What I’m watching this weekend in college basketball

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SportsPule: USA TODAY Sports’ Lindsay Schnell and Scott Gleeson discuss some of the highlights from the first month of the college basketball season.
USA TODAY Sports

SEATTLE — Josh Perkins is, admittedly, a little dramatic. 

He confessed this in the Gonzaga locker room Sunday night, shortly after the Bulldogs (7-2) finished thumping upstart Washington 97-70 on the Huskies’ home floor. Washington had just returned from beating then-No. 2 Kansas on the road; in contrast, Gonzaga’s last game had been a debacle at Madison Square Garden, as Villanova dismantled the Zags 88-72. On paper, it seemed like it should have been a good matchup. 

But Perkins, the redshirt junior guard, played great against Washington, assuring that it would not, in fact, be a game. He registered a near-perfect stat line: 14 points on 4-for-5 shooting (including 3-fo-4 from long distance), eight assists, four steals, two rebounds and just one turnover, all in 32 minutes of play. It was not necessarily a night full of highlight-worthy plays. And for Perkins, that’s actually an improvement of sorts. 

“I think I always want to make the home run play, every time,” Perkins told USA TODAY Sports. “I want to go up to bat and swing as hard as I can. But I’m learning, it’s about singles.” 

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There are times, said Gonzaga coach Mark Few, when Perkins tries to do too much. The Zags get down, or have a bad stretch, and Perkins responds by trying to make some crazy play off the dribble, or gets fancy trying to split a double team, instead of making a safer, albeit duller, decision. It often results in a bad turnover, or ugly missed shot. This is something they’ve battled his entire Gonzaga career, and Perkins knows it. This happens in every facet of his life. In fact, he laughs when talking about it. 

“I mean, look at me,” he said, throwing his hands out. “I’ve got my ears pierced, I wear a (bright red) robe (to team breakfast). This is something I’ve always been fighting. But I’m really starting to figure out that possession of the ball really matters at this level.” 

At the PK80 Invitational last month in Portland, the Zags went 2-1, the loss a double-overtime thriller against Florida. Few, now in his 18th season in Spokane, said afterward that he considered the tournament a success because the weekend proved his team could play with anyone. As the Pac-12 sorts itself out — Arizona, a preseason favorite to go the Final Four, has looked shaky much of the first six weeks, while Arizona State has arguably and surprisingly the two best wins of any team in college hoops — Gonzaga could again be the premier group out west. 

But even though the Zags are just months removed from the program’s first Final Four, the doubters remain. Some of it is understandable: Gonzaga lost a lot from last year’s team, including West Coast Conference player of the year Nigel Williams-Goss, now playing overseas, and Zach Collins, Gonzaga’s first one-and-done player who was selected 10th overall in the 2017 NBA Draft. 

“We still don’t get the credit we deserve, and it puts a chip on our shoulder,” Perkins said after Gonzaga’s final PK80 game, a 76-71 overtime win vs. Texas.

Sunday night at Washington, Few said he’s not sure he completely agrees with Perkins’ analysis. But also that he doesn’t mind where his guys find motivation. Any kind of edge is good, he reasoned. 

Gonzaga (the Bulldogs host North Dakota on Saturday) has built a reputation as a national power partially because of its commitment to finding and developing stellar big men — besides Collins the list of recent post players includes Przemek Karnowski, Domantas Sabonis, Kyle Wiltjer and Kelly Olynyk. This year is no different, with Johnathan Williams, Killian Tillie and Rui Hachimura expected to carry a heavy portion of the load. But success will depend mostly on guard play, specifically from Perkins. 

Perkins has a tendency to waver between Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde: Some days, like against the Huskies, he’s terrific. And then there are times he plays like he did against Villanova, when he shot 4-for-13 — including 1-for-7 from three — and threw the ball away five times. 

“Josh has always had a flair for the home run, the highlight play, but he hasn’t always valued just the good basketball play,” Few said. “He’s an elite-level college shooter, and I’m always after him to value that, to hunt that, because that’s what separates him from 95% of the guards out there.” 

The numbers back up Few’s claim: Perkins hits on 51.6% of his three-point attempts, 17th best in college basketball. 

Perkins will also be tasked this year with bringing another Gonzaga guard, Zach Norvell Jr., up to speed. 

A 6-5, 205-pounder from Chicago, Norvell redshirted last season, and spent every day getting “served a piece of humble pie” by Perkins, Williams-Goss and senior guard Silas Melson. 

“I’m still learning on the fly,” said Norvell, the youngest starter on the team who averages 12 points in just 23 minutes per night. “But I’m following the lead of Josh and Silas right now, and I still talk to Nigel and ask him questions all the time.” 

Still, Perkins knows most of the pressure will be on him. It’s a challenge he welcomes. 

“I feel it, and it’s what you live for — for the team to need you,” Perkins said. “When I hear my teammates say stuff like, ‘Take care of the ball, take a better shot,’ it means more. These guys are playing for me, and I’m playing for them. That’s the culture here, that’s why we’ve been successful — because we keep each other accountable.” 

WHAT I’M WATCHING

It’s a weird week because a lot of athletes across the country have their noses buried in textbooks because of finals. But this weekend, there are plenty of good games to keep an eye on. 

No. 15 Seton Hall at Rutgers

Noon ET Saturday, Big Ten Network

The Pirates, led by slimmed-down Dezi Rodriguez, have been one of the best teams in non-conference play so far. And don’t sleep on Rutgers, which pushed Michigan State to the wire just a couple weeks ago. 

Virginia Tech at No. 5 Kentucky

2 p.m. ET Saturday, ESPN2

How do the Wildcats, the youngest team in the country, handle a veteran-led group? The Hokies start three upperclassmen. 

Oklahoma at No. 3 Wichita State

4 p.m. ET Saturday, ESPN2

Can the Shockers solve the riddle that is Trae Young? The Sooners freshman guard leads the country in scoring (28.8 points per game) and is third in assists (8.8). 

No. 7 North Carolina at No. 20 Tennessee 

3 p.m. ET Sunday, ESPN

Credit the defending national champs for being willing to schedule a real road test. Tennessee, under former longtime Texas coach Rick Barnes, has been one of the biggest surprises this season. 

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