Keith: Gentlemen, we’ve been jonesing for some college basketball, and boy did we get some in the first two weeks of the season. The season is quite young, but Gonzaga fans have already ridden some highs and lows. Fortunately, the “low” didn’t end up being a season killer. Tell me, friends, what was going through your minds when Jalen Suggs went down against West Virginia and how would Gonzaga cope if he had to miss time long term?
Peter: I literally started to get sick to my stomach.
Steven: I was in the surrender cobra position for a good five minutes on the couch.
PW: The way Jalen Suggs looked when he went down, he had that look of defeat that players get when they know it is something really bad. So after the injury, I basically stopped watching most of the first half and was texting back with my friends that the Bulldogs’ season is doomed. Now, obviously, Andrew Nembhard stepped in and reminded us that, although Suggs is an important piece of this puzzle, the Zags are loaded (in most positions). But pretty much until Suggs was back out on the court, I felt bad for the Bulldogs, the aspirations of a championship, and I felt terrible for him, potentially suffering a career-altering injury before he ever makes money off of his talents.
SK: That sums it up nicely. For Suggs, it could have been devastating to his career aspirations. For Gonzaga, their ceiling would have lowered considerably. And for the fans, the thought was, “We finally get a top 10 prospect and we only get to see him for two and a half games before he leaves” and I think most of us selfishly felt angry about that.
PW: Yeah, that was definitely a part too. Suggs is such an exciting player to watch, to a level Gonzaga has not had. Due to the course of this season, we are obviously already getting a shortened dose of that joy.
KY: This is a family website so I won’t repeat what was initially going through my mind. There’s also a good chance I might have completely stopped watching basketball all together. I’ve done the surgery and rehab for a ruptured achilles, and let me tell you, it SUCCKKSSSSSS. You couldn’t help but feel for him as he clearly feared the worst. He’s a young man doing what he loves with his friends, and is also on the doorstep of fulfilling his dream in reaching the NBA. It’s completely understandable that he reacted emotionally in that moment. As for how the Zags would have managed, Jalen’s position is fortunately the one where the Zags are deepest. Nembhard has 60 starts under his belt and could be aided by a combination of Ayayi, Cook, and Dominick Harris once he clears quarantine. The loss of Suggs would have significantly decreased Gonzaga’s chances at a national championship, or even making the Final Four, but his position is the one spot where the Zags could weather a long-term injury. But as you guys alluded, the excitement he brings to the floor can’t be matched by anyone else on the roster.
Injury scare notwithstanding, Gonzaga looked every bit the part of a No. 1 team, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t any warts. What is one area of weakness where the Zags can improve and how do they get better?
SK: Three point shooting beyond Corey Kispert is abysmal right now. They are so good that despite only hitting 16 threes in three games, they still averaged over 90 points a game. But there’s going to be a point where they need to knock down perimeter shots, and someone needs to step up and do that.
KY: Imagine what the offense could look like with one or two more shooting threats...sheesh.
PW: I think communication on the switches on defense can obviously improve a bit, and I do think that will with time as well. There are a lot of new pieces to this team that haven’t played with each other for more than a few months, so against Kansas, we saw those just wide open shots coming off communication miscues. Gonzaga is hardly the only team that is coping with that at the moment, so I’m not too worried about it in the long term.
The other thing I’d really like to see is some more production from the bench. It perhaps doesn’t really matter that much, because if either Timme, Kispert, Suggs, or Ayayi has an off night, the other guys are probably dropping 20+. That said, right now you have five dudes averaging 10+ points per game. After that, it is Oumar Ballo at 3.3.
SK: Ballo looked better against West Virginia, but he’s still not quite ready to play 15+ minutes yet. It would be nice to have these four cupcake games over the next week to get him more minutes, but as of Sunday morning, those are up in the air.
PW: The Gonzaga fan base is always understandably hard on the team having those cupcake assignments. But this team needs those games for seasoning probably more than most people want to admit.
KY: That dovetails nicely into my concern, which is rim protection. Jalen Suggs might be the team’s best shot blocker (he and Timme are tied with 2 blocks apiece)…that’s not ideal. Good perimeter defense can help some of that by containing penetration, but it’s definitely an area where Gonzaga can be exposed by teams with good front courts and hyper athletic guards. As we previously discussed, the Zags have huge question marks behind Drew Timme, so if he ‘s struggling and/or in foul trouble, I’d be concerned about Ballo and Zakharov being asked to anchor the interior defense at this stage in the season and because of where they are on the development curve.
PW: WVU has really good forwards and I think if you take out the foul trouble from Gabe Osabuohien and Oscar Tshiebwe you are looking at a different outcome.
KY: So I’ve heard from their fans on Twitter. At the end of a tight game, Mark Few opted to go with the lineup of Nembhard, Ayayi, Suggs, Kispert, and Timme. Is that going to be the closing lineup moving forward and if not, what is Gonzaga’s best five?
SK: I love the idea of Watson starting games for defense and Nembhard’s offense coming off the bench. That does seem to be their “death lineup” and it feels almost impossible to stop offensively when they are clicking. I am interested to see if they use more of the Timme/Ballo lineup we saw against WVU or if that was simply a byproduct of early foul trouble.
PW: That lineup is outscoring opponents by what, over 0.7 points per possession? In the short look we’ve had it looks like Gonzaga’s most dangerous offensive crew. Like Steven said, a lot of their success is predicated on Kispert hitting threes right now to allow Timme to do his work. For that lineup to really be the closers, between Nembhard, Suggs, and Ayayi, you have to have someone else capable of hitting a three consistently there. That lineup also operates under the game winning theory of the best defense is scoring more points than your opponent.
KY: I think of those three, Ayayi will have to be the guy. His numbers last year (41-119, 34.5%) suggest his three-point shooting will come around this season. Until advancements in science allow us to have five Ayayi’s on the floor, that is probably going to be the closing lineup. However, we could see scenarios where Watson and Nembhard are swapped in and out in defense-for-offense substitutions depending on the game situation.
PW: I think Watson gets a bad wrap because defense isn’t really measured as much in your straight up box score. His ability to basically be a one man full-court press is something no other player on the squad can replicate.
KY: Watson is fulfilling the exact role the coaching staff wants out of him, and doing it really well. The Zags don’t need Watson to be an offensive threat, but I suppose it would be nice to see him get going there as that could keep him on the floor in all late game situations.
SK: He also took two charges against WVU and those were huge. His offense is still coming around, but he still affects games with his defense and passing.
KY: I think he’s still scratching the surface of what he could be. He’s going to be nasty.
PW: I’m stoked, hopefully we get to see him (or anyone) play in the next two weeks.
KY: Hopefully, the next time we convene we’ll have games to talk about. Until then, everyone stay safe!