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Preview: Texas A&M at #3 Gonzaga

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The Aggies head to Spokane as 16-point underdogs, and it’s hard for even the most optimistic among us to see this one going well (10:30pm; ESPN2)

James Snook-USA TODAY Sports

Time: 10:30pm

Place: McCarthy Athletic Center in Spokane, Washington

TV: ESPN2

Line: Gonzaga is favored by 16

There’s really not a ton to unpack, here. If we submit a “UC Irvine” effort, we’re getting run by 30. If Gilder and Mitchell aren’t back and we play better, we still probably don’t have the horses to hang for 40 minutes. If Gilder and Mitchell are back and we play better… we’re probably still losing. But in that scenario, at least we have a shot.

Let’s chat with Peter Woodburn from Gonzaga site The Slipper Still Fits to get the low down ahead of tonight’s game.

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GBH: Gonzaga has absolutely steamrolled their first two opponents, which can sometimes make it difficult to assess individual performances. What have you learned about the squad in the opening week?

I think we have learned in Spokane that this team is going to be really hecking good, pardon my excitement there. The Zags opened up with their fifth-highest point total in school history, and the offensive onslaught didn’t show any signs of slowing down against Texas Southern. There were a couple of slower moments, as to be expected, but the people we wanted to see going bonkers, Rui Hachimura and Brandon Clarke, have both lived up to expectations.

Realistically, the only person who has been slow to start is Geno Crandall, a grad transfer from North Dakota who didn’t arrive on campus until mid-October. Being a senior, few people are worried about his development and his effort has been there, just not his shot.

GBH: You have six players averaging double-figures, and a myriad of other contributors. Who do you see as your crunch time five? Who seems poised to fill the void left by injured big man Killian Tillie?

Crunch time five right now is probably Josh Perkins, Zach Norvell, Geno Grandall, Rui Hachimura, and Brandon Clarke. That gives the Zags three dudes who are more than ready to hit a dagger three and two incredibly versatile big guys in the post. You’ve also mentioned a point that has made the Zags so dangerous the past few years: Virtually everyone on the offense can score. Last season, the leading scorer averaged 13.4 points, and almost six players averaged double-figures. Two years ago, when they made the championship, five players averaged double-figures.

As for the second part of the question, losing Tillie is brutal no matter what squad you are. He is arguably the second-best player on the squad after Hachimura, but perhaps the most versatile. He was a 6’10 big man that hit 13-straight three point shots at one point last season. Because of his injury, the Zags have introduced Filip Petrusev, a freshman from Montverde Academy, earlier than they probably might have liked, but Petrusev is a more traditional post player. No one is really replacing what Tillie can offer.

GBH: Overall, what are your team’s biggest weaknesses and strengths?

Overall, the strength of this team is in line with what I said above: the balance of offense. Hachimura is going to be a top-10 draft pick, and he will wow with the Sportscenter highlight plays, but the rest of the starting five, and creeping into the first two players off the bench, can hold their own with just about anyone in the league. The Zags can burn you from positions one through five at any time, and when Tillie gets back that’ll shine even brighter.

Right now, the current biggest weakness is strength of the backcourt. The Zags really only have two true point guards on the team in Perkins and Crandall, but Crandall is still learning his way around the offense, since he has only been on the team for a month. Perkins has been around for four-plus years, and when he gets into foul trouble or goes through his spurts of boneheaded turnovers occasionally, the offense noticeably slows down.

GBH: We’re a famously pessimistic fan base, so last week’s result against UCI didn’t do us any favors. Help us out, here. What’s the path to victory for Texas A&M in this game?

Not to be rude, but there probably isn’t one. The only way Texas A&M wins this game is if Gonzaga does something totally mindless to blow it themselves. Gonzaga rarely loses in Spokane, and when you watch the broadcast on Thursday, it’ll be pretty clear why. The crowd always gets extra jacked when a bigger school rolls into town, and although A&M is in a bit of a down year, that won’t matter for most of the fanbase.

However, if the Aggies somehow discover the ability to relentlessly rain down an onslaught of threes, maybe, just maybe they can keep it close? I’m not sure how anyone stops this Gonzaga offense yet, however, so they’d have to completely shut down two or three players in the process as well.

GBH: Predictions for Thursday’s game:

The Aggies will keep it close at first. Gonzaga very rarely runs out of the gates in any game, and I think going into halftime, the Zags will have a lead of around 10. The second-half is usually where this team shined, especially last year, so that’ll be when things get a bit messy for Texas A&M. I’m taking Gonzaga (of course) over A&M, 85-60.

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I’m going to stick with my official prediction in the answers I sent over to the enemy. We’ll keep it close for a while, but Gonzaga will pull away early in the second half and ultimately cruise to a 91-75 victory.

BTHO Gonzaga