Sam Dower, “The Rotation,” and You
Editor’s Note: The column’s taking a two-week vacation. Come back Friday, February 25, for the first of the final three columns of the season.
“You just got lesson number one. Don’t think; it can only hurt the ball club.” –Crash Davis
In case you missed the raining frogs and sulfuric fireballs signaling the Apocalypse, Saint Mary’s beat the Zags in the Kennel last Thursday, all but ending the latter’s decade-long control of WCC regular seasons and essentially locking up this season’s title for themselves. That Manny Arop and Mathis Keita never even found the floor during the most important game of the season (and depending on how things shake out, maybe the most important regular season one in program history) rightly confused Zag fans, as did the fact that Sam Dower and his sudden Adrian Dantley impression hadn’t been getting serious time all season. And all the confusion apparently compelled Spokesman-Review sports columnist John Blanchette to write a column. It was much anticipated, but in large, I don’t think we really learned anything new. Underclassmen struggle to get playing time in Mark Few’s system? Knew that. Outside of the starting five and maybe the first guy off the bench, the rest of the team struggles to get minutes as well? Knew that. Sometimes a guy plays a lot, the next game he doesn’t play at all? Knew that, too. To me, this whole thing has very little to do with “the rotation,” no matter how confusing it is that it seems to be chosen by drawing names from a hat. (Besides, anyone who watched the Zags lose to Steph Curry and Davidson in the 2007 Tourney while Micah Downs played only seven minutes knows the rotation didn’t just start being confusing.) No, what worries me the most is the fact that Mark Few’s playing-time philosophy as described in the Blanchette piece doesn’t leave a whole lot of room for error. And unfortunately, this season, we might be seeing that chance become a reality.
First, a breakdown of Few’s philosophy. According to assistant coach Ray Giacoletti, there’s “a shorter leash” for bench players than starters. Though Few’s never going to pull a guy for one mistake, if he makes a couple stupid ones in a row and he’ll find himself on the bench because as Giacoletti notes, when the subs come in, they’re “right in the crux of the game” and nobody wants things getting quickly out-of-hand. As well, “the rotation” is dictated largely by game-to-game things such as match ups. Such it is that Mathis Keita might match up really well against one team but not so well against others, so he plays one game and doesn’t play the next. And finally, that same rotation gets shaped by the roster as a whole. When the frontcourt is an area of strength, for example, frontcourt players will find less time coming off the bench than they maybe would normally. This last point is the most important because it is the one upon which the other two are based (a coach would be forced to gamble with match ups or overlook mistakes if he were dealing with an area of weakness), so it will be at the center of our discussion. And because it is this perceived strength in the frontcourt that’s at the core of Few’s philosophy, we’ll use it to focus on Sam Dower.
To do that, let’s start with the floor time of two recent Gonzaga big men, Cory Violette and Ronny Turiaf, during their freshmen seasons. Violette’s playing time during his freshman season of 2000-2001 can best be described as up-and-down. His minutes played ranged from zero to 29 before averaging out at 11.7, and his minutes percentage (that is, the percentage of total game time he was on the floor) only twice topped 50%. GU’s frontcourt that season was maybe one of its deepest ever, with Casey Calvary and Mark Spink earning the bulk of the minutes and Anthony Reason, Alex Hernandez, and Zach Gourde filling valuable role time. There was no space for the freshman Violette, so he spent most of his time on the bench. Ronny Turiaf came the next season into a somewhat different situation. Calvary and Spink both graduated, and though Reason, Hernandez, Gourde, and Violette all returned, there was neither the depth nor the solid proven low post threats of 2000-2001. Turiaf the freshman was then forced into a much greater role than Violette the freshman. He averaged 19.5 minutes per game, topped out at 29 (against WSU), played less than ten only three times, and never played less than seven. In contrast to Violette’s 29% the year before, Ronny spent an average of 47% of all the minutes the Zags played that year on the court. Now in the end, both players had great careers and should be considered among the top four or five big men in Gonzaga history. The development strategy for each does not appear to have been that different from the basic philosophy outlined in John Blanchette’s his column, and for each, that philosophy seems to have worked.
Which brings us to Sam Dower. To this point, the coaching staff is applying the same basic philosophy to Dower as it did to Cory Violette. He’ll get some minutes here and there, but otherwise, his job is to learn to play Division I basketball. Not sure we can necessarily argue with that, but the whole course hinges entirely on Gonzaga’s frontcourt being an area of strength. Is it? Relative, maybe, but actual? I’m not so sure. Elias Harris is much more suited to a wing-type role where he can drive the lane and create for himself. But this season he’s been thrown into a power forward spot in an offense that’s at times so stagnant that there’s no open space into which he can work. Rob Sacre has improved nicely over the course of the season and become a little more of a scorer (rather than a guy with a poor field goal percentage and a point total inflated by free throws), but still, when it comes to low post options, he’s really all the Zags have had. This became clear in the above mentioned loss to Saint Mary’s when the Gaels’ few big men quickly got into foul trouble, but Gonzaga couldn’t really take advantage. Think an effective, confident, and experienced Sam Dower alongside Sacre wouldn’t have helped there? Instead, they each got plenty of floor time, but almost none of it together. The frontcourt, in this case, never had a chance to be a strength and in the end, it only was one on paper. The Zags lost a nailbitter, and in the end, maybe their season. I wonder if things had been different had Sam Dower been prepped all season to play alongside Rob Sacre instead of just learning how to be his understudy.
What the future holds is anyone’s guess. Sam Dower could develop into one of the great Zag big men and we’ll look at this season and say that like Cory Violette and Ronny Turiaf, his development was handled perfectly. But the thing about freshman Violette and freshman Turiaf is that they each played on WCC championship teams who also made the NCAA Tournament (Violette’s team went to the Sweet Sixteen). All season, Dower was kept out of the lineup because the staff thought the team’s overall strength in the frontcourt made his skills expendable. The fact that other players took up the slack down low meant that whatever mistakes he made in practice or whatever match up seemed unfavorable would be taken seriously. In the process, though, the Zags have floundered. With three conference losses they’re almost assured of losing the WCC regular season title for the first time in a decade, and overall are in more than serious danger of missing the Tournament for the first time this century. If they have a strength, it is in their size, but if that size is never on the court at the same time, it is only a strength on paper. So, for the sake of this season, I hope the path the coaching staff has chosen to take with Sam Dower, the one that was willing to keep him off the court instead of on it, was the right one.