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3-on-3: Early returns from the young season

NCAA Basketball: Texas at Gonzaga James Snook-USA TODAY Sports

Keith: Since our last conversation the Zags finally got in some real game action. They’ve played a couple of cupcakes and then had the first true challenge in the form of Texas. With an undefeated record, Gonzaga is in good shape, but there is some work to be done for sure. What are your early takeaways so far?

Tuck: For me, the first week was a great reminder that this team is young and working with just two returning key contributors. The young guys have shown flashes of their impact without necessarily showing up entirely on the stat cheat (save Chet’s Dixie State showing). I think this team has the highest floor in the country thanks in large part to Timme and Nembhard but also Rasir Bolton. Even without a complete game from everyone they are able to hold distance against a top 10 team like Texas.

KY: Rasir Bolton has been fantastic so far. What a pickup.

Peter: My early takeaway is that the defense is already looking quite a bit better, and it seems that it is more so the offense that is lagging a few feet behind. Since the Zags play a hearty team-defense style, it is nice to see them clicking early on in that regard. The offense will come around as the guys play with each other more and more, get a better feel for the flow of the game and the various plays, sets, etc. Texas still averaged a decent points per possession, but that first half was just all Gonzaga all the time. The other takeaway is one we already talked about, and everyone has talked about, is that three point shooting will not be this team’s strength. I’m not sure that matters too much when the team collectively shoots 65 percent from two.

TC: It’s really interesting to see the defense living up to the hype from the start and the offense still developing. The athleticism and motors of the young guys have been great to see in terms of immediate buy in.

KY: The defense has been the big thing for me so far. Gonzaga has the pieces in place right now to be a generational defensive unit this season, and Dominick Harris is still sidelined with his foot injury! By the time Harris returns and this squad has had more reps together, opponents might never score against them again. Okay, that’s maybe a bit hyperbolic, but you get the idea. The backcourt is comprised of dudes that like playing aggressively, and will be freed up to do so with guys like Chet Holmgren and Anton Watson patrolling the back end. The biggest obstacle to Gonzaga becoming that elite defensive unit will be maintaining the commitment and desire to play with the effort necessary to maintain a high level of performance. It’s not always glamorous work, and requires a mindset willing to constantly outwork the other team.

PW: The addition of a player like Holmgren really helps all around. Drew Timme can play a bit more aggressive defense because he knows he has backup down low. The guards can be a bit more aggressive on the perimeter because you know that he is lurking in the midst as well. As the year progresses and they get locked in more and more, I think it is going to be tough to score against this squad without essentially just lighting up from beyond the arc. (edited)

KY: The women’s team is also undefeated, but their schedule gets tougher with Stanford looming over the weekend. The ladies also look like a group that is still learning to play together and have a lot of runway left to hit their ceiling this season. What will be the key(s) for them to pull off an upset over the Cardinal?

TC: I think their young wings will need to step up and the backcourt will need to take care of the ball. The Cardinal dropped their game against Texas Sunday in large part because of shooting woes and poor ball control. If the Zags can continue to play solid defense, they may be able to hang around.

PW: The women have always played the Cardinal super close, even in losses, so they will have that going for them. They are going to have to contain Haley Jones, because you know she is going to get her buckets. The Zags have the height to deal with Cameron Brink, probably better than most teams, so a lot of it will require the Zags to make their stops and get their buckets. Gonzaga attacked the offensive glass with ferocity in their win over Montana, so any and all second chance points they can get will make it that much harder for Stanford to pull away.

KY: Gonzaga has several perimeter threats on the roster who will need to be lights out, and then as you both mentioned the defensive performance will be key. They need to stay connected at that end of the floor and buckle down and make Stanford work for everything when they have the ball. Gonzaga has to beat Stanford to the 50/50 balls while maintaining their own ball security to keep the turnovers to a minimum. If they don’t take care of the ball, the game could get away from them quickly.

PW: Stanford’s defense is so stifling that limiting turnovers will be the key. They make life hell for opponents on the offensive end.

KY: Brian Michaelson played a deep rotation during his games in charge, albeit against weaker opposition, while Mark Few stayed true to form and kept things tight against Texas. Hunter Sallis was the 8th man, but he was limited to 4 minutes. Texas made its little run at the beginning of the second half, but Gonzaga had the game under control and still the rotation was kept short. This Gonzaga squad has a lot of depth, but was the Texas rotation what we can expect to see moving forward not-including garbage time minutes? Should it be?

TC: I think it’s a complicated answer. Few did the young guys some favors by slating in some lower level competition n between their big named matchups. I think we’ll see a similar minute log and rotation in Vegas but the freshmen will get a lot of opportunities for reps and learning in the next few weeks.

PW: I have a lot of varying levels of shock around Mark Few’s rotation decisions against Texas. I am incredibly surprised that Few played Andrew Nembhard for 40 minutes, especially considering the 20 point lead at half AND that you have Nolan Hickman, who has looked fantastic so far, as a legitimate backup at any point in the game. I get Drew Timme getting his minutes, but the Texas game was basically a seven-man rotation. I’m not one of the people that is on the “give Kaden Perry minutes because he dunked against Eastern Oregon” train, but it seemed weird to have the rotation run so tight in that game, especially in the first half. If Texas starts to make a comeback, you call a timeout and put the dudes back in the game.

That said, I’ve always thought that this season we would basically see Gonzaga run an eight-man rotation. Perhaps we will see Perry and Ben Gregg a bit more this week, but I’m hoping that Sallis is averaging more than four minutes a game against Duke and UCLA.

KY: Nembhard playing 40 minutes was a bit surprising to me too. He’s going to play a lot of minutes this year because he has the coaching staff’s complete trust in running the offense. He understands how to navigate the inevitable ups and downs in the course of a game. I’m curious to see what happens with the minutes distribution when Dominick Harris returns from injury and Hunter Sallis is further along on the development arc. Hopefully Andrew Nembhard doesn’t have to play 40 minutes/night. As good as he is, that’s not ideal. I’m not expecting to see much meaningful usage for Kaden Perry and Ben Gregg either unless there’s an injury to the top 3 bigs. One of Timme and Holmgren will always be on the floor, and Anton Watson is playing excellent basketball. But Harris should be back at some point this season and I suspect Sallis will get to a point where he should be playing a lot more than 4 minutes a game too, probably sooner rather than later. He didn’t blow the doors off the place against Texas, but he’s too talented not to get better with each passing week. So even taking Perry and Gregg out of the equation, we’re talking a 9-man rotation with just Harris and Sallis getting a bigger piece of the pie.

TC: I think with how ready Hickman has looked in terms of times he’s been subbed in, that we shouldn’t expect 40 minute games for Nembhard for much longer. Few’s talked a bit about how frantic and inconsistent practices have been. I think once things settle down we’ll see Few get acclimated once he sees steadiness in practice.

PW: Yeah, I think the players will hopefully force his hand, and I’m not reading too much into it considering it is only the second game of the season. As beautiful as Gonzaga was in that first half, we saw how quickly Texas made a short little run, which of course wasn’t enough to bridge the gap. If Few is playing seven men in games against BYU, then I think we can start to have a serious conversation about his rotation choices.

KY: I understand that guys have to earn the minutes in practice first. But also, experience is the best teacher, and sometimes you have to give them run in games so they can see what does and doesn’t work when they’re not in a controlled practice environment.