Keith: We’ve seen four games out of Gonzaga to start the season. On the internet, that’s a big enough sample size to pass judgment. What’s your take on this Zag team?
Peter: The Zags are still a really hard read for a lot of reasons. 1) The Tennessee game was still an exhibition, and therefore, no matter how much you want to read into it, not worth reading into. 2) Even with Kentucky in a “down” year (apparently), the outcome of that game was so different from Texas it is hard to figure out if the Zags are that good/that bad/etc. 3) The Michigan State game still took place on a big ass boat.I think the things we can say conclusively at the moment are: turnovers are an issue, Julian Strawther very well could lead the team in scoring, Efton Reid is still figuring out, and Anton Watson is the absolute dude. After that, Nolan Hickman’s play has been rough, but he also is dealing with an ankle sprain right now. This team hasn’t “gelled” together maybe as quickly as everyone thought, but for all the returning names, there are still plenty of new faces or guys being asked to play larger roles. Gonzaga nation is spoiled. We don’t get humbled like we did against Texas that often. But it happens. This team is going to drop more non-conference games. They also should be totally fine come March.
Tuck: This is a really really good team. By no means great (yet). If you were not at best cautiously optimistic, you simply were not reasonably assessing the losses of Chet Holmgren and Andrew Nembhard. But also I’ve absolutely loved how vulnerable this team is. Did I enjoy a near 20 point drubbing against Texas? Hell no. But I embrace the unknown with this team. There are so many clear flaws and gaps with a team of equally veteran pieces and youth. But seeing the room for development and the signs of the possibility for growth is what I love about college sports. Seeing Nolan Hickman learn the job on the fly is not an enviable task but he is owning the opportunity in good and bad. Seeing Rasir Bolton respond to an ass whooping where no one was communicating or helping on defense by shouting and pointing every transition back against Kentucky is what this is all about. This is the first Gonzaga team in forever that seems no where close to where they can be in March and April.
KY: Efton Reid has a lot to figure out. Tuck, you were high on him going in to the year. Will you apologize?
PW: Partly his fault, partly Mark Few’s fault for constantly thinking he and Timme need to coexist on the floor at the same time.
KY: The Reid-Timme pairing is a tough scene at the moment. There’s no sugarcoating it.
TC: I’m here to apologize for the two year project not yet realizing his potential. I think the staff is accepting and adjusting to the expectations as a plug and play duplicate of Chet. He’s not yet there as a passer and needs more work in a high tempo offense.
He also has shown potential around the rim on both ends. He is coming from a system with no guard play and these guards are also learning how to implement themselves in the half court.
KY: Thank you. That’s really big of you. Like the Reid-Timme pairing, this team has A LOT of room for growth, particularly in the backcourt. So I totally agree with Tuck that the team we’re seeing now is nowhere close to the one we could see in March/April. If it is, then Mark Few must have cancelled practice over the next 4 months. It might be one of the more interesting teams we’ve had over the last few years, though I don’t totally mean that as a compliment. But also, I’m into it, so it’s not a bad thing either?
70 turnovers in the first four games is a BAD number. They’re turning the ball over on 23.2% of possessions, which is 321st in the country. I hate it. The turnovers are spread out across the roster, but I contend that a good number of the turnovers from the bigs is because they’re getting the ball in sub-optimal positions and are trying/being asked to do too much. Nolan Hickman’s 31% turnover rate is eye-popping. Hickman is the single biggest factor in Gonzaga’s growth potential this year. The better he gets, the better Gonzaga will be.
PW: If there is one thing I’ve learned during my time as a Zag, it is that, especially lately, some fans can be very very bad at emotionally and rationally processing losses. Some times, you just need to take a step back and put a beat down on Kentucky to regain a bit of perspective.
TC: It’s wild. The proclamations made about 19 year olds on the internet tells me that there is some development to be made for this team off the court as well.
KY: Listen, no one has ever been wrong on the internet. Speaking of irrational, Gonzaga has fallen outside the top 5 of the AP Poll for the first time since December 2019. Clearly the program is in decay (*sarcasm). If Gonzaga doesn’t earn a #1 seed in the NCAA Tournament, what will be the leading reason why?
TC: It will be growing pains and simply the quality of basketball west of the Mississippi. San Diego State is good! UCLA looks tough! I think Gonzaga would need to drop several games over the next month for them to be out of that one spot. It’s not impossible, but it’s clear that when angry and motivated these growing pains are minimized.
KY: You lost me at UCLA looks tough. No one thinks less of the Bruins than me, except possibly Mick Cronin.
PW: We will probably have the Houston Cougars to blame. Houston has flirted occasionally over the years with the top seed. This year, with a legitimate case as one of the top teams in the country, they’ve also scheduled the non-conference enough to more than justify a No. 1 after demolishing the AAC. Gonzaga still has plenty of opportunities to pick up some very quality wins in the non-conference. For the Zags, assuming they don’t completely disappear against the likes of Baylor, potentially Duke, and on the road at Alabama, it’ll come down to not losing to one of the random teams in the WCC not named Saint Mary’s.
KY: For me, if Mark Few cancels practice over the next four months, the Zags might be cooked.
TC: I’m intrigued also by how Few and company adjust to these growing pains. We saw Timme bringing the ball up several times against Kentucky. Is that simply because Tshiebwe couldn’t defend in space or will we be seeing the Zags run Timme at point forward as a Kelly Olynyk-light to supplement the inability to get the ball comfortably into the low post?
KY: That was intriguing. There’s almost no chance of this being true, but I choose to believe Timme went rogue there.
Enough talk about the men’s team. The Gonzaga women went down to Atlantis and earned a 3rd place finish by beating a pair of phenomenal programs in #6 Louisville and #23 Tennessee. Do those two wins, and the overall performance in the Bahamas, change your expectations for Lisa Fortier’s squad?
PW: Absolute ballers. But I also was already high on them coming into the season. The Zags lost some key folks, no doubt. But the Truong twins are ready for the senior spotlight, everyone knew Yvonne Ejim was the next great Gonzaga forward in the making, and Brynna Maxwell has been an impact transfer. Gonzaga has essentially replaced three starters without skipping a beat.
TC: I was HIGH on this group. The bevy of guards and wings was too great to not pump Lady Zags stock. Yvonne Ejim is the truth. McKayla Williams is ELITE on defense and showing growth on the other end. Bree Salenbien ain’t even back yet! Add the great work by the Truong twins and the vets and I think these team can be dangerous. We’ve seen Fortier run a long rotation but if she shortens to the core talent this team is a top 15 team with the ability to go far in the tourney.
PW: Lisa Fortier has the recipe dialed in. Rock solid defense that makes life miserable for opponents and good shot selection. The Zags are lights out from free throw so far, which is critical to get those cheap and easy points in close games. If they cut down on the turnovers (which for this team feels like a broken record at this point), they will definitely be looking at their first Sweet 16 appearance since 2015.
KY: I think my baseline expectation for this team now is to make the Sweet 16. Is that unreasonable? Who can possibly say. But they’ve shown they have the ability to beat really good teams, and the wins haven’t been flukes. That they have done it in a tournament setting like Atlantis against pretty different squads simply highlights that they can and should do it in the NCAA Tournament and get out of the first weekend.
PW: Tennessee might not be as good as everyone thought in the preseason, but Louisville is. They still have No. 2 Stanford on the docket. They’ve shown they can hang with anyone, and usually in the NCAA Tournament that is all you need to sneak the upset.
TC: We will learn A LOT from the Stanford and Portland matchups. If Gonzaga can stick with the Cardinal like they did last year I truly believe this is a second weekend team reasonably.