MEMPHIS, Tenn. – In the 10 years since Gonzaga crashed the national basketball party, the Bulldogs have made four marches to within a game of their own meridian, the latest a date tonight with North Carolina.
Each of the previous three has been a moment of truth – hard truth, alas.
The Zags have not managed to duplicate that 1999 surge to the Elite 8 of the NCAA tournament – or, rather, recreate it, since the joy, improbability and lightning of those two weeks cannot be duplicated. That has been a disappointment to some, though hardly a shame. Sixty-eight schools have reached the Sweet 16 this decade; only nine have done it more often than the Zags, all of them with college basketball pedigrees and some that stretch waaaaaaay back.
Ten years is long enough to build expectation, you might say, but not tradition.
By its second week, the NCAAs are almost a different tournament, in a couple of respects. Pressure remains, of course, but not of the same kind you see in the first round, with teams confronted by the likelihood of going home in one day and others trying to bear up under the implications of wearing the white jerseys. And then there’s the competition.
“Every team has earned its way into the tournament that first week,” said Gonzaga guard Matt Bouldin, “but everybody who gets this far is really good.”
And the margin for error is Austin Daye-thin.
What’s been common to Gonzaga’s three previous Sweet 16 exits is that they seemed to turn on a single element, easily recognizable and yet anything but easy to fix.
Oh-oh moments, you could call them.
For example, in GU’s 2000 loss to Purdue, the Bulldogs did not deal all that well with the Boilermakers’ ugly-it-up style, but the game was quite likely lost early when it was being played at a pace more to Gonzaga’s liking. The problem was, it was being played at high altitude in Albuquerque, N.M., and the first dead-ball media timeout didn’t occur until nearly 71/2 minutes had ticked off the clock. The Zags seemed to be running on empty thereafter.
“We were a team that played fast but had a short bench and it was just one of those freak things,” recalled GU assistant Leon Rice.
A year later, Michigan State thoroughly brutalized Gonzaga on the glass, a lesson so unmistakable that the Zags made themselves into one of the nation’s best rebounding teams the next four seasons.
And in the 2006 gut-punch from UCLA, the issue could be boiled down to poise. The Zags had a 10-point lead with five minutes to play, and yet seemed almost helpless against the Bruins’ will in the deciding moments, and left themselves open to second guesses about toughness.
“Although the only thing you really take away from that game,” Rice noted, “is pain – and that stays with you the rest of your life.”
Which brings us to North Carolina, and avoiding the oh-ohs.
These Zags have also had their hiccups with both rebounding and poise – the latter as recently as the game which got them this far, the win over Western Kentucky in which they blew a nine-point lead in the last two minutes. And oddly enough, there is genuine concern whether the Bulldogs can handle North Carolina’s vaunted transition game – though the Tar Heels’ preferred tempo is Gonzaga’s, as well.
“It’s all about who’s getting the better shots,” Rice said. “Both teams are going to go fast and both are going to get a lot of possessions, but which team is getting the better shots – that’s what you have to evaluate. If you’re not getting the better shots, you’d better pull it back a little bit and find a way to get them.”
But a bigger oh-oh might occur when the game is slowed to a stop – for free throws.
Only one team in college basketball (North Texas) shot more of them than Carolina did this year. Only one player in history (Wake Forest’s Dickie Henric) has shot more than the Heels’ Achilles, Tyler Hansbrough, whose turns at the foul line are as inevitable as passing “Go” in Monopoly.
What’s his shortcut?
“It’s not only his first shot,” said Gonzaga’s Josh Heytvelt, whose rematch with Hansbrough has kept the hype mill running double shifts this week. “He’s really good at getting his own miss and when that happens, the defender gets frustrated and fouls. And he’s really smart and tries to create contact.”
Keeping Heytvelt on the court has been something of a concern for the Zags since Robert Sacre re-injured his foot in December and made the late-season decision to redshirt. But Heytvelt hasn’t fouled out of a game all season and has played less than 30 minutes in something other than a blowout only once since New Year’s. Not that he was playing against any Tyler Hansbroughs.
But it’s not just Hansbrough. Guard Ty Lawson has also shot more free throws than Heytvelt’s GU-leading 148, and two other Heels have eclipsed 100.
“There’s a few guys we can’t have fouls pinned on, and they’re really good at that,” Rice said. “If they’re pinning fouls on us …”
Oh-oh, is the word he’s looking for.