Even as Gonzaga has bounced out to a 10-1 record five weeks into the 2013-14 basketball season, you could say it’s been a learning experience — as in tutorials on how to play small.
The Zags went a game further into their coursework Saturday night at KeyArena against South Alabama in the Battle in Seattle, and one thing is becoming apparent. They seem to function better when Kyle Dranginis is on the floor.
Dranginis, a 6-foot-5 redshirt sophomore wing player from Nampa, Idaho, was pretty much the steadiest thing the Zags had going against the Jaguars in a game that was initially a laugher, then a grinder, and finally a 68-59 GU victory.
Dranginis hasn’t started a game this season, but that day might be coming. In this game, he had nine points, four rebounds and was often asked to man the big-forward spot, which meant he was scrapping for turf against the Jaguars’ 6-7 forward, Augustine Rubit, who strafed Gonzaga for 35 points.
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“I thought Kyle guarded him better than anybody,” said Gonzaga coach Mark Few. “I thought he was really, really good, and he’s been really good these last couple of games for us. Obviously, we need to keep playing him more and more.”
With the Zags’ big men battling bursts of inconsistency or foul trouble, Dranginis has often played out of position up front. But he’s game for the challenge.
“We get hurt on the glass and in some of the defensive matchups,” said Few. “But it doesn’t look like we’re getting hurt anywhere (near) as bad as some of the other guys, so we’ve got to look at that.”
Said Dranginis, “Nothing’s going to come easy. I think that’s the fun part about it. We’ve got to challenge ourselves and keep getting better.”
In front of the smallest crowd in the series’ history, 9,140, the Zags blew out of the gate, leading 22-3, as they held South Alabama (3-5) to a 1-for-13 start and foiled the Jags’ offense with quick hands that forced turnovers and transition opportunities.
“Our first group was really shellshocked, scared, nervous, whatever you want to call it,” said South Alabama coach Matthew Graves.
Finally, Rubit hit a three-pointer at the 9:50 mark, and in 68 seconds, the Jaguars scored 11 points, after taking more than the opening 10 minutes to score three. That got them back to a 24-14 deficit, and even after Gonzaga bumped it back to a 41-25 lead at half, USA wouldn’t go easily.
“I thought our guys showed great resolve,” said Graves. “That (outcome) could have easily been 40.”
Several times in the second half, South Alabama got it into single digits, as Rubit — too quick for the Gonzaga bigs and too big for their guards — pumped in 11 of the 19 Jaguar baskets overall.
Meanwhile, Gonzaga helped with hurried possessions and some uncharacteristically poor shooting. The Zags hit season lows in field-goal percentage (.406) and three-point shooting (2 of 14).
“I tried to tell people I thought they were pretty good,” said Few. “You (media) were the guys that didn’t think they were any good.”
It’s a matter of debate whether South Alabama is, but there isn’t much doubt about the 230-pound Rubit, whose points were a career-high.
“Augustine’s a really special player,” said Graves. “He’s a high-major player that’s kind of been a hidden secret for a long time. Very few people outside of coaches know who he is.”
It wasn’t Gonzaga’s best effort, Few noted, but he added, “We won, and as long as we’re keeping score, that’s a good thing.”
Gonzaga next goes to Kansas State on Saturday before starting West Coast Conference play in two weeks.
Bud Withers: 206-464-8281 or email@example.com