Opening a season against a national power has it's pros and cons, and the Gonzaga Bulldogs had plenty of each after losing to second-ranked Big Ten power Illinois in a packed (16,500) Assembly Hall at Champaign, IL. The Zags were humbled by the Illini but came away knowing what needed to be fixed. The team flew home, made some quick adjustments, and soundly defeated the Montana Grizzlies. Head Coach Mark Few and his staff continued to see ragged play during the win but also a good deal of hustle, desire and a willingness to improve.
The Zags played out of sync and inconsistent against Illinois and the Illini are a team that will amplify opponents' mistakes by capitalizing on them. A big, physical, athletic team, Illinois pressured Gonzaga into a turnover-prone game that saw the Zags' execution falter before the hostile crowd.
Zach Gourde was a bright spot as was Dan Dickau, though the Wooden Award Candidate offset his game-high 19 points with 6 turnovers, due in large part to the Illinois defense.
All-American Frank Williams and Corey Bradford combined for an effective outside game while big men Brian Cook and Robert Archibald started pounding the ball inside, drawing fouls and making baskets. The inside-outside combination, coupled with a high pressure defense and multiple Zag miscues, was enough for the Illini to pull away and win by 18.
It was not the ideal way to start a season, but GU's weaknesses were exposed and the coaching staff knew exactly what to focus on.
After arriving in Spokane at midnight, the team had 36 hours to turn things around for their encounter with the Grizzlies of Montana who were returning four starters from a team that gave Gonzaga more than enough trouble last year.
That morning, highly recruited Brandon Roy flew in for his official visit to GU. Future Zag Sean Mallon, among others, were at the airport to greet him. The coaching staff was in action and the Garfield High School star got to watch firsthand how Gonzaga adjusts, prepares and ultimately plays.
Again, Zach Gourde shone brightly, rebounding and scoring, helping Gonzaga slowly pull away from the pesky, determined Montana team. But others were stepping it up now, and despite some ragged play, perhaps trying too hard, the Zags showed flashes of what's to come once all the wrinkles are ironed out.
Winston Brooks (great D, hustle and leadership), Ronny Turiaf (a double-double) and Alex Hernandez (scoring inside and out) all had much-improved games. A packed Kennel watched and cheered as Gonzaga won by 20.
There were many positives to build on, especially rebounding and inside play, and the cohesiveness of the team began to appear… Blake Stepp played 16 minutes while continuing to nurse his knee, adding to a slower than usual gelling of the team and its backcourt.
Practices will be focused on execution of Gonzaga basketball but, again, there is precious little time as the Zags fly north to Anchorage, Alaska, on Tuesday for the Great Alaska Shootout where they will meet Big East power St. John's in their opening game Thursday night and either Texas or Oregon State the night after.
1-1 Gonzaga will play three games in Alaska before returning home. We'll have a summary of each game soon after these next three games.
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