Q&A with Gonzaga beat writer Jim Meehan of the S-R

Jim Meehan, Gonzaga hoops beat writer for the Spokesman-Review, answers a few questions for Washington State’s home date with the Zags on Wednesday.

RYAN COLLINGWOOD: After coming into the season ranked No. 12, Gonzaga has an aberrant three losses by the first week of December with falls to No. 5 Kansas State, No. 17 San Diego State and No. 20 Illinois. Besides the brawny schedule,though, what factors have played into the slow start?

JIM MEEHAN: Any of those three are capable of making the Final Four and I’d be surprised if all three didn’t at least make it to the Sweet 16. Illinois might be the best of the three. The other factors are varied, which makes it harder to fix, but the most common problems have been 3-point defense (especially in transition against K-State) and rebounding (against K-State and San Diego State). Illinois obviously lit it up from 3.

Perimeter defense has seemingly been the Achilles’ heel for Gonzaga for a while now, which was especially apparent on Saturday in a Battle in Seattle loss to Illinois(12-for-23 from 3-point range). How do you think Gonzaga will respond with WSU’s aptitude from long range?

I was surprised GU didn’t try to zone a little more against Illinois, but when the Zags did, it barely made a difference. Illinois had five guys knock down at least two 3s and the Cougars present a similar problem with Klay, Aden, Motum and company. It’ll obviously be one of GU’s defensive keys to try to make certain players put it on the floor.

Washington State defensive stalwart Marcus Capers will most likely be matched up with senior guard Steven Gray (21.9 ppg). How important is it for Gonzaga that Gray isn’t clamped down?

Very, as the Zags’ results indicate thus far. Teams are making Gray work very hard for his points (Illinois, K-State, even Marquette) and the Bulldogs haven’t had a lot of others step up to fill the void. Sacre is at 12 ppg, then Harris, slowed by his injuries is at 9. In Gonzaga’s toughest games (San Diego State, K-State, Marquette, Illinois), it has scored 76, 64, 66 and 61 points. Tough to beat quality teams when you’re scoring in the 60s.

Who are you expecting to be matched up with Washington State gunner Klay Thompson?

Perhaps Gray, I believe that was his assignment last year, but expending that amount of energy at the defensive end could make it hard for him at the other end. I’d guess Manny Arop would by the next option, followed by Monninghoff and maybe even Harris if they want to go with more beef.

Last season Washington State led by as many as 13 in the second half before a scoring drought which led to a 74-69 Gonzaga win in Spokane. Matt Bouldin, who had a career-high 28 in that game, spearheaded that comeback. Now that he’s gone, leadership has come into question with this young Gonzaga team. What is your take on that?

Gray has assumed much of the leadership role. He’s not a screamer or in-your-face type, but neither was Bouldin. The vocal leadership probably comes from Sacre.

Nonconference meetings with Notre Dame, Baylor, Xavier, Oklahoma State, Memphis and Wake Forest still looming for GU. How significant is this regional tilt before that stretch?

It’s not do-or-die, but it’s important because GU has probably built its national reputation more with signature non-conference wins than its dominance of the WCC. At this point, they will play six ranked teams and they’re 0-3 versus the first three. A road win against a team that figures to challenge for the Pac-10 title would be big for GU’s resume.

Washington State has been outrebounded in all but two games this season. Gonzaga, which is substantially bigger and deeper in the interior than WSU, has an advantage in the paint on both ends of the floor. How important is it that the Bulldogs exhibit that edge?

Go back to last year’s game. Everyone remembers Bouldin’s 28, but Elias Harris had 21 points, 9 boards in the second half alone. Kelly Olynyk had 10 points and seven rebounds off the bench. With teams focusing their defensive attention on Gray, there should be interior opportunities for Sacre, Harris, Olynyk, Dower.

An Achillies injury has slowed Harris this season, averaging just 9.7 points when he was expected to average twice that in the preseason. How big of a hindrance has this been? Luckily for Washington State, Reggie Moore’s wrist injury sat him during the softest part of the Cougs’ schedule.

He’s on the Wooden Award preseason watch list (50 players), so his absence, even just from practice, is huge. He’s missed quite a bit of practice time because he also had to deal with a separated shoulder in preseason. He’s not 100 percent, but he’s had stretches of the form he showed as a freshman. He had 12 in the first half against Illinois. He had 15 in the first half against Marquette, but he hasn’t put a full game together yet.

Both clubs share a common opponent in Kansas State. Gonzaga fell 81-64 in Kansas City before the Wildcats clipped WSU 63-58 in Pullman. The Cougars had a slim lead with under two minutes left, but Gonzaga was flummoxed from jump-street. Why do you think WSU fared better against a much larger, deeper KSU squad (other than the fact it was a home game)?

I thought the Cougars played extremely hard, competed and held up well against a physical K-State team. GU trailed big in the first half, but actually had a chance to cut it to 4 in the second half when Sacre was called for traveling two feet from the bucket. The Wildcats were a tough matchup for GU because they’re an excellent team, they could rotate defenders on Gray and they have a number of capable bigs, too. And it didn’t hurt having 19,000 purple-clad fans in the stands.

Washington State will win if … it keeps Gray in check without allowing GU’s bigs to put up huge numbers.

Gonzaga will win if. … it can limit WSU’s 3-point damage and gets 3-4 players in double figures.

Prediction? Zags 67, Cougars 63

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