Gonzaga found a way to make it happen once again. Their 77-68 victory over Saint Mary’s clinched an 11th straight regular season title, sharing the honors this season with the Gaels. It was a sight to behold with this team finding its identity throughout the season. Here are some thoughts from last night’s statement win.
1. “Never take winning for granted” - Julian Strawther
never take winning for granted .— Julian Strawther ✞ (@JulianStrawther) February 26, 2023
Again, Gonzaga has now won 11 straight WCC regular season titles and 25 of the last 28 regular season honors. Not just that, but the Zags also notched their 16th straight 25-win season, an honor that could only be shared with Kansas should they win one of their next two.
Gonzaga is inevitable. Mark Few is the greatest coach in the pacific time zone and we’re just going to have to accept these as facts. I’m sorry.
2. Defense wins championships, but good enough offense can take them the hell back
Headed into last night’s game, Saint Mary’s had the fifth-ranked defense in the country and Gonzaga the number-one-ranked offense according to KenPom’s adjusted metrics. The Gaels were also tied for fifth in defensive points per possession, holding teams to .888 points. What happens when an unstoppable force meets and immovable object? Well, the Zags averaged 1.305 points per possession, above their Division I-leading 1.164 points per possession.
3. Anton Watson has been here the whole time
Plenty of flashes everywhere but there’s been a constant this whole season for the Zags. The best defender on the court wasn’t wearing Under Armour road reds, he was in pristine white and had 22 in block type on his jersey. Watson owned the stage on both ends of the court. Ripping 4 steals, added a block, dropped 3 dimes, nabbed 8 rebounds and scored 17 points before he fouled out. The one stat category he didn’t add to was turnovers.
Watson has been on the roster throughout Gonzaga’s elite run from 2019-2020 onward. In a year where nothing was guaranteed despite national expectations, Watson has stepped up to be a complete two-way player able to contribute in a multitude of ways.
4. Take Drew Timme for granted if you must
National and regional writers have tried throughout the rollercoaster season to try and find a replacement for WCC Player of the Year honors. Santa Clara’s Brandin Podziemski caught eyes in December, the California media contingency of WCC hoops talked themselves into Aidan Mahaney throughout January and February. That’s all fine and they’re great players. But Timme Time does not stop for anyone.
Timme does what he’s done all four years of his collegiate career: make buckets. A “quiet” 19 points on 11 attempts is one of Gonzaga’s greatest guarantees. Timme also played big on the defensive end, holding the second-best defensive rating and stop rate on the team behind Watson.
Timme hasn’t posted an offensive rating below 124 since the loss to the Gaels in Moraga. He’s shooting 61% from the field while having the 33rd-highest usage rate in the country. He’s the best player in the conference and even with immense talent in this league, you’re being cute to say otherwise.
5. Defense? Defense!
It may not totally bear definitive truth but the defense—or the essence of defense–-was out there Saturday night. The Zags held Saint Mary’s to just .929 points per possession in the first half and petered out in the second. But that’s more than what we could say at the beginning of the year and segments of 2022. The offense will dictate how far this team can go, but the defense is legitimately showing up in the game script.
Most notable in the game script was Gonzaga’s use of a 1-2-2 press, which bothered the hell out of the Gaels throughout the game. Many including myself have been wishing and begging for more aggressive looks from the defense with the depth that Gonzaga holds in the backcourt. That’s proven to be effective as Few and company have begun implementing this defensive look more and more in the last month.
6. Zags closed the door
The Gaels are a great team and they did what great teams do: battled back. With 12:02 left in the game, the Zags lead was cut to 6 points and plenty of folks began ideating on the pain from February when Gonzaga allowed the Gaels to come back and take a game that they led for almost its entirety. That story was not repeated again. The Gaels led at no point in that game, and the Zags found another gear and kept the game at two possessions or more the rest of the way.
7. Keep an eye on Malachi Smith the rest of the way
Smith had a quiet opening to his first season in Spokane, due to a combination of circumstances, but his contributions off of the bench have been numerous and noticeable throughout conference play and especially as of late.
Tonight Smith scored 13 points and added 5 rebounds, 2 assists and a block. He leads the WCC in offensive rating (142) and 8.1 points in just 20 minutes per game. He’s massive off of the glass and bullies the smaller guards of this conference and imposes physicality against the conference’s wings. He’s shooting 48% from three.
It seems like Smith is going to have his name called at some point in March, and his ability to change the complexion of a game off of the bench should prove invaluable.
8. Julian Strawther continues to extend his impact
Strawther is known first and foremost as a microwave scorer. We’ve seen it over the last month. When he’s on he’s on. The Zags desperately need him to consistently be the second guy if they want to be successful come March. Tonight proved that even if the shot isn’t falling, Strawther can be that guy. While going just 2-10 in the contest, he was able to get to double-digits thanks to 7 of 8 shooting from the free throw line. More importantly, he asserted himself on defense and recorded two steals and 5 total rebounds. His three assists were a share of the team lead in the category. Sky is the limit when he’s engaged regardless of his shot.
9. Nolan Hickman has your receipts
Much hand-wringing occurred in November and December because sophomore Nolan Hickman wasn’t current NBA starter Andrew Nembhard straight out of the gate. But Hickman has continued to improve and build his impact as the floor general for the number one offense in the country. He shared the largest plus/minus on the team with Anton Watson despite playing 8 fewer minutes than the big. He played a pretty clean game going against one of the best teams in the country. When he’s right, few teams can stick with this offense.
10. The Gaels are great
Look, I take no pleasure in saying this but the Gaels are damn good. In a season where Gonzaga played one of the hardest nonconference schedules in recent memory, the battles against Saint Mary’s were as harrowing and challenging as the matchups against any of those early-ranked foes.
The Gaels are not playing their best basketball currently. They’ve been less dominant since their comeback win against the Zags earlier in the month. But this should go down as one of the best co-shared conference title tandems in WCC history. Both Saint Mary’s and Gonzaga are two of the 15 best teams in the country (both top 10 in the NET and KenPom as of Sunday morning). Helluva follow-up after last year’s incredible showing by the conference.