Blanchette: Bulldogs back in thick of it
For all the recent history of Gonzaga basketball that both instills pride of ownership and casts a weighty burden for each successive team, an instructive nugget:
In 2007, the West Coast Conference regular season chugged into its final weekend with the Bulldogs trailing Santa Clara by a game in the standings, on the road for a pair against the middle of the order and without their gifted big man, suspended after a drug arrest. The Broncos, meanwhile, were matched against the league’s two worst teams.
Game, set and … not so fast.
The Zags swept; the Broncos swooned. Gonzaga had another title in a run that has since reached 10, second only to the UCLA dynasty in terms of conference chokeholds. And the Church of It Ain’t Over ’Til It’s Over had a host of delirious new converts.
So, grab a pew.
With a startlingly efficient 70-53 dicing of San Francisco on Saturday evening, the Zags have played their way back from the discard pile – or fourth place, anyway – to have at least a puncher’s chance at No. 11. The moment of truth arrives as quickly as Thursday against league-leading, and yet free-falling, Saint Mary’s.
“They’ve done a great job of taking it game by game,” coach Mark Few said of his players, “and not collapsing under the weight of the gloom and doom.”
Yes, debate will still rage over what fitful gains this particular edition of the Zags have actually made, the general consensus being that you don’t get to the Big Dance doing the box step.
Yet that seems particularly killjoy in light of Saturday’s manna – the eight straight shots the Zags made to start the second half, the continuing revelation of Marquise Carter, the seventh straight game of holding an opponent to 39 percent shooting or less. Above all, pedal remained resolutely engaged to metal throughout the second half against the Dons, who have been a revelation this year in their own right.
“Tonight,” said USF coach Rex Walters, “they really played on all cylinders.”
Walters had other insights that were both revealing and even a little contrary.
Assessing Carter’s sudden rise, Walters reiterated the common wisdom about JC transfers often needing a half-season or more to find their way but also noted, “They have him playing off the ball, which is a great adjustment by Mark.”
While the disparate, sometimes one-dimensional or at least mutually exclusive skills of certain Zags sharing the same position has often been a liability, Walters pointed out it can pose problems, too.
“They have a diversity at point guard – and not because one’s black and one’s white,” he joked. “But Meech (Goodson) is a push-it point guard and (David) Stockton is a control guard, a little better shooter, maybe a little better in making solid, easy plays. It gives you some contrast in how you have to guard.
“And then up front you bring in (Sam) Dower. Every once in a while I’ll read Dons Central (a fan website) and they’ll complain about Zag fans saying, ‘Our bench guys can start on other teams.’ Well, he’s one of those guys who could actually do it. He’s going to be really good.”
In trying to fix themselves after the deflating run of three losses last month, however, the most significant work has been on the psyche – although even that, as senior Steven Gray suggested, may have been a been overwrought.
“I don’t think the confidence of the team was crushed,” he said. “A few guys maybe didn’t really understand what to expect on the road in conference, when teams really want to beat you bad. Those games are as hard as any we play. It just opened our eyes.
“The only way we were going to get back to this position is take it day by day, practice by practice, game by game and really dedicate ourselves to the focus of whatever that day was. If we continue to do that, there’s a lot of basketball left to be played, and that’s exciting.”
Even as the Zags have dominated the WCC for a decade now, the majority of those 10 titles were decided in the season’s final week. This team needed some outside assistance for that to happen, but had to do their own heavy lifting, too.
“Absolutely it’s a burden,” Few said, “when every (Gonzaga) club before you accomplished something that made it one of the greatest stories in college basketball. They knew what happened before, but we just had to deal with what was immediately in front of us.
“We’ve been better on not focusing on the big picture and instead on the little picture.”
Now they’re the same. And in high definition, at that.