John Blanchette: A lesson learned too late
DENVER – March is a bad time to turn the clock back to December.
The happy roll the Gonzaga Bulldogs manufactured in the last month of the 2011 college basketball season rallied old believers and made new converts and even energized a program that perhaps needed some sort of psychic nudge or reinforcement, despite more than a decade’s worth of unparalleled achievement.
The box-stepping and wheel-spinning that had defined these Zags early on? Washed away.
Well, they washed back up Saturday afternoon.
Everyone’s trendy pick to cruise into the Sweet 16 – 1 1-2-point favorites in Las Vegas despite the No. 11 seed they were assigned by the selection committee – the Bulldogs instead became the first major meltdown of the Round of 32, routed by 10th ranked Brigham Young 89-67. It was the first, painful shot in a rivalry that wasn’t supposed to begin in earnest until next season.
That’s when the Cougars join the West Coast Conference, and when Jimmer Fredette, in all likelihood, joins the human race again.
A senior, the phenomenal Fredette will not be back to strafe the Bulldogs the way he did Saturday – though, counter-intuitively, his 34 points may have been the least damaging of all the wounds they sustained, many self-inflected.
Really, the Zags didn’t get Jimmered. They got grimmered.
Grim offense, grimmer defense. Grim ball-handling, grimmer resolve.
“When you’ve been playing so good,” said coach Mark Few, “you hate to end it when you play badly.”
Junior center Rob Sacre was a little more graphic.
“I’m sick to my stomach,” he said. “Those guys weren’t that good.”
That posture comes across as a little ungracious toward the Cougars – a team that shot a wicked 53 percent, turned the ball over just eight times and never led by fewer than eight points the entire second half.
But, yes, there was plenty of Gonzaga fail. For simplicity’s sake, two central areas:
In the first half, the Zags managed to get BYU forward Noah Hartsock to the bench with fouls for the last 18 minutes – yet with the perfectly ordinary relief of Logan Magnusson, James Anderson and especially Stephen Rogers the Cougars still built a 45-38 lead. Meanwhile, Gonzaga let Fredette’s sidekick Jackson Emery get off for 11 of his 16 points, though he’d missed 31 of his last 43 shots coming into the game.
Then the Bulldogs’ guards turned the ball over four times in the first four minutes of intermission – and the Cougars doubled the lead.
“Against a soft zone and a soft man-to-man,” Few sighed. “We took better care of it against a pressing and trapping defense the other night.”
Indeed, the steely, dominant Zags that pummeled St. John’s in the Round of 64 morphed into the halting, tentative Zags of midseason. For the first time in weeks, the scoring load was left to the original Big Three – Sacre, Elias Harris and Steven Gray, who had 53 of the team’s 67 points. Marquise Carter and David Stockton – two of the three difference-makers in the season turn-around – were difference-makers of a different kind, going scoreless.
“I’m really disappointed in myself,” Carter said. “This is a lesson to learn.”
And even when the Zags showed signs of siccum, there was always another Cougar to nail another 3.
“As long as you’re contesting, you think one of them has to miss,” said Gray. “Just like offensive rebounding will break a team’s back, when everyone else is knocking down shots it has the same effect.”
So what Few characterized as perhaps his most satisfying season concluded in the least satisfactory way possible – underachievement. Not because the Zags were point-spread darlings, but because they tripped over an opportunity, and in ugly fashion.
As always, it begs for perspective.
“I wouldn’t say we hit rock bottom,” Few said of the winter struggles, “but did you think when we were 4-5 we’d be in any position to go to the Sweet 16?”
As Gonzaga’s only senior, Gray presided over the late-season surge and reveled in it, both ecstatic and relieved that the WCC and NCAA runs would not end on his watch.
“Half the battle with us this season was getting guys to step up and play with confidence,” he said. “With everyone returning, I think this new mentality will trickle down to the young guys and set us up for a good run the next few years.”
“You’re here for a reason,” he said, “to come in and play with confidence and focus in on buying in on defense or whatever the coaches ask of you. Do your role, everyone does it and it makes the game easier.”
It’s a good lesson to learn in December. Just not in March.