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Gonzaga’s versatile big men provide another challenge for FSU basketball

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The Zags’ interior guys are the key to their attack.

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-First Round-UNCG vs Gonzaga Brian Losness-USA TODAY Sports

In the opening round, FSU had to face Missouri’s pair of 5* Porters. Against Xavier, the ’Noles had to stop one of college basketball’s biggest stars in Trevon Bluiett. Now it’s the Gonzaga challenge, which features a trio of versatile bigs.

All three average double-figures, and they’re led by 6’9 Johnathan Williams. Williams, a consensus top-50 recruit, spent his first two years at Missouri, and then transferred to Gonzaga, where he redshirted. Now he’s a grown-man 5th-year senior.

Gonzaga will often start games running a 4-out-1-in offense, with Williams in the middle. He’s got a relentless motor, and can rebound out of his area. He’s a good passer from the interior, and so the Zags are able to play inside-out, using Williams as their pivot. He’s by far their most active player around the rim, with 30 putbacks this year (nearly twice as many as their next closest player).

But the troubling thing is that they can drop another big into the middle to work with him, creating a 3-2 look. Or more disturbing, Williams can play on the perimeter as well, allowing Gonzaga to slide a different big into the solo slot in the interior.

The two other players who will play in the post are 6-10 sophomore Killian Tillie, and 6-8 sophomore Rui Hachimura.

Both players are international recruits, brought in by noted recruiter Tommy Lloyd. Gonzaga recruits Europe heavily, as a way to bring in high-impact players who might not be on the radar of the blue bloods. They’re the latest fruit of a successful strategy that has brought in Robert Sacre, Ronny Turiaf, Elias Harris, Kevin Pangos, Przemek Karnowski, Domantas Sabonis, and others.

Tillie, from France, is the stereotypical Euro big with a million moves. He’s athletic enough to take bigger players off the dribble, and he can take smaller players inside and go over them. More importantly, he’s a 48% 3-point shooter. And he’s been on an insane hot streak since Valentine’s Day. Despite going 0-4 from deep in the NCAA Tournament, he’s made 22-30 (73%) since mid-February.

Tillie and Williams both start. They’ll play either one on the interior, or sometimes they’ll play both. Usually, in the latter situation, it’s some kind of horns set where they’re utilizing screener/cutter action to try and back-door people. All three players are adept at catching in the post and looking opposite for a cutter.

Coming off the bench is 6-8 Rui Hachimura, from Japan. He’s a freak athlete in the mold of Mfiondu Kabengele, and offensively is the middle ground between Williams and Tillie. He’s not a good 3-point shooter, but he’s dangerous from 18’ in, and Gonzaga loves to isolate him and let him work. He’s also the best of the three in transition.

The one noticeable weakness of the trio is that the Zags typically have them flat hedge on ball screens (shoulders perpendicular to the baseline, a step back from the screen, in position to stop the drive from the ball handler). This position is vulnerable to bigs who can execute the pick-and-pop.

Obviously, Christ Koumadje and Ike Obiagu aren’t going to threaten anyone with their outside shots, but it should free up Phil Cofer and Kabengele at times. Otherwise, the ‘Noles will just need to execute their normal game plan of playing downhill and putting interior players in position to foul. Coach Mark Few is really only comfortable with seven guys, and so if the Seminoles can create foul trouble among these three players, it will go a long way toward mitigating Gonzaga’s balance.

Regardless, how to defend those three, and how to attack them, is an interesting challenge for the staff to game plan.