Sports

Blanchette: These Bulldogs enjoy the journey

The point has been reached on the calendar, and on the scoreboard, where it is a challenge to live in the moment.

The score mushrooms. March and its madness looms.

Giddy anticipation befogs even the undeniable appeal of the here and now, and if the Gonzaga Bulldogs don’t much want to hear about it, they are responsible for it.

In that respect, they are too good right now for their own good.

On an incandescent afternoon in Spokane, the Zags turned the lights out again on another poor victim, the University of San Diego Toreros this time – a team that took Gonzaga down to the last shot just three weeks ago barely putting up resistance through the first TV timeout Saturday.

The final score was 81-50. That made it the nail biter of the week.

Three days before, the Zags filleted Santa Clara by 43 points, the Broncos deciding they didn’t want any more just about the time the anthem singer reached for “rockets red glare.”

Yes, there is no shortage of bludgeonings in the Bulldog back catalog. For context, however, Santa Clara won its 20th game Saturday night in Portland. These weren’t a couple of Stiffly Stiffersons being pranked by Mark Few and the fellas.

“It’s funny,” said USD coach Bill Grier, Few’s former second-in-command, “I was telling him in the summer, ‘This might be your best team.’ And he goes, ‘Oh, c’mon’ – you know how he gets.”

Yeah. He’s getting that way right about now, when everyone wants to roll boxcars through Marvin Gardens and the Short Line to get straight to the Boardwalk of the NCAA Tournament.

So Few and everyone in the Zag Cave was grateful on Saturday evening to be able to celebrate another West Coast Conference regular season championship – Gonzaga clinched no worse than a tie, along with the No. 1 seed in the league tournament.

“I haven’t won one of these,” said sophomore guard Kevin Pangos, “so this is a big thing for me.”

No one has forgotten that last year, for the first time since 2000, Gonzaga finished somewhere other than first in the league standings. Then Saint Mary’s doubled down on that indignity by winning the conference tournament, too. The Zags hadn’t done without one or the other in 14 years.

In 20 years, the Bulldogs have won the league 16 times and the tournament a dozen. Missing out might seem like no huge deal, unless it happens to you.

Impossible standards can be daunting. Better to set them, then, than to merely live up to them.

Grier was a part of teams that ran the WCC table – to say nothing of the Elite Eight team of 1999 – so he doesn’t dismiss their bona fides.

“But this team’s depth is so much better,” he said. “I mean 11 deep. It’s not like you have starters and then go to the bench to someone who might not be good enough that night. The two bigs on the bench would start anywhere. The teams I was a part of didn’t have that kind of depth.”

And yet for that unprecedented depth, there is a bit of throwback to these Zags, too.

“As the program evolved and the players’ talent level got better,” Grief continued, “I think Mark kind of went away from running as much stuff and letting them play. But this team can play fast, and they can slow it down and grind. They’re patient when they need to be and they get the ball right where they want it.

“More than any of their recent teams – and maybe since (Blake) Stepp and (Dan) Dickau and those teams – this one really executes.”

On Monday, the Zags will climb to No. 2 in the polls – Miami stumbling badly against Wake Forest on Saturday. A No. 1 seed in the NCAAs seems a foregone conclusion if they don’t lose before Selection Sunday and É oh, there we go again.

“Right or wrong, fair or unfair, where they stack up in the history books winds up being based on how they do in the NCAAs,” Grier said. “To me that’s silly. Your season goes from November through March, but everyone puts so much stock in three weeks. And the tournament is all about the matchup and that’s just the luck of the draw.”

Which is maybe why the Zags are killing it in the moment and enjoying it so much that pause or even rewind is the button they’d rather push.

“These games are precious,” said forward Kelly Olynyk. “You don’t get a lot of opportunities in life to play on a team like this that’s having so much success and doing it as a team. In some sense, I kind of want to step back and start it all over and do it again.”

The moment is now. March can wait.



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