February 20, 2009 in Sports

Blanchette: Zags hum along without ho-hum

By The Spokesman-Review
 

If this is February, then the Gonzaga votary must be aggrieved that the objects of his devotion aren’t 50 points better than the Little Dons of the Poor, if not pitching a shutout.

If this is February, Mark Few must be lamenting the outsized mandate under which his program labors.

This is routine now honed to ritual, comic in both its extremes. Latter-day converts to the Church of More and a coach resigned to the inevitability that a goal too often achieved is somehow rendered irrelevant.

For the ninth consecutive year, the Zags are regular-season champions of the West Coast Conference, something best whispered in the company of hardliners who don’t understand why Gonzaga doesn’t just secede from this one-horse league and barnstorm through the Top 25 Globetrotter-style from November to March.

A 91-54 romp over Loyola Marymount did the trick Thursday night, and presumably the 37-point spread was sufficient not to set off alarms – although the Lions are the worst Division I basketball team on the planet, if you forget that a week ago they beat San Diego, which was supposed to be prepping for another trip to the NCAA tournament right about now.

The ho accompanying the hum of that ninth straight title is another 20-victory season – 12 in a row for the Zags. But we know how devalued that is.

“People in places like ours and Gonzaga’s get spoiled and expect to win every game,” Memphis coach John Calipari said before his Tigers kicked around the Zags earlier this month. “In Memphis they think 30 wins is the bench mark and that’s crazy.”

Coaches are, of course, notorious for trying to throttle back public expectation, lest they get run over by their own locomotive.

And maybe this is a little bit of that, but it’s also something else. Expectation doesn’t seem to bother Few as much as presumption.

“I don’t think winning our league is something we ever need to get bored with,” he said.

Does he sense the Gonzaga fan has?

“Yeah, and I think our guys feel that – and it’s terribly unfortunate,” he said. “We have high expectations, but we’re not Duke, we’re not Carolina and we’re not Kentucky. We aspire to be, but we’re not yet.

“What was set before our guys, they accomplished. They won the league – a league that was supposed to be one of if not the best league ever, in terms of teams with NCAA experience and experienced players back. Now they’ll move on to other things we’ve set before them.”

Not only will the Zags win the league, but they figure to win it by at least three and maybe four or five games, a remarkable rout given not only the presence of last year’s other NCAA tournament teams, Saint Mary’s and San Diego, but the emergence of unsung Portland. Yes, both the Gaels and Toreros have suffered huge injury hits with the loss of Patrick Mills and Brandon Johnson, respectively – and the subsequent devastation is almost shrugged off as a given.

And yet any Zagaphile would still expect to win if Gonzaga were to lose a player of a similar stature.

“No question,” Few said. “And I’d still think we could, too.”

The state of toughness in the Gonzaga program has been questioned of late, and not without some cause, but contrast the unfathomable collapse of San Diego and how Saint Mary’s fainted after the loss of their leaders to what happened with the Zags two years ago when they found themselves without Josh Heytvelt down the stretch.

Which is not to say the Zags haven’t stumbled over their Nikes a bit lately.

But who hasn’t? Didn’t Duke lose a pair last week? Butler, the de facto Gonzaga of the Midwest, dropped two in a row – one to 14-15 Loyola of Illinois – and has struggled mightily twice against Detroit, which will lose 22 or 23 games.

“This seems to be the norm in college basketball,” Few said. “This group or generation of kids can’t seem to maintain concentration for 35 games. Outside of Pitt and maybe UConn, everybody else has had some head-scratchers.”

But, of course, the issue for the most demanding of fans has nothing to do with the regular season. Consecutive first-round exits in the NCAAs are a particular source of angst – and presented with the fact of, say, the back-to-back champions of Florida not even making the field last year, or misses by a Syracuse or some other power, they will counter that those teams get a pass because of previous titles or Final Four appearances that the Zags do not have.

Traditions that were built over the course of 70 years, Gonzaga is presumed to have duplicated in 15.

“Sure, we aspire to more than a league championship,” Few said, “and we have every year. That doesn’t mean we take it for granted.

“But it’s not national championship or bust. That’s ridiculous. We’re Gonzaga and we’re still working on those kinds of traditions. We want to accomplish as many new things for this program as we can.

“But that doesn’t lessen an old accomplishment like winning the league, either. We should never think we’re too good to celebrate that.”


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