So much for stealth.
So much for muted optimism and measured expectations, and a Gonzaga basketball season with an almost pre-1999 dynamic.
The Zags blew their cover this week. Perhaps they weren’t informed of the plan to keep it down to a low hum.
By Monday, they will find themselves back in the Top 25, as if they’d just gone away for a long weekend. Their most obsessive devotees will once again be torn between starting their day with a double grande mocha or a check of the RPI. The sleeper cells in the local anti-Gonzaga backlash, having banked on a media respite from All-Zags- All-The-Time, will return to Defcon 4.
By winning the beloved Maui Invitational in their third try and with possibly their least likely entry, the Bulldogs have declared, at the very least, that growing pains do not have to register on that frowny-face chart posted at the doctor’s office.
Not that this takes the mystery out of the season. May actually enhance it.
But now the stumbles, detours and mind cramps inevitable in any young team’s maturation arc will be cause for public hang-wringing and red flags instead of being just what they are.
Kids being kids. The natural order of things.
And already the too-much-too-soon caution of coach Mark Few regarding the degree of schedule difficulty for a team this green echoes like Holtzian sandbagging, though when he said it (and meant it) he was certainly open to being happily surprised.
Apparently, he isn’t the only one.
“Did you ever think you’d say, ’They’re tough?’ ” ESPN analyst Bill Raftery offered in the post-mortem of the overtime championship rumble against Cincinnati. “They’ve always been good, the Zags. Now combine that goodness with this aggressive play.”
The TV guys deal in the now, so Raftery can be forgiven for spacing out that it was toughness — not knock-you-on-your-can brawn, but toughness — that first carried the Zags into the national consciousness a decade ago. But, yes, more recent Gonzaga teams have been long on finesse and short on the rough-and-tumble, and sometimes fragile emotionally, too. This is a new order.
Few acknowledged as much in pointing out “the manner in which we had to win” in Maui.
“We had to dig ourselves out of a hole against Colorado,” he told the media afterward. “We played a very efficient game against a Wisconsin team that if you don’t play efficient, you lose. Then we got in a backyard brawl (against Cincinnati) and won it that way. I think that’s a good sign.”
Among many. Center Robert Sacre’s offensive smoothness has been a revelation. Elias Harris is the kind of package the Zags have never seen — and already the most complete freshman front-court player they’ve had. Steven Gray is becoming the difference maker Few has urged him to be. And nothing personified the Bulldogs’ new steely demeanor quite like Demetri Goodson’s defense on Cincinnati’s last chance Wednesday night.
To avoid accusations of Panglossing, let’s issue this caveat now: the Zags didn’t conquer Maui’s most imposing field.
The Buffs have lost 62 games in three years and are again picked to end up last in the Big 12. The Big Ten’s preseason poll had Wisconsin finishing ninth. Cincinnati, on the rise after a few seasons in a post-Bob Higgins funk, are projected as a mid-level Big East team, which should get them into the NCAA Tournament.
OK. And Few got snarked on TV for wearing sandals on the sidelines, too.
There’s little point in trying to project March conclusions from November outcomes. You play the team in front of you and each Maui opponent posed significant challenges that Gonzaga scaled. More are on the way.
Including a new one. With the carload of first-year players — eight of 13 on scholarship with no Division I experience — there is a particular urgency to make them game ready and find some reliable production. That was mostly missing in Maui. The Bulldog bench scored three points against the Bearcats. Take freshman forward Kelly Olynyk out of the equation, and backups played just 58 minutes over three days, and managed 12 points.
But mitigating against a liberal rotation — and suffering through freshman mistakes — is another urgency: winning the pre-New Year’s games that build the resume necessary for Selection Sunday.
Yes, the volume has already been cranked up for these Zags. This, too, is the natural order of things.