PULLMAN – On the bright side for the Gonzaga Bulldogs, at least the scoreboard at their arena works.
Not that the Zags seem to have much need for it this year.
And in the end, it didn’t matter that the bulbs didn’t blink and the numbers didn’t register on the big boards at Friel Court on Wednesday night. Washington State could have named the score.
Gonzaga might have been better off if the Cougs had.
Or maybe not.
“It was a time to quiet a lot of people who didn’t think we could do it,” said WSU’s Klay Thompson, “especially in the way we won.”
That would be 81-59 – the worst beating the Cougars had administered in this series in 27 years, though possibly the worst symbolic humbling the Zags had absorbed since basketball started to matter at the school.
There’s a lot to be said about the Cougs – notably that they have the look of a top-three team in the Pacific-10 Conference, and that still might sell them short. They can shoot, of course, but they can also defend some, and they’re smart, resourceful, poised.
Well, if the Bulldogs’ 4-4 start is not cause to panic – is panic ever appropriate in December? – it’s certainly worthy of some soul-searching.
“We didn’t compete tonight,” said a troubled Mark Few outside the Gonzaga locker room. “We were acting like we were afraid on offense and then not doing anything on defense.
“We simply didn’t respond.”
That theme has already been given a good working over by the Zags’ coach this young season. Previous Gonzaga teams have taken haymakers and bounced back, and the three earlier losses to Top 15 teams – San Diego State, Kansas State and Illinois – were certainly haymakers. This night, the Bulldogs seemed resigned to walking into another.
By comparison, the Cougars dropped a tough one to Kansas State here Friday and came back strong – no one stronger than Thompson, who has been chided here for wilting on the bigger stages but was the show on Wednesday in every respect.
These Zags simply haven’t grasped that concept.
“None of us like to lose – we all like to win,” Gonzaga center Robert Sacre said. “We don’t want this to become a habit where we keep losing.”
That desire did not manifest itself much.
The Zags missed their first 10 shots and turned the ball over four times before Steven Gray threw in a long 3-pointer for their first points with 7:22 into the game. Five and a half minutes later, Gonzaga had exactly one more basket and the Cougs had a 25-6 lead.
Three-pointers, yes, were a big part of it – it may forever be a shortcoming. The Cougars at one point made five in a row.
“But I think guarding anybody tonight was more of an issue,” Few said. “There were a lot of layins.”
In time, the Bulldogs would hack their way back – defending a little better, knocking in a couple of 3s, playing as if they actually had a notion. The deficit was down to six at halftime and could have been closer.
And then the Zags returned after halftime and fainted.
There were several damning statistics, but none bigger than this: 25 turnovers, against a team that didn’t bother with pressure but spent a good chunk of the night in a zone, as will many of Gonzaga’s opponents.
“Turnovers I’d never seen before,” said Few, “just guys making negative plays.
“And yet we’ve faced more zone this year than any time I’ve seen and handled it very well. But not tonight.”
By now, of course, the glowing assessments of the preseason have dimmed. The No. 12 ranking assigned the Zags to start November seems more like 112th now. Predictably, the throaty elements in the crowd of 10,177 cranked up the “Over-rated!” chant in the second half – but can you be overrated when you’re no longer rated?
Over-scheduled, for sure.
“There’s just a lack of being able to make plays, on offense or defense,” Few said.
Is that solvable?
“I guess we’ll find out,” he said. “They’ve done it before, so I’d say yes. I’ve seen these guys – groups of these guys – make plays before. They made plays earlier in the year.”
The next game is Notre Dame. The next stop is the drawing board.
“We’ll have to do what coaches do – go with our instinct,” Few said.
“Five minutes after the game, I don’t have one. Eventually, we’ll get it solved. I’ll do what I always do – coach them as best as I can, trying to get them back to the basketball we’re capable of playing.
“That’s all I can do.”
And keep the scoreboard plugged in. For now, anyway.