It was all very decent and egalitarian, this business of Michigan State coming to town and playing Gonzaga in the cozy campus setting of the McCarthey Athletic Center. No school that’s won an NCAA men’s title in the last 50 years has deigned to steer its bus down Cincinnati Street to venture inside one of the nation’s least accommodating barns – though that descriptive is relative.
“As tough as the environment was,” MSU coach Tom Izzo pointed out, “when you play in front of the President on a ship and you’re playing in front of every pro guy that ever went to Duke, those things help.”
In other words, the Spartans weren’t going to faint just because some kid from DeSmet Hall is jumping up and down with a blow-up head shot of Rob Sacre.
Which brings us to the nub of the 74-67 tattooing the Zags endured Saturday night:
It’s one thing to get the marquee teams into your gym. Then the deal must be closed.
If the point of Gonzaga’s traditionally ambitious nonconference schedule is to build that just-in-case resume for the NCAA tournament selectors, then along the way one or two of those games so bravely sought must be won. The Zags have now missed two of the opportunities within the last eight days, and if falling on the road at Illinois was not especially alarming, then failing to come through at home is – in particular the way they failed.
“We’re just not delivering,” sighed coach Mark Few.
Their opponents surely are. Illinois used last Saturday’s victory to jump into the Top 25, and the Spartans are likely to take Gonzaga’s spot when the votes are next counted.
And in what is a not-so-grand Gonzaga tradition, the Zags singled out one player to make All-World for a day. The lucky fellow this time was an agreeable soul named Draymond Green, one of just three Spartans who saw time two years ago when they won a pair of NCAA tournament games in Spokane. All he did Saturday was make 11 of 13 shots – including four 3s – for 34 points, while performing lockdown duty on Gonzaga’s Elias Harris.
“I scored 34 and every point was important,” Green said, “but stopping Harris was equally important.”
Few tried his most reliable chaser on Green, and if Mike Hart got mostly overpowered, then the turns that Harris and Sacre took on the 6-foot-7 senior weren’t any more effective – though Few said it was a collective breakdown.
“It was our guards’ fault on ball screens that allowed him to get going,” he said. “After that, he stepped up and made big play after big play.”
And until David Stockton grabbed the game by the throat, the Zags had no such animal – but by then only 6 minutes remained Gonzaga was down 12, and the Spartans had already weathered the worst the Kennel could dish up. The Bulldogs could never get it to a one-possession game.
From this setback came any number of telling statistics. The Spartans shot 54 percent, as the Illini nailed 53 a week ago. The Zags shot just 43 percent – less than their already low season mark of 45. They also committed 20 turnovers and had just nine assists, both season worsts. Freshman guard Kevin Pangos, who dazzled with nine 3s in the win over Washington State, has made just seven in the five games since.
But the issues are inside and out.
“We were just trying to make a home run play off the first action in our offense,” Few said. “What happens is that initially a guy is somewhat open off the first action, but the help is built in there.”
Noted Stockton, “I think we were a little overhyped by the atmosphere.”
But the inside production is truly problematic, given GU’s veteran presence there.
“We’re getting guys touches and we’re just not delivering,” Few said. “That’s two games in a row where we’ve had lot of touches and haven’t been able to deliver. We have to do that, or show the officials strongly enough that we’re indeed getting fouled. That was an issue against Illinois and certainly tonight.”
Both Izzo and Few have earned reputations as aggressive schedulers, although Izzo joked before the game that “This is insanity. I’ve gone any place, any time, but I’m going across the world – again. But it’s helped us and I think over the years it’s helped Mark, too.”
Except that since that halting effort on the aircraft carrier, the Spartans have made some significant strides. Those haven’t been as evident in Gonzaga which, as Sacre said, is “still kind of getting our bearings.”
Insisted Izzo, “I was still impressed. I just didn’t think a couple of guys played as well as they can play. Those young guys are going to get better and Harris isn’t going to have many nights like that again.”
The Zags had better hope he’s right, before they run out of resume games.