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3-on-3: Zag returns and the women’s tournament chances

NCAA Basketball: Santa Clara at Gonzaga James Snook-USA TODAY Sports

Keith: Kelly Olynyk, Jalen Suggs, and Killian Tillie used their NBA All Star break to visit Spokane rather than post up on a beach for a few days. They got a nice video montage and ovation from the crowd, but otherwise there was no particular reason for them to be there. What is it about this program that draws alums back, even those in the middle of playing a long and grueling NBA season?

Peter: I think Suggs is absolutely loving it because he has actual friends (a good chunk of the current team) on the roster and he never got to experience The Kennel at its most loved state—with people in the building. That extends beyond Suggs to Tillie, and then even to Olynyk, who is basically an old man now having left the program almost a decade ago. The Zags keep in contact with each other and one of the big draws to that program is the community, and the continuity that comes with it. All of these guys know each other to a certain extent, even if their paths never crossed in the years they were there.

Tuck: It’s the icing of it all right? Olynyk and Tillie are two guys that certainly when they were recruited weren’t seen as clear NBA-caliber players. It’s showing the progression of the program to have them show up with Suggs, the highest touted commit that has gone pro. Olynyk talked about the changes of the NBA alum wall at the facilities and even since he’s left how much the program has grown. Me and my podcast cohosts talked with Andrew Nembhard’s father Claude a couple of weeks ago and he talked about how these Gonzaga kids and alums want to be a part of the program well after they’re done because the program, school and community have given them so much. Gonzaga is as much of a family as you’ll find in college athletics.

KY: There’s definitely a correlation between this type of culture and the character of the guys that Gonzaga recruits/attracts. I was watching their interactions throughout the game from my seat in The Kennel, and was blown away that three guys who were never teammates were so comfortable around one another and all showed equal love to the current guys on the team, even though Suggs is the only one who knows the group really well. I know every program thinks they have great culture and guys are close, but I do think it’s rare to have the type of family environment and culture that Gonzaga has.

PW: And those dudes love it too. Those guys love representing Gonzaga and seeing their fellow alums in the NBA as well.

KY: It looks like the women’s team needs to win the WCC Tournament to earn a place in the tournament. Assuming it is BYU in their way, what do the women have to do differently to beat the Cougars after a pair of comprehensive defeats to them this month? And, what’s the likelihood that they actually pull that off?

PW: Eeeesh. Somehow not collapse for 20 minutes in the game? BYU’s defense is fantastic. So is the Zags, but the big difference is Paisley Harding and Shaylee Gonzales. Both of those players are just flat out scorers, and it is a bit of the difference between the Zags and BYU. Don’t get me wrong, the Zags have good players, a multitude of them. But part of Lisa Fortier’s death by a 1,000 cuts model makes it tough to have one player assert themselves and take over the game. In the first go-round, that was Harding for the first 30 minutes and then Gonzales in the 4th. Last game, it was all Gonzales all the time.

TC: Yeah, a complete game is going to be necessary and I’m afraid it’s a complete game that looks like the first half—specifically second quarter—of the game in Spokane for them to win against BYU.

PW: The Zags definitely have the odds against them, however. I know everyone says it is hard to beat a team three times in the season, and perhaps BYU will let their foot off the gas a bit because they are basically guaranteed an at-large, but for a full 20 minutes in each game, BYU has absolutely owned both ends of the floor, and I don’t know what Gonzaga can try and do to beat that.

KY: Unfortunately, I feel like the Zags will need one of those nights where they have 2-3 scorers who have career nights. It just seems like that’s the only way they can keep pace.

PW: Crazier things have happened in the WCC Tournament, like Pepperdine bouncing BYU in 2020, but the women are going to need a tournament of all tournaments to push into March.

TC: Let’s hope they can get hot at the right time. If they can play the level of defense they’re capable of and get hot outside and get some transition points we may see a hot team play themselves into the tournament.

KY: The Zags have been fortunate to enjoy a very healthy season so far, save for the exception of Dominick Harris who has missed the entire campaign with a foot injury. However, Harris was warming up in uniform on Saturday night for the first time this season, and appears to be inching closer to being game ready, though Mark Few did try to pour some cold water on that idea after the game against Santa Clara. If Harris gets cleared next month, do you see Few actually playing him in tournament games? Does it make sense to do that?

PW: Perhaps? I highly doubt he plays any semblance of meaningful minutes. If the Zags are ice-cold from three, they could probably use Harris’ shooting touch. He is a great defender on the perimeter, but Hunter Sallis has nicely stepped into that role this season and carved out minutes in that way. On a team like Gonzaga, so much of what makes the squad good is at the team level, and although Harris has been around, he’s had a boot on for a majority of the season. I’m just a bit skeptical as to what he could bring in a net positive role this late into the season. Honestly, my gut says if we are seeing Dominick Harris at any point in the NCAA Tournament, it is either A) garbage time, or B) a desperation move because Gonzaga is on its way to losing.

TC: The only possible way I can see that happening is because of sustained injuries to the rest of the roster. That is not a knock on his talents as I see him as one of the best shooters on the team and a plus defender. Depth is not an issue on this team. On-ball defense is not an issue on this team. Three-point shooting was at one point considered an issue but it’s clearly not. Continuity is vital for a team to excel in March and rotations get shorter, not longer. Harris has only started 5-on-5s last week. The idea that a guy who hasn’t played for 5 months is not ready is not a knock on his talent but I simply think retaining consistency is something that should not be undervalued.

PW: Yeah, we are seeing a pretty steady eight-man rotation at the moment. Pretty much, if Harris is ever going to see a game this season, it’ll be at the expense of Sallis’ minutes. So unless Sallis is injured, it would require him to play as poorly as possible, and we haven’t seen that happen this year. If anything, Few will just shrink to a seven-man rotation during the tournament.

KY: I would love to see Harris play because I truly thought he was poised for a breakout season before his injury, but I think we are all in agreement that this is simply not the right scenario for him to be making a meaningful contribution upon a return. It’s not fair to expect him to hit the ground running and make an instant impact on a team that has had months to play together and develop a high level chemistry without him. And, frankly, it’s unfair to upend the rotation and the defined roles that everyone has become comfortable with this late in the season. Of course, this could all be moot and he won’t be ready to return. I hope whatever happens over the next few weeks, everyone is being extremely careful not to compromise his future health just to get him in for a few minutes during the tournament.

PW: He is jumping around and what not, but I don’t think he has been partaking in team drills and practice for too long. That is a lot of conditioning and everything to get used to again. I’m hoping that he can bring his positive energy and enthusiasm and help the team via the practice squad. That is still completely valuable and required for the tournament run, and then he and Julian Strawther can cut down the nets for the second-consecutive year next season.