First it was Killian Tillie, undergoing preseason knee surgery. Then it was Anton Watson, with a left shoulder subluxation vs. Texas A&M on Nov. 15.
Then it was Tillie, who sat out the Battle 4 Atlantis opener with soreness in his surgically repaired knee. Then it was Watson, injuring his foot less than a minute into the Southern Miss game in the Bahamas. Then it was Admon Gilder and Ryan Woolridge limping to the sideline against Southern Miss, both battling knee pain that went on for weeks, if not months.
Then it was Tillie, with a scheduled (knee) rest day vs. Detroit Mercy. Then it was Watson, suffering recurrences of his shoulder popping out of place against Arizona, Portland and Loyola Marymount over a one-month span. Sprinkle in Tillie spraining his ankle late in the Arizona game.
And now Filip Petrusev, who sprained his right ankle against BYU on Saturday.
Add that laundry list together and it shouldn’t equal the nation’s most efficient offense, road or neutral court wins over three ranked Pac-12 foes, and the No. 1 ranking in the AP poll.
The most impressive thing about the Zags’ 20-1 start is the way they’ve navigated every injury roadblock and continued to play at a high level.
They’re still navigating.
Petrusev’s status isn’t known, but he apparently didn’t have nearly as much swelling in his ankle as Tillie faced following the Arizona game. He gets a bit more healing time, with Gonzaga’s only game this week against visiting Pacific on Saturday.
“Man, it’s tough, but that’s what the coaching staff does well, they prepare the other guys for when somebody does goes down,” Woolridge said. “They put in Drew (Timme) or somebody else, and we just keep going with the flow.”
Kispert, Tillie, Timme step up
Watson will have shoulder surgery and miss the rest of the season. There’s no timeline yet on Petrusev, but the Zags offered glimpses of how they’ll proceed if the team’s leading scorer and rebounder is sidelined.
The Zags have tinkered with a smaller lineup, particularly against Arizona by using junior wing Corey Kispert at the ‘4.’ Kispert, in the midst of a breakout season, had lengthy stretches against BYU at the 4 with Tillie, typically a 4, moving to the ‘5’.
Disclaimer: Gonzaga is in step with the NCAA and NBA trend toward “positionless” players. The Zags have hybrid bigs who can handle the ball, play on the perimeter and defend multiple positions, and versatile guards capable of playing the point, shooting guard or wing.
Gonzaga, without Watson and possibly Petrusev, will lean even more on Kispert, Tillie and Timme. The 6-foot-7, 215-pound Kispert had 16 second-half points against the Cougars. Timme was a steady contributor and Tillie did what Tillie does, a little of everything in addition to scoring 22 points.
“You feel horrible for Filip, but it’s in the middle of the game and you have to keep playing,” head coach Mark Few said. “Drew gave us great minutes. They were playing so small and spread out, we just went with Tills at 5 down the stretch and Corey at 4.
“We went with that lineup before, at Arizona, for extended periods,” Few added. “It’s a good lineup for us. Corey’s a big wing, so you can switch him onto other bigs. Killian is getting better at moving his feet and Drew moves his feet good. Those are the concerns when you go to a lineup like that.”
Another potential concern is foul trouble, which has been an issue for Timme and on occasion for Tillie.
Kispert, who has shown improvement with dribble penetration all season, could get more opportunities at the 4, depending on the size of the defender. He’s already a prototypical stretch 4 with his 44% accuracy beyond the arc and a team-high 53 3-pointers.
“See if we can get a switch on Tillie and throw it high-low, that’s kind of my job description,” Kispert said. “I’m comfortable (at 4). Usually I have a bigger, slower guy on me, it’s kind of been a bigger advantage to take the ball to the hole, rather than spacing out and finding shots.”
Don’t forget the D
The Zags made 73.9% of their shots from the field in the second half, so naturally we’re going to write about defense. One of the main reasons for Gonzaga’s offensive eruption was defensive stops and turnovers generating transition opportunities.
Woolridge, Gilder, Kispert and Joel Ayayi chased around the nonstop movement of Cougar guards/wings TJ Haws, Alex Barcello and Jake Toolson. The trio had to work for its 43 points. Haws and Toolson, both with freedom to shoot or create, finished with eight assists and seven turnovers.
“It’s almost like you have to focus on your man, but still keep the (overall) defensive strategy,” Woolridge said. “It’s kind of tough, but we did it.”
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