The Gonzaga Bulldogs lost to Portland, picked ninth in the preseason poll, last Thursday at the Chiles Center, another not-so-gentle reminder that there are no gimmies on the road in college basketball.
I took a closer look at why road games, particularly in the WCC, have always been challenging for the Zags in an article that will run in Wednesday's S-R. Gonzaga, of course, isn't alone. Just saw highlights of previously unbeaten Wisconsin losing at Indiana and Kentucky falling at Arkansas.
An unedited copy of my article can be found below.
By Jim Meehan
email@example.com, (208) 765-7131
It was a familiar and not-so-familiar scene.
Familiar in that when Gonzaga loses a WCC men’s basketball game on the road the crowd typically pours onto the court to celebrate, as fans did after Portland knocked off the visiting Zags last Thursday.
It happened three straight years from 2010-12 inside San Francisco’s cozy War Memorial Gym, two of those upsets against ranked GU squads. It happened in January, 2011, when Santa Clara beat the Bulldogs. It happened in February, 2010, when Loyola Marymount clipped the 13th-ranked Bulldogs for the Lions’ first win over a ranked foe since the 1990 NCAA Tournament.
It happened in Moraga in 2007 when Saint Mary’s beat the Bulldogs. The crowd stormed the floor before time ran out and the Gaels were hit with a technical foul that didn’t influence the outcome.
The not-so-familiar part is that while life on the road is no picnic, Gonzaga has gone 53-13 (80.3 percent) in conference since 2004. The Zags are 67-2 during that same span at the McCarthey Athletic Center.
Still, it’s tough out there and Gonzaga (14-3, 4-1 WCC) takes two more road exams this week, against Pepperdine (11-7, 4-2) on Thursday and Loyola Marymount (10-8, 2-4) on Saturday. Home teams have won 19 of 27 WCC contests.
“It kind of makes you know you can lose to anyone,” forward Angel Nunez said, “and don’t get carried away with your success.”
“Maybe we came in a little lackadaisical,” forward Sam Dower Jr. said. “We did get some good wins here (to open conference), but that was our first WCC road game and we didn’t come in with the right mind set.”
Dower noted last week that teams circle home dates against Gonzaga on their calendar. Why?
“Because we’re Gonzaga,” Dower said. “We’ve been winning this conference some for some time now and teams want to beat us. Wherever we go teams make sure their crowds are there.”
Guard David Stockton said opponents are more comfortable on their home floor and generally shoot better on familiar rims. Guard Kevin Pangos said foes are more fired up when Gonzaga comes to town and “they make a couple of shots and just get going.”
Coach Mark Few has pointed out for years that Gonzaga generally gets the opponent’s best shot.
“When a player gets one game in the league season to play in front of a packed house and a shot against a ranked opponent and in some instances it’s their only shot to play on national TV, obviously the effort is ratcheted up quite a bit,” Few said.
Gonzaga didn’t match Portland’s effort or execution. Few stressed that he didn’t want to take anything away from Portland’s performance, but he labeled it Gonzaga’s poorest defensive effort of the season.
“We had so many guys missing game-plan assignments, that’s the most disappointing thing,” Few said. “And offensively we played with no purpose. We tried to score on the first side or first action time and time again.”
Gonzaga has gone undefeated in the WCC three times since 2004, but it’s rarely easy on enemy courts. The 2013 Bulldogs, arguably the best team in school history, beat Santa Clara by 43 points in the MAC and by 7 in Santa Clara. They edged San Diego 65-63 at the Jenny Craig Pavilion then won the rematch by 31 points three weeks later.
The 2013 Zags outscored opponents by nearly 24 points per home game, 11.5 points away (all games, not just conference). Their field-goal percentage dropped by 4.6 percentage points on the road, they averaged 3.2 fewer assists and their rebounding margin slipped from 8.3 to 4.8.
The 2012 Zags (26-7, 13-3) outscored foes by 16 points at home, 1.5 points on the road. Their shooting percentage was roughly the same home or away, but opponents made 45 percent of their shots compared to 39.3 percent in the MAC.
The bottom tier of this year’s WCC “have come up and those of us who were at the top have come down quite frankly,” Few said. “We’re not as dominant as we were. That makes for great battles night in and night out.”
Few has repeatedly said Gonzaga is vulnerable if “we don’t play harder than the other team, or play smart.”
Asked if that message has been received by the team, Few said, “Hard to say. We’ll find out.”