A GRIP ON SPORTS
Basically all the ESPN guys could talk about last night was the near-perfect play on the offensive end of Gonzaga's Kelly Olynyk and Elias Harris. And the duo deserved praise as they combined for 51 points in GU's dominating 83-63 win over BYU. But I saw something else, something that will be key if this Zag team is going to advance to previously unseen heights come March. Read on.
• Before the season began, the Gonzaga coaching staff holds a clinic for high school coaches in the area. It's something they've been doing, off-and-on, since Mark Few, Dan Monson and Billy Grier were youngsters trying to make ends meet. I've got notes from previous clinics that date back to prehistoric times (or the 1980s to put it another way), with thoughts from old-time guys like Gene Keady, Louie Carnesecca (pictured) and every coach that's ever passed through as a GU assistant. This year, current Gonzaga staff member Ray Giacoletti – who I once heard speak at another clinic concerning a 3-point shooter's license when he was Eastern's head coach – talked about the Zags' defensive philosophy. A lot of what Giacoletti described took me back to the days of sitting in WSU's practices, watching Tony Bennett go through the Cougars' Pack philosophy with his guys. And Giacoletti acknowledged the connection, saying the Zags were trying a lot of the same principles, mainly Bennett's emphasis on getting help defenders in the driving lanes, or the gaps of the defense. It's help defense at its finest, a team concept that makes the group better than the individual defenders could ever be. It takes time to perfect, to make sure guys are in the right gaps at the right time. When it's played correctly, it is impressive to watch. And that's what I saw in the first half last night. Gonzaga was playing defense in the gaps about as well as it could be played. Make no mistake about it. BYU is and has always been one of the better offensive basketball programs in the country. The Cougars pride themselves on getting up and down the court, in executing their offense with precision and, most importantly, make shots. The Zags did a good job of transition defense in the first half Thursday night, forcing BYU to attack in the half-court. And that's where guys like Gary Bell Jr., Mike Hart, Kevin Pangos, Olynyk and Harris shined.
• Whenever Matt Carlino attacked with the bounce, a guy was in the gap. (The play that cleary illustrated the philosophy was made by Drew Barham, not the most quick-footed of Zags, who was in the gap to Pangos' left early when Carlino tried to jump-start the BYU offense with a drive to the hoop; instead, Barham earned an obvious charge.) Whenever Tyler Haws came off a screen, a guy was in his face (as illustrated in the accompanying photo). And whenever Brandon Davies posted up, there was the Zag defense to double team and disrupt his looks. It was impressive. The Cougars scored 21 points in the first half. They shot 25.8 percent from the floor and were just 1 of 10 from beyond the arc – occasionally a weak-link in the Zags' (and Pack) defense. There was a 3-minute, 28-second stretch late in the half in which the Cougars could do nothing and GU took the lead from 10 to 22, making a BYU comeback a near-impossibility. It's the type of defensive effort that teams need in March, when every possession becomes a grind and your best players can be locked down on the offensive end. To reach the Elite Eight or the Final Four, Gonzaga will need to play the first-half defense it showed yesterday for 40 minutes each night. If the Zags can do that, they should be able to overcome an off-night or two offensively and still advance. And that's how deep runs in March are made.
• Gonzaga: Gotta love those 8:10 starts for Thursday night games. Jim Meehan was in the Kennel, along with 6,000 of Kevin Pango's closest friends. He filed this game story and blog post last night and will be back today with a follow-up blog post. … Colin Mulvany has a whole bunch of pictures (one of which is shown at left). … From the Salt Lake City area, the Cougars' inability to score was the main topic in coverage from the Tribune and Deseret News. … St. Mary's is also playing lock-down defense, the type that harkens back to a bad '80s song. … USF, which will be in Spokane this weekend, rallied late and edged Portland. … The GU women had little trouble with Pepperdine on the road.
• Washington State: As Christian Caple laments, one of these days the Cougars will play on a Thursday night. But not this week. So Christian's report today is limited to his morning post and an upcoming live chat.
• EWU: The Eagles had the night off, but the league didn't. Montana State handed Weber its first conference loss while Southern Utah defeated Portland State in the first Big Sky meeting between the two.
• Idaho: The Vandals held a decent-sized lead against Texas State but saw it all slip away at home last night, turning over the ball and a chance at victory in the second half. Correspondent Theo Lawson filed this story and Josh Wright has a blog post on the 78-73 loss. … The depleted Aggies from Utah State lost again, this time to UT Arlington.
• Chiefs: Spokane will host Portland again tonight. John Blanchette takes a look at the former Chief who is in charge of Portland's fortunes. … The Winterhawks have lost four consecutive games, but they are not in panic mode.
• Preps: Greg Lee was in the Valley last night to witness one of the better local prep events, the Battle for the Bone. He has this story. … Mead finished off the GSL gymnastics season undefeated. …Former local high school, WSU and then professional baseball standout Ed Bouchee (pictured) died Wednesday.
• Seahawks: Does anyone want Matt Flynn? Maybe not.
• Mariners: So Justin Upton made it clear he didn't want to go to Seattle – to paraphrase fictional former Red Sox Sam Malone on an episode of “Frazier” once: “no baseball player is in Seattle because he wants to be.” It was because he wanted to be with his brother in Atlanta. Upton's decision not only hurt the M's lineup, but Arizona's as well, as the Braves didn't give the Diamondbacks as strong a package of players as what Seattle was offering.
• Sonics: OK, so there are some snags cropping up with the sale of the Kings to the Seattle group, including the chance of one very big whale plopping down in the middle of the deal. But aren't such things to be expected in the NBA?
• That's it for today. My poor wife, Kim, had trouble pulling herself out of bed this morning for work. Her friend Mary Jo took her to the GU game and that meant a late night. Hey, 10:30 is late for not-so-young folks like us. Anyhow, I was jealousy – and nearly asleep by the time Kim rolled in. After all, I have to be alert for my morning post. Until later …