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Four out: After a fifth loss, where does Gonzaga go from here?

Jan. 13—Depending how you look at it, the fact that Gonzaga's 77-76 loss to Santa Clara on came during a single-game week for the Bulldogs could be a blessing or a curse.

The Bulldogs might have preferred another game 48 hours later — as is customary with the West Coast Conference's Thursday/Saturday scheduling model — to rinse the taste of defeat. On the other hand, it gives Mark Few's staff more time to review film and address mistakes, not to mention additional rest for three Gonzaga players who logged 40 minutes Thursday night at the Leavey Center.

How can the Bulldogs get back on track after their fifth loss? What rotational adjustments are possible at the midway point of the season? How should Few use Anton Watson moving forward after a 32-point game?

Gonzaga beat reporters Jim Meehan and Theo Lawson address a few pertinent questions facing the Bulldogs (11-5, 2-1) as they prepare to get back on the road for Thursday's game at Pepperdine (8-10, 1-2) and Saturday's at San Diego (10-8, 0-3).

1. In the big picture, does Thursday's loss to Santa Clara put Gonzaga at a place of having to win out in the regular season to secure an at-large NCAA berth? And if GU does get in, either as an at-large or WCC Tournament champion, is Spokane as a first-round destination totally out of the question at this point?

Meehan: On the first question, it's close, but I don't think it's quite that dire. The Zags, No. 49 in the NET rankings, should have at least three more Quad 1 opportunities (at Kentucky, at Saint Mary's, vs. San Francisco at Chase Center) and could have a couple of more at home if the Gaels and Dons crack the top 30 in the NET. Both are in the upper 30s as of Saturday. GU obviously can't afford any slip-ups against the WCC's bottom tier. A road win over Kentucky in February would be huge for the Zags' credentials, along with any Quad 1 win since they're 0-4 at this point.

As far as opening in Spokane in March Madness, it probably requires GU to win out — and even that might not be enough. Still, if GU rattled off 16 straight wins, counting two potential Quad 1s in the WCC Tournament, they'd be 27-5 with perhaps a 6-4 Quad 1 record and two losses to probable No. 1 seeds. In other words, Gonzaga's resume would be similar to last year's 28-5 record (6-4 Quad 1) that landed a No. 3 seed on Selection Sunday.

Lawson: Jim covered most of it, but at this point, Spokane-based Gonzaga fans should probably expect to spend some money on airfare if they plan to see the Bulldogs in the NCAA Tournament, rather than banking on a short drive to the Arena. Grabbing an at-large bid will definitely require Gonzaga to win at least one of its remaining Quad 1 opportunities. Preferably multiple. According to a recent article in The Athletic, no team in the NET era has secured an at-large berth after going 0-fer in Quad 1 games. The Zags aren't in desperation mode yet, but they need to get something out of their games in Lexington, San Francisco and Moraga.

It may be uncomfortable, but Gonzaga fans also need to root for a few of their top rivals in the WCC, including, yes, Randy Bennett and SMC. At their best, the Gaels have proven they can hang with everyone on their schedule, and they'll certainly get up for two regular-season games against Gonzaga. But Saint Mary's also owns a few puzzling losses and the Gaels are just 3-2 in Quad 3 games. Right now, the final weekend of WCC play presents Gonzaga with two Quad 1 opportunities, but that could change if the Gaels and Dons somehow slip up against No. 209 LMU, No. 230 San Diego, No. 235 Pepperdine, No. 298 Portland or No. 351 Pacific.

2. How did Gonzaga's lack of backcourt depth become such an issue this season? It seems like in years' past there have always been an abundance of guards on the roster.

Lawson: Gonzaga's issues are particularly startling when you consider last season's backcourt consisted of someone who ranks sixth in ACC scoring (Hunter Sallis), the WCC's current leader in 3-point percentage (Dominick Harris) and a 15-point-per game scorer in the NBA G League (Malachi Smith). And that was just the bench. Gonzaga constructed its 2023-24 roster in a way that didn't leave much margin for error. It's simple math, really. The Bulldogs lost four guards — those three players, plus Rasir Bolton — and added three. One of those, Dusty Stromer, plays primarily as a wing in the wake of Steele Venters' ACL injury, and another, Luka Krajnovic, is out with a broken hand. Krajnovic, who committed to the Zags in mid-August, wasn't a candidate for rotation minutes prior to the injury. As of now, the only other healthy guard on Gonzaga's roster who's logged minutes is Few's son, Joe, a junior walk-on. That's hard to reckon with for a team that elected not to use two scholarships.

Meehan: GU is definitely short on guards, especially ball-handlers, for all the reasons Theo listed. The Zags obviously attempted to replace the departing guards during offseason recruiting but weren't able to balance the numbers and they're left with an unbalanced roster. The result is Ryan Nembhard and Nolan Hickman, who is playing shooting guard primarily, are logging heavy minutes against Gonzaga's toughest opponents, not an ideal situation. With Nembhard and Hickman having multiple years of eligibility remaining, it was probably tougher to attract another guard (transfer or prep) with recruits knowing playing time would be limited behind Nembhard and Hickman.

3. How can the current roster be shifted to try to create a little more overall depth? Coach Mark Few has always leaned on shorter rotations, but the long minutes seem to already be taking a toll on Anton Watson, Nolan Hickman and Ryan Nembhard.

Meehan: Frankly, there isn't a great deal Few can do in tighter games with the current roster construction. The options are letting Nembhard/Hickman run the show solo for short stretches while the other takes a break and/or using the four bigs to squeeze in occasional rest for Watson and the starting backcourt. Hickman's point guard experience helps because it gives the Zags two players to handle pressure, set up the offense and use in ball-screen action. It would be a tall order for Krajnovic to provide key minutes off the bench since he was a late signing originally and he'll be coming off a six-week layoff from a broken bone in his hand when he returns, possibly near the end of the month. Another issue: Watson's presence is nearly required in the three-big alignment because of his versatility at both ends of the court.

Lawson: It's unlike Few to make significant changes once the starting lineup and bench rotations are set. It's especially unlike him to overhaul things 16 games into the regular season. There's not much flexibility with what's available, but the Zags could experiment with their three-big alignment to open games, rather than switching to that lineup at the first media timeout, as we've seen them do in most games. In this situation, GU would probably roll with a starting five of Nembhard, Hickman, Ben Gregg, Watson and Graham Ike. This allows the Zags to do a few things. For one, it guarantees more rest for Nembhard and Hickman. Coming off the bench, Stromer could spell either of the starting guards, even if just for a few minutes at a time. Stromer may not be ready to take on point guard duties, even in short bursts, but he wouldn't need to with one of Nembhard or Hickman on the floor at all times. Gregg's best role may be the one he's in — a spark plug off the bench — but it's worth pointing out the junior is giving the Zags more scoring (7.6 ppg), rebounding (4.9 rpg) and defensive production (1.3 spg) despite averaging 11 fewer minutes than Stromer (6.0 ppg, 4.1 rpg, 0.8 spg).

4. Anton Watson has been unstoppable in two games this season — Thursday vs. Santa Clara and against UCLA in Honolulu. Could GU explore using him more in a Drew Timme role and run everything through him every game?

Lawson: It's not a stretch to say Watson is Gonzaga's most important player. After Thursday's game, I'd feel comfortable saying it's not particularly close, either. Could it hurt to get Watson more involved, more often? Probably not. He's evolved as a perimeter shooter every year he's been on campus, was especially good in isolation sets against Santa Clara and UCLA and continues to show steady progress from the free-throw line. The Bulldogs can probably afford to sprinkle in a few more plays for Watson, but they should be conscious of not overusing him. That probably doesn't mean dialing up his offensive usage to Timme levels, even if it at times it feels like the best option for a team that's shooting 3-pointers at a 31% clip and struggling to get consistent production from its backcourt.

Meehan: Not sure that's a viable option. Timme, Gonzaga's all-time leading scorer, was the centerpiece for the majority of his last two seasons. Watson and Timme are both intelligent players, but how they operate on offense is quite different. Few players on earth have as many post moves as Timme, but the Zags often were tougher to defend when others stepped up, including Watson, in the scoring column last season. The Zags ran numerous iso plays for Watson vs. Santa Clara and UCLA and he came through, but he also finished in transition and on at least three occasions against the Broncos he grabbed offensive boards and scored when he wasn't the first option. When he's in the zone like he was against Santa Clara and UCLA, the staff does put the ball in his hands more, but he carries an enormous workload and he was running on empty in the closing minutes Thursday.