Gonzaga lost last week to Illinois, a team put together by coach Bruce Weber, who was fired after last season. Now Weber's new team, Kansas State, will challenge the Zags in the Battle in Seattle, Saturday at KeyArena.
Having just gotten a snootful of what Bruce Weber had put together at Illinois, Gonzaga now confronts his newest creation Saturday night in the Battle in Seattle at KeyArena.
The 14th-ranked Zags (9-1), chastened by the Illini a week ago in their first loss, meet Kansas State (7-1), which last spring moved quickly to hire the 56-year-old veteran Weber after Illinois fired him to culminate a nine-year run in Champaign.
Weber took over for drill sergeant Frank Martin, so you can surmise what faces Gonzaga.
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“Toughness,” said Weber, describing what he inherited from Martin. “It’s about rebounding and defending. We’ve tried to maintain that culture.”
That includes the K-State big guys, who can expect to see more of the biggest Zag. Gonzaga coach Mark Few said at midweek the recent performance of 7-foot-1 Polish freshman Przemek Karnowski has earned him more playing time.
“He certainly deserves it,” Few said. “He graded out really well (against Illinois). We’ve been worried in some scenarios about him, probably over-worried. It seems like he’s been able to execute the plan at a higher level.”
The big guy is mobile, plays to his left hand and isn’t afraid of contact. In just nine minutes against Illinois, he had nine points while fellow 7-footer Kelly Olynyk was forced to play 33 with Sam Dower bothered by continuing flu symptoms.
Karnowski and Olynyk will be tested by the Wildcats’ bigs, including Jordan Henriquez (6-11, 250), Adrian Diaz (6-10, 230) and Thomas Gipson (6-7, 270). They’ve guided K-State to a plus-10.2 rebounding margin against mostly outmanned opposition.
“We play pretty hard and defend,” Weber said. “It’s a little bit different on defense. They (under Martin) were all or nothing, really; they denied hard. We’ll still fight for a pass, but we want to be in position to help, also.”
Weber has one of the better off-guards around in senior Rodney McGruder, whom he thinks is coming around after a slow start. McGruder leads the Wildcats in scoring at 12.9.
“For the seniors, it’s been a little bit of a tough adjustment,” said Weber. “They’ve had habits for three years. Not that they’re resisting, but they’re thinking.”
On a team that shoots just .415, McGruder is only 7 for 27 on threes, after hitting 40.8 from deep a year ago.
Must be something going around. The Gonzaga sophomore guards, Kevin Pangos and Gary Bell Jr., are combining to shoot .408, and .376 on threes, after averaging .458 overall and .428 from that distance last season.
For the Zags, this would be a good time to do some résumé-building for the NCAA tournament. Most of their conquests are against probable also-rans — West Virginia, Clemson, Oklahoma — in their conferences. K-State, West Virginia and Oklahoma were forecast 5-6-7 by Big 12 coaches.
As for Weber, his new locale brings a new/old nemesis in Kansas and Bill Self, his popular predecessor at Illinois. It was there that Weber’s critics said his downfall had to do with an inability to recruit, something that would no doubt draw an argument from the Zags after last week.
“Those elite players, we were probably not getting them because we were getting them the way we do,” Weber said, meaning hewing to the NCAA rule book. “I’m proud of what we did there. It was one of the best nine-year runs in the history of the university.”
Friday afternoon, some 1,000 tickets remained for the game.
Bud Withers: 206-464-8281 or firstname.lastname@example.org