let’s hope nothing serious has happened to Anton Watson’s ankle and both Woolridge/Gilder get back to 100% quickly. A lot more opportunities to make up for that Michigan loss in the championship game await the Zags. I just hope Mark Few goes back to the basics with making simple layups, floaters, the point-blank shots in the first practice back in Spokane. Just fix the simple stuff and get back to that offensive play we saw in the first 8 games. A lot more basketball is left to be played and the Zags can’t be making those costly mistakes anymore.
Steven Karr: The one thing I learned is this team has a lot of fight and resiliency. They were able to grind out a win against Oregon despite blowing a lead and trailing in overtime, and they fought back early in the second half against Michigan before missing shots and then falling apart the final 10 minutes.
Overall, though, none of my thoughts have really changed. Perhaps the Michigan State scrimmage and first two blowouts put unrealistic expectations in some fans’ minds, but the games against Oregon and Michigan pretty much showed what a good portion of the fan base thought Gonzaga would be coming into the year. They have a lot of talent, but a lot of questions that will continue to be answered as the season goes on.
Filip Petrusev is supremely talented, but struggles mightily against physical big men. The backcourt of Woolridge and Gilder is a work in progress. Corey Kispert will have some big games and some quiet ones. The general lack of three-point shooting is somewhat worrisome. Killian Tillie is the best player on the team. All of these things were known coming into the year, and they showed up against the two best opponents of the season. So for me, my outlook on the team hasn’t changed at all. They have three seniors, two third-year players, and a future NBA big guy, but they’ve never played together. They will continue to get better as the season goes on, and if they peak in March, they have as good a shot as anyone in the country because the college basketball landscape as a whole is very down from last year.
Peter Woodburn: Trying to take anything away overall from a tournament like this is a fool’s errand, because at no other point in the season will the Zags play three times in three nights. That said, considering the injuries that went down on Wednesday, I’m just happy Gonzaga came away with a win in any of the three games.
One of the nice things about watching the Oregon game was seeing the resiliency of the squad. Gonzaga got out to a nice 17 point lead as ESPN reminded constantly during the Oregon/UNC game, but that was also with more than 30 minutes left to play. That game, for much of the second half, was incredibly close and could have gone either way. Gonzaga stayed with it for the entirety, and it was a gutty performance considering that A) No one clearly had anything left in the tank, and B) There were no living bodies to put onto the court. That win is going to be one that matters later down the road when it comes time for seeding, and probably be one of the more entertaining games of the whole season.
As Steven said, Michigan exposed quite a few things that these blowout wins have helped masked. The one thing that was pretty disconcerting to watch in both the Oregon and Michigan games were the number of open threes. Oregon missed all of them, Michigan did not whatsoever. Gonzaga’s defensive KenPom ranking is now the lowest it has been all year (No. 36). We can probably chalk some of that up to missing Anton Watson, who very well could be the best defender on the team. But the defensive rotations just have to get shored up. Too often we saw players missing their switch, leaving someone open, or just aimlessly floating around in search of something to do. Good teams expose that, and Michigan had a field day.
Keith Ybanez: It’s hard to give a complete evaluation of this team based on the performance at this tournament thanks to the injuries that took their toll as the week went along. The starting backcourt of Admon Gilder and Ryan Woolridge played nowhere near the level we saw prior to this week thanks to the knee injuries that both of them were dealing with. Gilder, in particular, looked like a shell of himself. A lot of Gonzaga’s issues at both ends of the floor stemmed from the diminished performances of those two which I wouldn’t expect to be an ongoing issue so long as they regain their health. I guess we can say that Gonzaga will struggle to put away good teams if its starting backcourt doesn’t play well...which is pretty much the case for every team in the country.
Despite Petrusev’s numbers across the three games that earned him a spot on the All-Tournament team, my biggest takeaway is that he will need to play much tougher against more physical opponents. The Zags got physically dominated inside by Michigan, and the bigs struggled to physically assert themselves against Oregon as well. There seemed to be an inability to finish through contact. That doesn’t happen to Gonzaga teams very often.
It’s not all doom and gloom, however, as Corey Kispert re-discovered his form and the Joel Ayayi hype train is moving full speed ahead after some brilliant performances. The Zags demonstrated their competitive character despite being shorthanded and exhausted as the week went along. That will serve them well moving forward. The biggest thing will be getting everyone healthy quickly as the UW/Arizona/UNC stretch is just around the corner.