The dilemma facing the back line of Portland’s 2-3 zone defense went beyond being stuck between a rock and a hard place.
A couple of inexperienced Pilots were stuck between Gonzaga juniors Killian Tillie, Rui Hachimura and Brandon Clarke.
The zone collapsed in the middle of the lane on Tillie, who recovered his own fumble and could have easily shot a 5-footer. He didn’t because he had Hachimura on right low block and Clarke to his left. Tillie fed Hachimura for an easy layup.
The fourth-ranked Zags have three of the best forwards in college basketball. They saw court time together last week for the first time since Tillie’s return five games ago from ankle surgery in October.
It’s an intriguing option that perhaps no other team in the country enjoys, thanks to the combination of their size, Hachimura’s mid-range and strong drives, Clarke’s freakish athleticism and spin moves, and Tillie’s 3-point accuracy and passing ability.
“I love it,” Hachimura said, “especially (for) rebounding, everything. Defense, offense, we help each other.”
Will Gonzaga fans see more or less of the big three playing together? Probably more, if they can clean up some things defensively and stay out of foul trouble.
Will the big three start? The guess here is it’s unlikely, at least in the immediate future as Tillie continues to work on his conditioning.
The Zags (18-2) are one of 10 programs nationally to use the same starting five –Josh Perkins, Zach Norvell Jr., Corey Kispert, Clarke and Hachimura – in every game.
Ask coach Mark Few about the starting lineup and be prepared for a Hall of Fame eye roll. Few’s traditional response has been the starting unit isn’t a big priority compared to who’s on the floor in specific situations and during crunch time.
Tillie’s return gives the Zags frontcourt flexibility. They can utilize the three simultaneously, divvy up time to keep them fresher, space the floor with Tillie on the perimeter or match up better against 7-footers from San Francisco, Loyola Marymount and Saint Mary’s.
“I think we still have a lot of work to do with it,” said Tillie, whose return has cut into freshman Filip Petrusev’s minutes. “The whole month of October we practiced for that before I got injured. Now that I’m back we’re going to try to do more and more.”
The big three had two lengthy stretches against Portland, both highly effective on offense but a split decision on defense.
The Zags scored on 12 of 13 possessions with the help of one offensive rebound each by Clarke and Hachimura. Tillie and Hachimura worked on the wings and high post, while Clarke generally was on the low block.
In the trio’s first stint, Gonzaga’s lead grew from 22-15 to 33-19. In a second-half half stretch, the Zags essentially traded baskets as the score went from 48-33 to 63-48. Scoring was fairly easy for both teams.
“We made a nice run in first half with them,” Few said. “You have to understand we have the No. 1 offense in America without playing three bigs. Things are working just fine. We’re finding guys the right minutes in the right spots.
“They’ll come in there some, but until they can start defending better as a group we probably won’t use it that much.”
Few has a point. In the first-half stint, Portland scored on just two of six possessions. Portland’s Hugh Hogland hit a jump hook over Clarke and Tillie picked up a foul on guard Marcus Shaver Jr.’s drive.
However, Portland’s last six possessions resulted in points in the second-half stretch. Hachimura, often defending a guard or wing, and Geno Crandall went for steals, but the Pilots made them pay with a layup and a 3-pointer.
Clarke and Tillie committed fouls defending guards, leading to three made free throws. Tillie and Hachimura double-teamed Hogland, who passed to Jacob Tryon for an open 3-pointer.
The Zags totaled 15 points on eight possessions at the other end. All three bigs scored, and Tillie and Hachimura had assists.
“Offensively we know how to find each other,” Tillie said, “but defense (is) first.”
Added Clarke: “It’s just three players that have a good feel for the game. It’s not hard at all. The three of us can guard the ‘3’ through ‘5,’ so it makes defense pretty easy, too. It was kind of weird because of the (Pilots’) zone. Against teams that play man it’ll be smoother and easier.”
The big three made their debut in the second half against Loyola Marymount last Thursday. The Zags scored once in four possessions on Perkins’ and-one layup in transition. The Lions made one free throw in four series.
The Zags have time to experiment with the three-big lineup in WCC play, particularly if they continue stacking up lopsided wins.
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