For 'Nova, a Garden-variety win against Zags
12-06-17

Had a chance to scratch an old itch and see a game at Madison Square Garden, a venue I’d never visited, Tuesday night when Gonzaga played Villanova as part of the Jimmy V Classic doubleheader.

First, a little setup: On game day, there was nary a word of advance in either the New York Daily News or the Post on the game pitting the Nos. 4- and 12th-ranked teams. Maybe it had something to do with the firing Monday of New York Giants coach Ben McAdoo and the melodrama surrounding his quarterback, Eli Manning.

We sat, corner behind the basket, set back and up a way, in seats at $180 a crack. Of course, it was a doubleheader, also featuring Connecticut and Syracuse, two teams you could live without (and we did, leaving after the opener). But, it’s a benefit event.

Nowhere was there clothing or memorabilia commemorating the occasion. Why not sell a T-shirt and mark it up in the name of the cause?

Food and drink choices were good. I latched onto a bulging pastrami sandwich for $15.50 (angioplasty not included).

Photographs and newspaper pages recalling the Garden’s seminal events adorn the walls of the concourses, and inside, naturally, there are retired numbers of the Knicks and Rangers. I guess I’d have to conclude that I wasn’t overwhelmed by the place, but in fairness, how many arenas overwhelm you? It’s often the atmosphere therein that does it, and you don’t get atmosphere when you put college teams in a professional arena. (Don’t tell anybody, but Gonzaga is 0-2 in games I’ve seen live this year in that setting.)

My wife’s big moment was getting on the massive scoreboard during the DanceCam -- not because she was busting moves but because she was sitting next to Zach Norvell’s mom, who was.

So, to the Zags:

-- First off, it’s difficult to identify Gonzaga’s weaknesses against the excellence of the team it was playing. I’d been forewarned. “Villanova is really good,” Stu Jackson told me Monday in an aside during an unrelated interview, and the Big East exec and former NBA coach and league operative was spot-on. The Wildcats attack the basket, shoot and defend ardently in man-to-man, and -- even allowing for the vagaries of March Madness -- I’d be surprised if they’re not part of the Final Four. Gonzaga was described awhile back by a TV analyst as “connected,” but if that’s the case, Villanova is connected in the extreme.

-- ‘Nova benefitted by attacking the basket, in the tradition of Eastern teams. Or was it also a nod to the fact that Gonzaga isn’t overly deep, and there was opposing foul trouble to be gained? In the two GU defeats this season, Florida and Villanova have combined to shoot 62 free throws.

-- Johnathan Williams III and Killian Tillie combined for a mere 11 points, partly because of that foul trouble. In the two games I’ve seen up close, Williams has scored 39 points and five. Somewhere in there is a sweet spot the Zags can count on.

-- Well into the second half, the Zags’ two real ball-handlers, Josh Perkins and Silas Melson, were getting scant rest, and 'Nova was intermittently pressing. They ended up playing 38 and 36 minutes, respectively. Against lesser competition, maybe that can fly. But you wonder if it might affect things like Perkins’ shooting (1 of 7 from three).

-- Gonzaga’s turnovers are problematic, but seemingly fixable. Many of them are the kind you can see coming; now the players have to see them, too.

-- Corey Kispert’s absence (ankle) obviously hurt the Zags, but for the second straight game, GU got instant offense from Norvell (22 points). It will be worth watching to see how those two are juggled upon Kispert’s return so the development of two first-year players is maximized.

-- Villanova represents the peak of Gonzaga’s non-league schedule. The rest is negotiable, although Washington surely will be primed to right two decades worth of perceived wrongs Sunday in Seattle, and San Diego State looms Dec. 21. But if the Zags meet anybody as formidable as Villanova this season, that’ll be good news.


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