Last week, I had the opportunity to cover the Zags as they ran the WCC Tournament gantlet in Las Vegas.
I used the opportunity to attempt and understand the puzzle that has been GU basketball for the past month: waiting until the second half to assert dominance.
It had been a month and counting since the Zags looked relatively superior for more than 20 minutes. Even on the hallowed night when Kyle Wiltjer slid into the GU record books with a 45-point outing, the Zags allowed conference doormat Pacific to put up 74 points and hit 11 3-pointers (on 57.9 percent).
Then, like a 1,000-piece Ravensberger, the puzzle assembled itself.
As I watched the Zags fumble through two first halves looking like a shaky mid-major worthy of your typical East Coast fanboy up past his/her bedtime to safely elate an unimpressed, “YAWN #BBN,” I began to wonder whether this preseason top-10 squad would turn the corner before it’s too late.
After the BYU women knocked off No. 1 seed GU in the WCC semifinals and the BYU men pulverized a streaking Portland in the WCC semis, I also began to wonder if the Cougars were in fact peaking at the right time.
Did Brigham Young have the Zags’ number? Had coach Dave Rose crafted a blueprint to foil the inevitable second-half GU surge? Or did GU’s troubles boil down to Mark Few assuring in the postgame, “We need to get back to being the aggressor”?
A certain second-half cherry-faced convulsion in which Rose’s suit jacket got the short end of a technical proved the latter.
It felt as though you had read the book, knew exactly what was going to happen but needed the proof of a cinema showing to validate this inevitable flip of the switch. Right on cue, it happened.
Twenty minutes of dominance in the semifinals, and a 40-minute display in the finals.
Through runs of 15-5 and 16-7 in the first half of the tournament semis, the former top-10 passing and No. 7 team in the nation — now two-seed— resurfaced.
The Waves started dynamic first team all-conference forward Stacy Davis at small forward (!!!) to present a hounding mismatch for the Zags. Davis strapped on his work boots and peppered the Zags’ defense with consistent scoring. GU threw five different defenders on him in the first half and the Bulldogs successfully remained in control before making the trademarked second-half outburst.
(Side note: I feel as though the game-sealing second-half cleanup runs GU mustered against USF twice, USD, SMC and Pepperdine need a trademarked nickname should it continue through the opening rounds of the tournament.)
I saw ESPN’s college basketball analyst Jeff Goodman in the Orleans Arena media room shortly after the 79-61 semifinal drubbing of Pepperdine. We spoke briefly about how this was the first time he watched the Zags play live since the overtime loss at Arizona and previously in the NIT Season Tipoff in New York, where I gauged his thoughts on the squad.
Goodman attributed GU’s elongated inability to look the part of a top-seven team in first halves to simply “boredom.”
This implies the Zags are so much better than the rest of the WCC, that beating them convincingly a second time was too monotonous.
It’s a valid argument from someone who doesn’t really need to care about his preseason national champion prediction during its mid-major conference slate.
Watching GU pulverize its opponents and fulfill every expectation early on in the season must have served as quite a nice little scapegoat for national analysts to sculpt an opinion and feel comfortable leaving it untouched heading into March Madness, assuming the Zags don’t melt down.
But quite frankly, between December and now, too much has happened to throw the NIT Season Tipoff champs into a 1981 Delorean and assume the team that takes the court tomorrow plays how they did in December.
Conference play provided more wear and tear than most think.
What has this team shown us in the meantime? I assembled a list of three positives and three points of concern going into the NCAA Tournament:
1. Karnowski’s left-hook turned into a first-option type look. Having one of college basketball’s most gargantuan earthly beings starting at center is greatly beneficial; when he is a reliable post-scorer to complement his defensive presence? Now that’s elite. When New Mexico State had Sim Bhullar last year, sure he took up a little more than take up half of your TV and took 10 seconds off the shot clock getting across half court, but was anybody going to push them off the low block? Absolutely not. Was he a lock to own the glass? Absolutely.
GU beat BYU with the big man playing only four first half minutes and lost the rebound battle. But for the first nine minutes of the second half, Karnowski got the ball on five out of the first eight possessions and scored nine early points to help take the wind of the Brigham Young’s sail.
2. Reliability of Byron Wesley: IF ONLY MIKE HART COULD HAVE BEEN A RELIABLE SCORER IN 2013. Based on his 25-point outburst against Pepperdine, Wesley’s performance showed what it would have looked like if the No. 4 scoring option and quintessential “glue guy” took over a game. If Pangos, Wiltjer and Bell Jr. are all struggling, in other words when opposing defenses are executing the game plan, Wesley bore the scoring load and chipped in on the glass.
3. A nine-deep bench screams deep run. Dranginis’ play the past five games has been so overlooked that Eric McClellan’s facial expression when he got to hold the WCC championship trophy may have gotten more attention than the aforementioned. Playing more than 20 minutes in his past five games, Dranginis showed an ability to guard the opposing team’s best player and carry apt efficiency on the offensive end.
The concerns and red flags:
1. Kevin Pangos, Gary Bell Jr. and Kyle Wiltjer can all disappear offensively at the same time. One of the largest factors in GU’s 32-win season thus far is how deep, individually battle-tested and offensively diverse this team is. But what happens when the three reliable perimeter scorers all bid adieu to being a deep threat for a game?
2. Pangos cannot comfortably exit a game without a noticeable regression. Whether said regression is tamable is a fully case-by-case scenario, but the fact that the senior guard averages the most minutes on the team by 5.5 says enough. After the (presumably) season-ending injury to backup point guard Josh Perkins, the patchwork search for a second ball-handler fell short at the notion that as many as four guys could “make do” when Pangos needed a breather. While the Bulldogs manage to stay afloat, Pangos has played heavy minutes.
An area where the eight-day break between the conference finals and the opening round isn’t completely negative.
3. If Wiltjer’s shot is not going, his effect on the game folds like a lawn chair. This is actually not as big a deal as one might think, solely due to Sabonis essentially being a sixth starter, but in games such as St. John’s and the home loss to BYU, when the Kentucky transfer’s shot wasn’t falling — his impact on the game went right with it.
For example, in the Feb. 28 loss to BYU, Wiltjer went 2 of 6 from the field in the first half then played eight second-half minutes tallying just four points on 2-of-11 shooting on the night. The USWBA second team all-American won WCC Tournament MVP honors and evolved into one of the nation’s biggest offensive threats, but can be a very one-dimensional player if his shot disappears..
The Zags earned the No. 2 seed in the South region and face off in the first round Friday at 6:50 p.m. against North Dakota State in Seattle.