How long will this undefeated thing run for the Zags?
This being sports and all, it’s foolhardy to assume anything and look ahead. Nevertheless, caveats, disclaimers and disavowals in place, there’s this: It might be awhile before Gonzaga loses. In fact, the Zags (11-0) might well be the last team standing nationally without a defeat in 2016-17.
Rick Barnes broached this possibility after the Zags survived his Tennessee team Sunday in Nashville: That they could run the table in the regular season and go into the NCAA tournament unbeaten.
That’s a big leap. Certainly, it’s not an impossible notion, if indeed this is one of Mark Few’s top-shelf Gonzaga teams, and it appears it is. The West Coast Conference schedule isn’t exactly loaded with land mines (although the cliché of every gym lusting for Zag blood will again hold forth.)
So we won’t go there with Barnes. But it isn’t out of the question the Zags, who host South Dakota of the Summit League Wednesday night in their final pre-league game, could soldier well into January -- like right up to Jan. 14, when they host Saint Mary’s -- without a defeat.
To date, five others nationally have spotless resumes -- Villanova, UCLA, Baylor, Creighton and USC.
Gonzaga has obviously surmounted the most imposing hurdles on the non-league schedule, even as a couple of those, like San Diego State and Iowa State, haven’t exactly assembled boffo portfolios.
It would be unwise to attach too much credence to Ratings Percentage Index numbers at this point. But South Dakota is No. 211, and of the first four WCC opponents, the only one with an RPI better than 200 is Portland at 125. Add a grain of salt to all that, since the No. 69-ranked team right now is Indiana and No. 81 is Michigan State. (Gonzaga is No. 8.)
But this is Gonzaga’s longest walk among the undefeateds to start a season since it began playing D-1 basketball in 1958-59. It just might last a good while longer, with all the attendant challenges and pressure.
It's also debatable whether the Gonzaga coaches would even want an extended, long unbeaten run deep into the season, such is the scrutiny it would invite.
Other observations on the state of the Zags, now No. 7-ranked:
-- The inability to simply strangle opponents after holding a big lead should be a concern. It’s happened against Iowa State, Arizona and now Tennessee. While an opening salvo like the 27-6 burst at Tennessee can’t be sustained for a game, too often those comfortable leads have seemingly led to some bad fundamentals, like losing three-point shooters and . . .
-- The defensive-rebounding malaise. What was before a curiosity now seems a problem. A year ago, Gonzaga allowed 10 offensive rebounds a game. In 2016-17, it is surrendering 15. There are times when it looks like GU’s best chance at a defensive board is that the opposing rebounder simply mishandles the ball.
-- Part of those struggles, though, are due to Gonzaga generally playing very good half-court defense, where Ken Pomeroy’s adjusted rankings now put GU at No. 16. Gonzaga is holding opponents to .361 field-goal shooting, markedly better than last year’s number of .396. In other words, there are a lot of rebounds.
-- Turnovers (20) were a problem against Tennessee, where it almost seemed that Gonzaga’s active defensive tempo carried over to the offense, to its detriment. On occasion, the Zags rushed shots or failed to make the extra pass.
-- Its depth continues to be a boon for Gonzaga. Freshman Killian Tillie, who is contributing mightily, is the No. 8 scorer at 4.7 points.
-- It’s been a spotty transition for Missouri transfer Johnathan Williams III. He has struggled with foul trouble, tied for the team lead in whistles, while averaging 9.0 points per game. Improved decision-making and the occasional ball- or shot-fake would flatter his natural athletic ability.
-- A .744 team free throw percentage is a good sign for the Zags. Przemek Karnowski, who has always hovered around 50 percent, is at .621, and surely the coaches would take that all year.