Peter Woodburn of The Slipper Still Fits was nice enough to answer a few questions about the No. 8 ranked Gonzaga Bulldogs as they match up against the Huskies on Wednesday night.
UWDP: We know about Nigel Williams-Goss, but aside from NWG, who else should Huskies be on the look out for when playing the Zags?
Peter: The easy answer is everyone, but unfortunately that answer is too long to type out. After having big name collegiate stars like Kyle Wiltjer and Domantas Sabonis on the squad, this year’s Zags are a bit different. They have five players averaging double figures, and Cal transfer Jordan Mathews is just 0.9 points per game away from making that six.
We can point out the bigger impact players, however. A lot of that starts with fellow guard Josh Perkins. Perkins has emerged as the Zags premier three-point threat, where he is shooting 51.3 percent on the year. Perkins is a big guard with quick hands, who tends to do most everything right (except for his annoying habit to make boneheaded turnovers at least once or twice per game).
Gonzaga’s seven footer Przemek Karnowski is well known to much of the nation, so we won’t spend too much time on him. What I will say is that after suffering season-ending back surgery last season, Karno has come back with a vengeance. He is only playing about 20 minutes per game right now, but his defense is game changing in the post. When he needs a breather for a minute or two, the Zags are able to turn to 7’0 freshman Zach Collins. Collins has had a few “freshman” moments so far this season, but he is an incredibly athletic big with a relentless drive for the game. In just 16.8 minutes per game this season, he averages 11.1 points and 5.8 rebounds per game. Oh, and he shoots 69.8 percent from the floor.
UWDP: Speaking of NWG, how does he fit in with the Bulldogs?
Peter: NWG has slotted in rather nicely with the Zags. To be perfectly frank, I was a little worried about his offensive tendencies. During his time at UW, he put up a lot of shots and played a lot of minutes, because who else was there but him to do it? The Zags haven’t had to rely on his offense nearly as much as the Huskies did, and he is able to share backcourt duties with Perkins (who was Gonzaga’s starting PG last season). If you take a look at his statline, it just looks like he isn’t doing as well. But across per 40 minute totals, he is right in line with his career averages, except for the three pointers, which are inexplicably at 46.2 percent this season.
There has definitely been some growing pains. NWG was injured much of last season, so it isn’t like he spent his transfer season really getting in a lot of reps in practice. But there are so many new faces on this squad, the learning curve is just as steep for everyone. NWG has been running with it, and has shown more confidence in taking over in late game situations as of late.
UWDP: It looks like the Bulldogs are poised for another deep tourney run, what are the expectations from Gonzaga fans? Is this the year that the Zags make the Final Four?
Peter: Expectations are always a funny thing for the Zags. They finally got that Elite 8 monkey off their back a couple of years ago, making that trip for the first time since the big run in 1999. But the Final Four is still the one that eludes us.
This team is doing what it takes to win right now, but they haven’t been the most consistent in it. Over the Thanksgiving holiday, the Zags mailed in a horrendous first half against Florida, only to storm back and win the game after a gritty second half performance. In the tournament championship game against Iowa State, Gonzaga nearly coughed up a 20 point lead, holding on to defeat the Cyclones by two. The Zags just came back from Arizona with a nice win, but that was a little deflated by the injuries to the Wildcats squad. But again, the Zags didn’t play 40 minutes of great ball--more like 22 or 26 minutes.
So all of that said, this team is still getting better, and right now, they are pretty damn good. I do a pretty thorough job of convincing myself that they are a Final Four squad pretty much every year, but for the first time in a long while, the Zags are nearly as athletic as most of the other major teams. They aren’t a Duke or Kentucky by any stretch, but they are talented, and most importantly, incredibly deep. They have the players and the depth to make a deep run in the tournament--but as we all know, anything can happen.
UWDP: A little off topic, but what did fans think of the HBO coverage last year?
Peter: A lot of fans had a love/hate relationship with it. There were plenty of people who used the HBO cameras as a scapegoat for Gonzaga’s struggles last season. I wasn’t one of those people, however. Personally, I thought it was entertaining, and a really cool insight into how the team works. It didn’t really shine any lights in dark corners or have any grand reveals at all. A lot of college players are pretty candid, and we know at Gonzaga that the team chemistry is real tight, but it was cool to see that in action. I just heard that HBO is doing it for the UConn women’s squad, and hopefully, the series will just get better and they will keep on doing it.