Zags-Huskies: One Rivalry That Must Continue!

Zags-Huskies: One Rivalry That Must Continue!
Dec 10, 2006, 07:14 am
In my current area of residence, radio listeners are well acquainted with a certain commercial begging us to preserve our history.

In one recent spot, elderly people tell short stories revolving around a place that no longer exists. For example, an old lady recalls walking to “the drug store” to get her medication, but the last time the place is mentioned a generic voice cuts in and says “the freeway” instead. The idea, of course, being that certain parts of history are worth saving.

I would be lying to you if I said that the Minnesota Historical Preservation-whatever-it-wants-to-call-itself has inspired me.

But Zags-Huskies 2006 certainly has.

And I will proclaim with utmost conviction that if the Gonzaga-Washington rivalry is in as much danger as some say it is, and if does end up going the way of that general store I heard about on my way to work every morning for the past three months, that this is one crying shame.

Tonight’s barnburner had everything a basketball fan could ever ask for in a game. There were talented players, working with each other and out there to win. The coaching was inspired and brilliant. The pace was fast enough to keep even the most attention span-deprived viewer glued to the screen. The crowd was raucous, and every human being in the building had something at stake, whether it was bragging rights, personal success, team achievement, or all of the above.

This was a game that deserves an encore.

And we aren’t even talking about Adam Morrison scoring 43 points largely against two of the best defenders in the country to single-handedly force overtime in front of a crowd so hostile it might be better described as “pseudo-violent”.

This was a game in which Gonzaga built a 20 point lead midway through the first half, a lead which Washington was never able to even cut in half.

But this was still the best basketball to have been played in any gym so far this year, the type of game we will be lucky to see again in March. Not a single contest in last year’s Tourney came close to matching Zags-Huskies 2005, and the only rivalry that can still match this one in terms of overall quality of play, competitiveness, and animosity takes place on Tobacco Road. (Though to be fair, Illinois-Indiana is going to be one hell of a must-see over the next couple of years.)

So this is a call to arms, folks. I’m not asking you to actually get out the rifles and hand grenades (just yet), or even dust off the old check book on behalf of your local historical society.

I understand that fans on both sides of the Gonzaga-Washington fence are well beyond admitting that they need or even want the continuation of this rivalry. Washington officials give cryptic references to scheduling and recruiting on a national level, while many Gonzaga folks are convinced their national schedule is more than tough enough.

But as fans of the game of basketball, we all have to admit that this is one rivalry that must continue. The high level of play, electric atmosphere, and late-game drama must continue.

And all I beg is that you fire off a quick e-mail to Washington AD Todd Turner. or Gonzaga AD Mike Roth, and tell them what a disservice they would be doing to basketball addicts everywhere by not continuing this series past 2007.

After all, the one thing nobody wants to see is Granny trying to get her prescription filled at the turnpike next December.

Scouting the Bulldogs
It is pretty clear that this isn’t your classic Morrison, JP Batista-led Gonzaga squad. Both were talented players, but the pair that combined to nearly average 50 ppg last season was also largely responsible for their team’s sub-par defensive play. Furthermore, neither player contributed much on the offensive end when he didn’t have the ball in his hands. While Mark Few certainly doesn’t have a go-to option that can match what Morrison or Batista brought to the table last year, he now puts five players on the floor who are fully committed to playing defense.

Though the talk has largely centered on breakout sophomore Josh Heytvelt and sensational freshman Matt Bouldin, outstanding defensive play from the likes Jeremy Pargo, David Pendergraft, and Abdullahai Kuso have been just as important in this team shrugging off the loss of two All-Americans. A season ago, defense appeared to be secondary when Morrison’s latest circus-level feat was right around the corner. This season, Gonzaga is absolutely on the attack. Tonight, defense became offense as Derek Raivio, Pierre-Marie Altidor-Cespedes, and Pargo successfully limited Lorenzo Romar’s ballhandlers and seriously disrupted Washington’s offensive flow. Heytvelt’s defense on Spencer Hawes set a tone early in the game, and the Huskies were never able to recover. These things simply wouldn’t have happened a season ago.

And while there is no Morrison here when the Zags are in desperate need of a basket, Few has more than enough offensive firepower to go around. All of Gonzaga’s regulars are patient offensive players, content to wait for a good shot within the offense rather than firing upon the first look that comes along. Raivio has come back healthy and reminded everybody why his injury struggles a season ago were such a blow, while Heytvelt has done a great job of scoring when needed but also being content to contribute by cleaning up the scraps around the rim. Pretty much everybody Few puts on the court can shoot, and Bouldin is already so good at being the glue guy its almost scary.

Gonzaga has taken it up several notches defensively, and may not have lost much on the offensive end. When Raivio is clicking, this team is going to beat anybody. When one realizes that Mark Few has as much talent on his inactive list as most Pac-10 coaches do in their starting lineup, it starts to get really scary. Unless the injury bug hits in the wrong place, it might be time to start thinking of this first post-Morrison Gonzaga squad as a legitimate Final Four contender. Considering the shockingly quick turnaround and the immense talent waiting in the wings, it also appears that Mark Few has built this program to the level of “sustainable national power.”

Scouting the Huskies

While this loss may appear ugly, it really shouldn’t be viewed as such. Gonzaga was playing at its absolute best, and this game was played very evenly after the first ten minutes or so. It makes sense that Lorenzo Romar’s squad appeared a bit wide-eyed, considering this was the first real high-major competition for several key members of the rotation. Going on the road to face an experienced Gonzaga squad with a bone to pick that happened to be firing on all cylinders is not a task that many experienced teams out there would have been able to handle.

If a Top 25 poll is simply a listing of accomplishments, then the Huskies were a bit overrated headed into last night’s game. This team has a lot to learn, especially on the defensive end, and may take a few more lumps before things come together.

But if it is one thing we have learned since Lorenzo Romar took over it is that things do come together. This team is balanced, deep, and oh-so talented. Even during the midst of Gonzaga’s biggest runs, one got the feeling that Washington was about to turn on the jets at any moment. Quincy Pondexter and Spencer Hawes are already impacting games and will be much, much better players by the end of the year. John Brockman complements Hawes’ finesse game nicely, and his mid-range jumper could become a devastating weapon. Where Few has deadly freshman glue in Matt Bouldin, Romar can turn to the similarly heady and facilitory-natured newbie Adrian Oliver for a significant amount of production.

One player who simply didn’t play up to par was point guard Justin Dentmon, who was actually much worse than his 2-14 shooting, 4 turnover night would indicate. He single-handedly killed several promising Washington runs with horrible shot selection, and never really figured out how to keep his cool under the pressure Gonzaga’s guards put on him. Where most of the key members of Washington’s youthful rotation can be trusted to avoid forcing the action, its point guard can not. Dentmon played much better earlier in the year, but this is definitely something that has been seen in the past from the sophomore.

Matt Bouldin – What else can be said about this kid? It was clear from the moment he stepped onto the court that he was special, but his legend is only continuing to grow. He plays with the savvy and poise of a senior, and has the creating instincts that simply can’t be taught. Despite dishing out brilliant passes on a regular basis, Bouldin plays with a steadying calm and almost never forces the issue. He is a lights-out 3-point shooter capable of connecting off the bounce or spotting up, and sees defenses in a truly unique way. Bouldin doesn’t look like a lottery pick, but it is obvious to anybody that has seen him play that he is one. It is hard to imagine an NBA system that he wouldn’t be able to contribute in, and the fact that he could benefit more than most from a summer of toning up in the weight room only adds to the upside. The only question remaining is if Few can keep Bouldin around long enough for him to emerge as the next great Gonzaga guard.

Derek Raivio – What a difference a year makes. At this point a season ago, Raivio was hobbled and headed for a very disappointing campaign. Even after he returned his shot stayed on the sideline, and he struggled with decision making and forcing his own offense the rest of the year. Except for a few moments of sheer idiocy against North Carolina, these issues have once again faded away in the wake of his lightning quick release and nearly limitless range from the perimeter. Raivio appears to be doing better as a defender as well, as he came up with a couple of key steals tonight and is doing a better job of putting up a physical fight on that end. He hasn’t improved his frame a bit since emerging as a sophomore, so it is hard to say what sort of NBA future the wispy guard might have. Given his second semester struggles the past two seasons, it should be interesting to see if Raivio can keep this up. But with that release, all he’s got to do is keep knocking them down and he will get his shot.

Josh Heytvelt – It wasn’t a huge game from a statistical standpoint, but Heytvelt probably won the game for Gonzaga in the first half with his phenomenal defense on Hawes. He successfully kept Hawes from getting good position on the block, did a phenomenal job of contesting his shots, and did enough to contain the freshman when he decided to try his luck from the perimeter. Eventually Hawes got frustrated, started forcing things, and went to the bench. While the blue-chipper would get back on track in a big way once he got calmed down, Washington was already down by 20. It appears that he has already improved his consistency in regards to his help defense and box out assignments since the beginning of the season. Heytvelt didn’t get many opportunities to show off his scoring arsenal, but did do well in finishing several plays around the basket early in the game.

Spencer Hawes – Hawes certainly looked the part of overwhelmed freshman during Gonzaga’s decisive first half run, but the youngster managed to bounce back nicely over the course of the game. It is clear that Hawes has a long ways to go before he is a go-to post presence in the NBA, in terms of mentality, body strength, and lift. This was evident when Heytvelt was able to body him up and he almost immediately went to his perimeter game. He began to struggle running the floor, and really hurt Washington’s cause by not hustling back defensively on several occasions.

While Hawes’ early play certainly made clear his downside as a prospect, the freshman returned to the game late in the first half and quickly showed why he is a projected lottery pick. He scored three quick baskets to cut into Gonzaga’s lead just before halftime, including two beautiful post moves executed with his left hand. Hawes would continue to score at will throughout the second half, contributing more in non-scoring areas as well. His release on the low block comes so early that the shots can rarely be blocked or even altered, and he will almost never go to the same move twice in a row. Scouts certainly must have loved seeing the freshman naturally make up for his lack of explosiveness when he tipped a loose ball to himself for an easy basket instead of corralling the rebound and not being in a position to score.

Hawes has elicited plenty of comparisons up to this point, but the one that seems to fit the best is Tim Duncan himself. The noodle-legged phenom has years of hard work in the gym before he can even approach Duncan’s lightness of foot, but it is hard to think of another post player of Hawes’ size and skill to come along since TD. Hawes has plenty of size in his family history, so one would expect him to be capable of making major improvements in terms of his explosiveness and mobility. I am in no way claiming Hawes will end up as good as Tim Duncan, but if he can make a significant jump physically, this style of play-based comparison may not be that big of a stretch when it comes to effectiveness.

Quincy Pondexter – I can’t speak for Pondexter’s long-term professional development just yet, but it must be said that players with this kid’s natural tools get snatched up very early in their development, most of the time very high in the draft. In terms of raw physical attributes, names like Devean George, Jumaine Jones, Ruben Patterson, and Gerald Wallace come to mind. But these comparisons might assume that Pondexter isn’t going to develop much past what was seen tonight, and I’m not ready to limit him to this with what I have observed from a handful of games thus far. Pondexter tends to jump forward into his outside shot, but it certainly fell tonight and his touch is quite good. The fully elevated baseline fadeaway he sort of stumbled into midway through the first half was certainly a move that screams NBA potential. Where many of the players listed above have a tendency to forego their size/strength advantage and force things in attempt to play like a true guard, Pondexter seems to have a fairly solid feel for the game. This is getting redundant, but it certainly appears that Pondexter is yet another eye-catching talent in the class of 2006. It would be a surprise if he isn’t playing for an NBA team within the next two years.

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