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3-on-3: Postseason decisions, Gonzaga’s ascending defense, and the starting lineup shakeup

NCAA Basketball: Gonzaga at Brigham Young Jeffrey Swinger-USA TODAY Sports

Keith: Gonzaga is almost done with regular season basketball, and there are decisions ahead for Mark Few. If you were in charge of the program, are you giving Gloria Nevarez a call and telling her that Gonzaga is opting out of the WCC Tournament? What’s the best outcome here for the Zags and the WCC?

Steven: Fly to Vegas on Sunday, win two games, fly home Wednesday, get ready for the NCAA Tournament. I really don’t think the risk of playing two games in Vegas is any higher than if they stayed in Spokane for those 96 hours. Vegas is as good a place as any in America in creating a controlled environment for large groups.

Peter: I don’t think there is necessarily any wrong answer here. It sucks to think about going to Las Vegas and potentially getting COVID and having the whole March go down the drain. It also sucks for the Zags to not play in the WCC Tournament and then roll into March Madness without a game played since late February, because that is very well what could happen without it. At the end of the day, I think Few (and the players) probably prefer to have the consistency of games played. That is something that is at least scheduled, you can prepare for, etc.

SK: And you know the WCC is going to pull out all the stops to try and protect their cash cow. Plus BYU is likely to make the tournament and they would like to protect them, too. They will make the WCC Tournament as safe as possible.

KY: I hate the thought of the Zags not playing a game for almost a month if they decide not to play in the WCC Tournament. I’m sure they wouldn’t squander the practice time, but nothing replaces real competition and there’s value to feeling the pressure of a tournament elimination game—even in the WCC. I don’t love the prospect of going to Vegas though and prefer Few’s idea of having the top 4 teams in the WCC go to Spokane or another site (it could be Provo for all I care) for a pared down WCC Tournament. It reduces the risk of spread between the teams, fulfills the WCC’s postseason broadcast deal, and gets games for those teams. There’s just enough time between the end of the WCC Tournament and traveling to Indy to clear COVID protocols too.

PW: I think a pared down tournament makes sense. But I still look back at those No. 7-ranked Portland Pilots, who won the women’s championship last season. Anything goes! I’d hate to take away that option, no matter how remote it is this year.

KY: I mean, that would be really remote...

SK: Saint Mary’s could be the 8 seed this season.

PW: Hate to see the mighty fall.

KY: That’s what we call a feature, not a bug, of the four team format. It’s hilarious to think they wouldn’t be in the field. I don’t want to rip away those teams hopes at coming out of nowhere and stealing a bid, but that’s not happening, and I’d feel better about a 4-team tournament than the expanded risk of transmission from a full field tourney.

SK: I guess my point is that whatever city they show up in, there’s only going to be 4 teams remaining and they all would likely have played others prior to then anyway. So the city location really doesn’t matter.

PW: Yeah, plus the time between the WCC and the NCAA Tournaments allow for the consecutive days of no positives, etc. Gonzaga should be fine for March.

SK: The only true way, I suppose, is literally just have a 4-team tournament, and there’s no way that happens with how unbalanced these teams schedules have been.

KY: I will be the committee of one and pick the field.

SK: You’re hired.

KY: Gonzaga’s defense has looked much better over the last few weeks, and are now rated as a top 5 team in adjusted defensive efficiency per KenPom (at the time of this conversation). How did the Zags get there and can they sustain that level of play through the NCAA Tournament?

SK: Early in the season, they weren’t as sharp with their switches and coverages, which in hindsight probably should have been expected with Timme taking a larger step, Watson not playing much at all last season, and three new guards in the rotation. As the season has gone on and they’ve played more together, everything has been a lot tighter. Gonzaga has never had anything close to the length and athleticism on the perimeter that this team has. I think the lack of a true rim protector is masked by how good the guards are at preventing easy penetration.

PW: Yeah that is exactly it. There were so many new faces to the squad, we didn’t notice early on the offensive end because playmakers can make plays. On the defensive end, it is a little bit harder. The communication is better, the guys know each other’s strengths and weaknesses now. It was really only a matter of time for the Zags.

KY: Teams are having to play a very perimeter oriented game against Gonzaga, and aren’t getting many clean looks out there. They have gotten much, much better at stopping penetration and contesting just about every shot attempt that opponents are putting up. I don’t think it’s a WCC mirage either.

PW: Jalen Suggs is also a terror on the perimeter until he picks up his third foul on a charge with nine minutes left in the first half.

KY: I want someone to calculate how much game time Jalen Suggs has lost due to cheap fouls this season. The number is probably staggering.

SK: Nobody loves the sounds of their whistles quite like WCC and Pac 12 officials

PW: I think overall on the defensive end, they have length in their guards and attack the defensive glass well thanks to Joel Ayayi. Considering Drew Timme’s mustache celebration is solely reserved for the offensive end, I think we should be happy to see the Zags where they are at the moment. It is more than enough for the offense to drag them through the tournament.

KY: We’ve all commented here in the past that we like having Anton Watson in the starting lineup and Andrew Nembard off the bench to maintain balance in the rotation. But after a bunch of sluggish first halves in WCC play, Mark Few swapped them in the starting lineup and the Zags have looked much better to start the last two games since that change. Is he sticking with that the rest of the way or will this be a matchup dependent decision?

PW: Man I got no idea on that one. A lot of Gonzaga fans make fun of Mark Few for finding his strict seven-man rotation and sticking with it through hell or high water, and I can’t remember a starting lineup shift this late in the season that wasn’t forced by injury. Without knowing exactly what is going on, I have to assume there is some sort of the game that the coaching staff wants Watson to work on that isn’t translating on the court at the moment, which leads me to believe we will see Nembhard in the starting lineup a few more times.

But also who knows. Gonzaga is not going to face off against Iowa in the tournament, for example, and let Luke Garza accumulate four fouls on Drew Timme in five minutes without Watson in there to absorb some of the contact.

SK: I think Keith hit the nail on the head with the slow starts. I think another part of it is that Oumar Ballo is out and Anton Watson is the backup 5, which has altered rotation patters. It’s harder to slide Watson to the 5 when he’s already been out there several minutes. We’ve also seen Julian Strawther getting some of the minutes in Watson’s spot. So it feels like the staff is tinkering things with Ballo’s injury as well as trying to light a spark to begin games.

KY: My theory is that Mark Few reads this blog and just wanted to stick it to us.

PW: I still don’t understand the Oumar Ballo appearance against BYU for one minute.

KY: I was ready to just chalk it up completely to having Watson cover Ballo’s spot in the rotation, but your point about Strawther getting some of Watson’s minutes makes me question whether that is totally the case and if this is some type of coaching ploy with respect to Watson. The Ballo cameo was a headscratcher. I feel like Watson was just beginning to turn the corner from a confidence standpoint after the game at Pepperdine but now has taken a step back after getting the yo-yo treatment in the rotation. It’s perplexing.

SK: I mean, he’s still looked pretty good lately. He’s had a couple nice, aggressive post moves and his defense started a runout early in the second half against BYU. It just feels like his minutes have been a roller coaster all season. He’s shooting 74.7% from inside the arc, which would be the most efficient mark in the history of Gonzaga.

And, I just saw this one, according to KenPom, his 131.6 offensive rating in WCC play is tops in the conference. So that’s pretty wild.

KY: Anton Watson—offensive juggernaut?

PW: When he decides to explode it is awesome to watch. The talent is there for sure.