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LAS VEGAS – Joel Ayayi sported a fashionable ensemble: WCC Tournament championship hat and T-shirt, net draped around his neck and MVP trophy in his hands.
Rui Hachimura kept Gonzaga’s Senior Night in the back of his mind, even as he did countless media interviews and prepared for his first NBA season with the Washington Wizards. But he needed a little cooperation from Gonzaga’s and the Wizards’ schedules.
The Zags (27-2) preferred to point the blame inward in the latest Gonzaga rewind.
Sophomore post Filip Petrusev, who dipped his toe in the NBA Draft waters last season, gave the scouts plenty to write about, mostly in a positive sense.
The smooth senior forward connected on 7 of 10 shots, three 3-pointers and scored 19 points – at 50% to 60% of full strength coming off a sprained ankle, in head coach Mark Few’s estimation.
Of course, that didn’t stop a commentator on ESPN’s college basketball wrap-up show Saturday night from trotting out the familiar refrain that it’s hard to gauge the Zags because they’re rarely challenged in the WCC – hours after they received a major challenge from San Francisco at War Memorial Gym.
Stoudamire, who played on national championship contenders at Arizona and assisted at national powers Memphis and Arizona earlier this decade, took a few minutes post-game to assess Gonzaga’s team and Zags’ NCAA Tournament outlook.
The most impressive thing about the Zags’ 20-1 start is how they’ve navigated every injury roadblock and continued to play at a high level.
Anton Watson tumbled into the padded stanchion that supports the rim and backboard and knew immediately his left shoulder had popped out of place again.
Killian Tillie isn’t at full speed, but his on-court performance suggests otherwise. The senior forward delivered 22 points against Portland and 20 versus Pepperdine, influencing two hard-fought victories, particularly Saturday night’s 75-70 decision over the Waves.
It’s Killian Tillie’s fourth rodeo, and the third for Corey Kispert, Filip Petrusev and Joel Ayayi, though they’re in different roles this season. So roughly half of the eight-man rotation has experienced the thrill of being ranked No. 1 as well as the challenges it brings from amped-up opponents.
Opponents are emptying the defensive playbook at Gonzaga, trying to deal with the Zags’ size, balance, transition game and ability to get to the free-throw line. Eastern Washington head coach Shantay Legans added another chapter.
The Zags have had little option but to go to a smaller lineup at times with Kispert moving from wing to man the ‘4.’ Gonzaga has one of the better frontcourts in the country and prefers an inside-out approach, but the unit doesn’t have a clean bill of health. Add in foul issues and the Zags have had to become creative.
Gonzaga probably couldn’t have scheduled two better games to prepare for North Carolina’s visit than its road victories over Washington and Arizona in the last week.
Watson returned to the court for limited duty in the Zags’ 83-76 road win over Washington on Sunday with mom and dad in the stands, roughly a week and a half after he suffered a nasty sprained ankle against Southern Miss in the Bahamas.
The ninth-ranked Zags are entering an arduous three-game stretch that rivals any they’ve encountered since crashing the national landscape in 1999.
Corey Kispert has essentially been living at McCarthey Athletic Center and the Volkar Center practice gym. That applies whether Kispert is on fire – 28 points vs. Michigan State in a scrimmage, 28 vs. Alabama State in the season opener and 20 against North Dakota – or struggling with a 3-of-26 shooting stretch in the last three games.
UT Arlington coach Chris Ogden needs no introduction to Gonzaga’s program. The second-year coach’s team lined up against the Zags a year ago, and the Mavericks lost by 34 points. They lined up again Tuesday and Gonzaga dug out a 72-66 win.
Gonzaga’s 79-49 dismantling of Texas A&M on Friday was a blowout over the final 30 minutes, but the Zags – and likely the coaching staff and fan base – still had several hold-your-breath moments.
It was one of numerous defensive tactics North Dakota employed, often without success, in GU’s 97-66 blowout victory Tuesday. There will be plenty more where that came from.