Back in 2010, before Final Fours, before Sweet 16s on demand, before NIL, Gonzaga turned in one of its most forgettable basketball performances of all time, losing 76-41 to Duke at Madison Square Garden. When I wrote Glory Hounds, Zags coach Mark Few and his assistant, Ray Giacoletti, recalled a glum, introspective walk afterward through the streets of New York in a snowstorm amid the incongruity of Christmas lights, trying to get a handle on their team.
Few and his coaching cronies have a name for it: Season-on-the-brink moments.
“You have ‘em every year,” Few told me.
Well, since the 2022-23 season is now over, there are no season-on-the-brink moments. But Connecticut’s evisceration of the Zags the other night in the Elite Eight probably would have qualified (and what better place to have lost yourself in thought, or blackjack, than the Las Vegas Strip?).
Gonzaga finished a season that was by turns alarming and then satisfying with a performance against UConn that was perplexing. Not that the Huskies won, or even that they won convincingly, but that the Zags, once the wheels started to come off, never mustered so much as a whimper of response. They were like a rotting second floor, which looks OK one minute and then collapses into a pile the next.
After all, this was an even game 14 minutes in, nothing to indicate UConn would later lead by 33. But the Zags then couldn’t make a shot – a lot of them in the lane. Offense affected defense and defense affected offense.
They didn’t help themselves by playing unintelligently. They botched the last possession of the half, pushing the UConn lead to seven, and Drew Timme’s third and fourth fouls, each early in the second half, simply weren’t smart, a contrast to his brilliant career.
So yes, the margin, 28 points, was a shock. Yet – easy to say now – perhaps there was a bit of inevitability to the defeat, even as there was talk of Gonzaga going all the way in a tournament memorable for its anarchy.
This was never one of GU’s best teams, less than imposing on the perimeter and without the defensive chops necessary. The Zags were an ominous No. 73 in KenPom’s defense numbers, and if you need perspective, the No. 72 team was Washington State, a .500 outfit.
An Elite Eight push was thus, if not overachievement, at least a mark of fulfillment.
Not that you’d know it by some of the reaction. For some reason, maybe because that national-title banner remains unhung, the Zags seem to rally critics to pitchforks and torches faster than you can get a beer from the fridge during a timeout.
Of course, there was an old standby, that the West Coast Conference doesn’t prepare Gonzaga for the NCAA tournament. So, I Twittered, that must mean the WCC hurt them when they lost in the eight straight Sweet 16 years, but not in the nation-best 25 victories they ran up in that stretch.
Somebody said they don’t see teams in the WCC that can extend and take away the three-pointer like they encounter in the NCAAs. Hmm, that sounds a lot like the Alabama team the Zags solved in Birmingham just before Christmas.
One media type alleged the Zags have had a “manageable to downright easy road” getting to the second weekend over the years. True that the UCLA injuries aided Gonzaga’s path this March. But in every one of those other Sweet 16 advances, the Zags faced a single-digit seed in the second round. We should want them to play the Milwaukee Bucks?
Ask Kansas how easy it is to get to the round of 32; three of the past four tournaments, it hasn’t. Ask Virginia, which has won games in only one of the past five tournaments. Ask Baylor, which has pushed into the Sweet 16 once in five tournaments.
The difference, obviously, is that those schools have recently won NCAA titles. USA Today, noting that vacancy in the Gonzaga trophy case, wrote, “So what is preventing this program from finally cashing in and winning a championship? If not already, at some point Few will be defined by his inability to get Gonzaga over this last hurdle.”
Pretty bold stuff, as opposed to the LA Times’ reference to Gonzaga as an “NCAA tournament Goliath” and a description of GU as a “blueblood” on a Westwood One national radio broadcast. The Zags don’t have a national championship, but they’re runaway leaders in inspiring polar reaction.
During its tournament run, for what it’s worth, Gonzaga (44-25) nosed into a tie for 19th nationally in total victories in the event, with Maryland (44-28) and Purdue (44-33). The Zags spotted the field a pretty good head start.
What’s next? Spokane Arena hosts first- and second-round games in 2024, and even without Timme, it would seem a proper goal to try to wrangle the kind of protected seed – No. 4 or better – to stay home. Gonzaga’s best teams have never quite lined up with that facility’s years of hosting, notably in the pandemic-scrubbed tournament of 2020.
Never has the college game been so infused with the transfer/NIL chaos, but you’d guess established programs with a solid culture – raise your hand, Gonzaga -- would be the ones holding the trump cards. This would be a good time for that culture to assert itself, to kill off those season-on-the-brink moments.
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Not so long ago, there was a time when Gonzaga couldn’t seem to make March Madness’ Sweet 16.
Now the thing can’t seem to go on without the Zags.
When they gnarled their way past TCU Sunday night, they crashed their eighth straight Sweet 16. That’s third all-time in college hoops, and to underscore the then-and-now of that streak, Gonzaga’s starting guards when it began were Kevin Pangos and Gary Bell Jr., and they're both 30 now. When the streak started, we were still five years removed from a worldwide pandemic.
Longtime Gonzaga watchers will recall some of the growing pains after the initial burst onto the college hoops scene – the ugly second-round 2004 meltdown at KeyArena against Nevada, the squandering of a double-digit lead to lose in the second round to Bob Knight’s Texas Tech team a year later.
In 2007 and 2008 came the first-round ousters (how quaint) to Indiana and Steph Curry’s Davidson, followed by a Sweet 16 breakthrough in Portland in 2009 thanks to Demetri Goodson.
But then came the Great Plateau, five years straight, when Gonzaga won first-round games but couldn’t convert 48 hours later to get to the Sweet 16. Looking back, GU turned in some terrific first-round performances – Florida State (2010), St. John’s (2011), West Virginia (2012) and Oklahoma State (2014) but their advances stopped right there.
Suddenly, getting to the second weekend is like second nature, and it begs for perspective.
Yes, Gonzaga will always be something less than complete until it hangs that big banner. But some of the numbers tell you what a heater the Zags have been on since 2015.
It began at KeyArena, and since then, Gonzaga is 24-7 in NCAA-tournament games, tops in the nation.
Some other tournament victory totals in that span:
North Carolina 21.
Michigan State 13.
Thing is, those are cold, hard numbers, apart from caterwauling about the WCC being a second-class league, discussions about tournament preparedness, etc., etc. You win games or you lose games, and there’s not a lot of room left for debate.
How do we wrap our heads around those 24 wins? Well, the NCAA tournament began outpacing the NIT as the sport’s event of relevance about 1950 or so. Until then, the NIT was held in equal or greater esteem (apologies to Oregon’s Tall Firs, who won the first NCAA tournament in 1939). So in the near 75 years since then, the last eight tournaments represent between 10 and 11 percent of that stretch, and Gonzaga is the nation’s winningest post-season program for that period.
Or this: The sport really blossomed in the post-John Wooden era, when TV became enthralled and Bird and Magic dueled in Salt Lake City in the championship game of 1979. If we establish that period at, say, the past 45 years, Gonzaga claims the last 18 percent of that era of booming interest in the game as the nation’s most irrepressible NCAA-tournament program. It’s all a little mind-numbing.
Yes, the absence of that elusive banner is still a big thing.
But no, it’s not the only thing
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Prisoners of the moment, we are. That’s a truism reinforced by the fact that Gonzaga hoops graduated from a collective national ugh earlier this season to the notion that, who knows, might have six more games in it.
Such was the rush created by the Zags’ ruthless 77-51 dispatch of Saint Mary’s the other night. Gonzaga treated the Gaels like somebody propped up in a “buy” game on a Wednesday night late in November, leading by 37 before SMC trimmed the deficit with its starters against Gonzaga subs.
Even so, 26 was the largest margin either of these WCC strongholds have inflicted on each other in their long history in the league tournament.
Sunday, Gonzaga earned a No. 3 seed opposite WAC winner Grand Canyon, with TCU, UCLA and high-upside Connecticut also lurking in the West Region.
Following the woodshedding of Saint Mary’s, the bouquets rained in for the Zags, except for this one from Brian Rauf, a writer at HeatcheckCBB.com:
“Seen a lot of talk about Gonzaga being a national-title contender because of how it blew out Saint Mary’s. To me, the game says more about the Gaels’ offensive struggles vs. athleticism than anything Gonzaga. Zags are still a solid team but I don’t see that ceiling . . . some issues – perimeter shot creation and rim protection chief among them – haven’t gone away. WCC opponents just couldn’t exploit them to the same extent.”
Rauf’s is a point worth examining. There are some warts with this Gonzaga team, and the question is: After a long, sometimes-bumpy season, have the Zags managed to chip away those weaknesses in advance of a long March run, or did they just do what they almost always do, which is shame the rest of the WCC?
Gonzaga’s performance against the Gaels was beyond dominating. Most impressively, its defensive rotations were terrific, its help almost unerring.
“Our defense was as good as it’s ever been,” said GU coach Mark Few. “It wasn’t just 10 minutes, 20 minutes, it was 40.”
The way it unfolded, Saint Mary’s was never going to win this game. But it also must be said that this was one of those nights for the Gaels, one in which they fluffed shots at the rim and threw passes to people in the seats. By themselves, apart from the Zags, they were horrendous.
Rauf’s observation about perimeter shot creation is valid. The Zags don’t have much of that. They do, however, run such exquisite offense – tops in the nation, per KenPom.com – that it helps mask that deficiency.
I’d be more concerned about that No. 75 defensive number in KenPom, and whether the Saint Mary’s evisceration is evidence of a defense finally getting it, or merely a one-off.
Zag fans who needn’t have a long memory might counter Rauf by pointing out that better Gonzaga teams have stumbled against Saint Mary’s – late season, and in the 2019 WCC-tournament final, when GU was top-ranked.
If you’re Zag-centric, you could argue the three games against Saint Mary’s this season summarize neatly Gonzaga’s ascendant arc. In Moraga early in February, the Zags led most of the way before Aidan Mahaney stole the game from them with a brilliant few minutes.
In Spokane, Gonzaga controlled throughout and won decisively but not in one-sided fashion. Then in Vegas, the Zags made Saint Mary’s look like the East Bay Irregulars.
This week, the Zags will truck some glitzy luggage into the NCAA tournament. They’ve won 13 straight first-round games, fifth all-time and trailing only a collection of royalty named North Carolina, Kentucky, Kansas and UCLA.
They’ve been in seven straight Sweet 16s. One more gets them undisputed third all-time, behind North Carolina and Duke.
Win it all? I doubt it. Even in a year of parity, that mountain is a sheer one for a team without great margin for error against the requisite array of opposing styles. What seems failsafe one night can be MIA the next. Last year, Andrew Nembhard was nails against Memphis, helping push the Zags into the Sweet 16. Against Arkansas, not so much.
But maybe with a break or two, the Final Four isn’t necessarily a bridge too far. For Zag types who would dare to dream, the Saint Mary’s game was a nudge into dreamland.
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