Analysis: Isaiah Stewart delivers, but UW won’t snap losing streak vs. Gonzaga by playing zone defense

  • Tue Dec 10th, 2019 6:16pm
  • Sports

By Percy Allen

The Seattle Times

Credit Washington’s third-year coach Mike Hopkins for reviving the Huskies and pumping a little life into the UW-Gonzaga rivalry that’s been dominated by the Bulldogs for over a decade.

For the second straight year, the Huskies pushed the Zags to the brink before falling in the final seconds and suffering a heartbreaking 83-76 defeat in front of a capacity crowd of 9,268 at Alaska Airlines Arena.

The defeat knocked then-No. 22 Washington (7-2) out of The Associated Press Top 25 poll and moved Gonzaga (9-1) up three spots to No. 6.

Here are three impressions from the game:

Not yet ready for prime time

It’s fair to wonder if Washington is ever going to snap its six-game losing streak against its dreaded nemesis Gonzaga considering the two head coaches and their philosophies on how to build a program.

If there’s a design flaw in Washington’s vaunted 2-3 zone defense, it’s the inability to stop opposing teams with a versatile big man who can hit midrange jumpers and orchestrate the offense in the high post.

Hopkins has installed a man-to-man defense and UW has used it more this season than past years, but the zone will always be his “ice ball in a snow ball fight.”

Meanwhile, Mark Few built Gonzaga around versatile big men who can shoot and create shots for others. The long list includes Adam Morrison, Kelly Olynyk, Kyle Wiltjer, Zach Collins, Rui Hachimura and currently Killian Tillie.

Against the Huskies, the 6-foot-10 forward operated with ease and aplomb while directing the offense surrounded by UW defenders. He sank 5 of 11 shots, including two three-pointers for 15 points and dished out a team-high six assists.

“Tillie in my opinion is the best zone player you can have in college basketball,” Few said. “You can play him anywhere on the floor. He’s got an exceptional feel. He can shoot it out there as you saw from 30 feet.

“He’s really adept at finding guys. He was the guy finding those guys along the baseline and getting the easy shots. So we knew if Tills was healthy we thought we’d be all right with how he attacked.”

Gonzaga has now won 13 of the past 14 games against Washington, but at least the Huskies aren’t getting throttled any more.

Before Hopkins’ arrival, Washington had lost three straight games to Gonzaga by an average of 21 points. And the Huskies were clobbered 97-70 by the Zags in his first year.

The past two meetings have been decided by an average of 4.5 points, which spells progress.

But losing close games doesn’t necessarily mean the Huskies will finally get a ‘W’ over the Bulldogs until they figure out how to slow down Gonzaga’s high-scoring offense. And perhaps next year, they need to play more man against the Zags.

To steal a football reference, Washington won its seventh straight Apple Cup in part due to Washington State coach Mike Leach’s undying commitment to the Air-Raid offense despite its string of underwhelming performances against UW’s defense.

Don’t be like Leach.

Isaiah Stewart delivers once again

The 30 NBA scouts who flew to Seattle for Sunday’s showdown wanted to see for themselves what all the fuss was about concerning UW’s Isaiah Stewart.

And the 6-9 freshman forward didn’t flinch while facing his first top-10 opponent and putting on a show that surely elevated his draft stock.

Against a formidable Zags front line that included NBA prospects Filip Petrusev and Tillie, Stewart pushed through them for a game-high 21 points on an incredible 6-for-7 shooting from the field and 9 of 10 on free throws. He also collected a team-high 10 rebounds.

The Bulldogs double-teamed Stewart throughout the night, but they never truly stopped him. He drew nine fouls and scored nearly every other time he got the ball in the post.

Stewart, who leads Washington in scoring (17.0 points) and rebounds (7.9), has been remarkably consistent while tallying at least 12 points in every game.

Turnovers are killing UW

Hopkins can live with the Huskies committing 10 to 12 turnovers, especially this early in the season when UW is still getting adjusted with four new starters.

But after nine games, the turnovers continue to be an issue like they were Sunday night when Washington committed 19 turnovers that led to 18 points.

Once again freshman forward Jaden McDaniels was the biggest offender while committing five turnovers, which marred an otherwise stellar performance that included 15 points, seven rebounds and five assists.

In many ways the Huskies have no choice but to endure McDaniels’ mistakes because he’s arguably their most-talented performer. But he’s had four games with at least five turnovers, which would normally result in reduced minutes if he weren’t so productive in other areas.

But there’s plenty of blame to spread around here.

McDaniels leads the Pac-12 with 3.7 turnovers, but every UW starter averages at least 2.0 turnovers, which is really astonishing considering Washington isn’t a fast-paced team.

The Huskies have had at least 15 turnovers in six games and they’ve been good enough to beat teams like Eastern Washington and San Diego despite the gaffes.

But if the turnover trend continues, Washington will have difficulty competing in the Pac-12.