Two of the Northwest’s top college basketball programs hooked up for their semi-annual hoop fest in Seattle over the weekend, and I was fortunate enough to attend. The University of Washington Huskies hosted the Gonzaga Bulldogs in a clash of top 25 teams.
The Huskies came into the game with a five-game losing streak to the Bulldogs and having lost 12 of the past 13 matchups. History repeated itself, and the Bulldogs prevailed in a very exciting game, 83-76.
However, the outcome, seemingly inevitable with the Bulldogs’ past domination, was not the story for me. It was the vast difference between the two programs on display Sunday.
These are my personal observations based on what I saw on Sunday from the rafters of a sweaty Alaska Airlines Arena. Not sure what it was like on the floor, but it was sweltering in the nose-bleed section. (Hey, UW! A little air conditioning wouldn’t hurt.)
Gonzaga, currently ranked No. 6 in the nation, has reloaded their squad yet again after losing four starters from last year’s Elite Eight team. Head coach Mark Few continues to pull fantastic players from the far reaches of the world to put his team in the conversation for deep runs in the NCAA Tournament every year.
Only diehard college basketball fans recognize any of the Bulldogs’ starters, but they are impressive. As usual, they have a unique mixture of talented big men and quick, savvy guards, who can shoot and handle the ball as well.
Most of the Zag offense runs through Frenchmen and 6-foot-10 junior Killian Tillie, who can play anywhere on the floor. He is a great passer and a fantastic long-range shooter, which makes it difficult for opponents to guard him. Tillie also has numerous options when he is not shooting; he can get the ball down low to 6-foot-11, Serbian center, Filip Petrusev, or dish outside to shooter Corey Kispert. Guards Ryan Woolridge and Joel Ayayi are also threats either going to the basket or hitting the three-pointer.
The first thing you notice when you see this year’s Husky team is their size. With eight players over 6-foot-8, Washington poses a tall task (no pun intended) for any team they will face this season.
Two McDonald All-American’s, freshman, 6-foot-10 Jaden McDaniels and 6-foot-9 Isaiah Stewart, get most of the headlines, but they also have contributors throughout their roster. Point guard Quade Green, a Kentucky transfer, is the floor general, and Nahziah Carter (Jay-Z’s nephew by the way) is their do-everything energy guy.
On paper the two teams seem to match up well. Both have talented big men, good guards, and crafty coaches.
But for me, the contrast between the two teams is vast.
The Huskies play like an All-Star team put together about ten minutes before tip-off, and the Bulldogs look like a polished title contender.
That is not a knock on the Huskies; they are a young, extremely talented team looking for an identity, and it is very early in the season.
Husky head coach, Mike Hopkins, appears to want his team to play a tight, disciplined game based on his familiar zone defense and look for transition baskets following defensive stops and turnovers.
However, the team, on Sunday at least, continually ran players one-on-one at Gonzaga, hoping sheer athleticism would win the day. There didn’t seem to be much offensive discipline other than getting the ball down to Stewart under the basket. Other than that, it was run-and-gun, and that resulted in one bad shot after the other.
No question Stewart is a load in the post, and at times, the Zags had no answer for his power game on Sunday. He scored a team-high 21 points on six for seven shooting and also sank nine free throws. He also grabbed ten rebounds despite constant double-teams. He looked like the one-and-done NBA prospect many are touting him to be.
Jaden McDaniels seemed a little overwhelmed at times, tossing up errant shots and turning the ball over five times. He leads the Pac-12 in turnovers at 3.7 per game. If you didn’t see him play, his scoreline at the end of the game looked solid. He finished with 15 points, seven rebounds, and five assists.
But early foul trouble limited McDaniels’ time a bit in the first half, and the turnovers were killer. The team had 19 during the game. He’ll need to do better when Pac-12 play starts, but you can’t argue with his talent.
I was quite impressed with Quade Green for the Huskies, who had 14 points and eight assists. He has a nice outside shot and, with his scoring and play-making ability, will be a great compliment to Stewart and McDaniels once they all get in sync.
Gonzaga, on the other hand, came ready to play. They had a game plan to break down the Huskies’ zone, and it worked to perfection. Had they not missed several close-range shots, this game could easily have been a blow-out.
With Tillie dishing out six assists and scoring 15 points, it was hard for the Huskies to defend. When one of your big men is playing selflessly WHILE still scoring, that is a brutal combination.
The Zags were just a bit more polished on Sunday. Their guards handled the ball well and made sure everyone was involved. All five starters for Gonzaga scored in double digits.
Give the young Huskies credit, though. They hit some big shots when it counted and kept the team in the game. But they just couldn’t get over the hump, trailing on the scoreboard all game.
Their talent is seemingly endless, and the sky is the limit. Mike Hopkins has to be licking his chops at his team’s potential. But there is work to do for certain.
If he can get his team members to trust each other and play together, the Pac-12 could be in trouble.
But on this day, Mark Few got the better of Hopkins. I’ll bet he’s glad he doesn’t have to play the Huskies later in the year.