Blanchette: Zags enjoy view from the top
LAS VEGAS – In a new twist to an old tale, the Gonzaga Bulldogs celebrated their latest bauble with a hike among their flock roaring hosannas at the Orleans Arena.
Sure, past champions have gone into the stands before to celebrate with their peeps.
But these Zags climbed all the way to the top.
Symbolism delivered with a sledgehammer, not unlike the 65-51 beating they put on Saint Mary’s in Monday night’s championship game of the West Coast Conference basketball tournament.
And maybe it exposed one fun fact about these Bulldogs.
They kind of like the view.
Yes, the party line is very much as it should be when it comes to the No. 1 ranking: “It’s nice, but…” The “but” then segues into a multiple choice of A) it’s out of their control, B) they have to continue to play their game or C) both of the above.
And it’s the truth.
But it’s also the truth that they have enjoyed the ascent to this rarefied perch, the unprecedented 31 wins, their perfect run through the WCC and, yes, especially their skunking of the Gaels, the Frazier to Gonzaga’s Ali.
“This program has had so much history and success in the past,” forward Kelly Olynyk said, “that it’s crazy to think we’re doing stuff that hasn’t been done.”
Here’s what they haven’t been able to do in recent years: own the Gaels, who, outside of a second-half run in Spokane, simply had no answers for the Bulldogs this season.
“One of our best teams,” Gaels coach Randy Bennett acknowledged, “and we couldn’t get them.”
It was encapsulated in two telling moments in this third meeting.
The Gaels had absorbed a tough blow when guard Jorden Page crumpled to the court with a severe right knee injury eight minutes into the game. It wasn’t that Page was a go-to guy – his minutes and contributions have declined of late – but there was the sense that the Gaels would need every bullet to win this battle, and their energy took an obvious dip.
But after 10 straight empty possessions, Stephen Holt and Brad Waldow scored to get them back in the hunt. Moments later, however, Gonzaga’s Mike Hart crowded the drivetrain of the Gaels, Matthew Dellavedova, near mid-court, forcing him to pivot straight into the path of Olynyk, who made the strip and sailed in for a dunk.
It was the biggest bucket in the game’s separating spurt, and it the best example of the Zags’ jujutsu, using the Gaels’ own force against them.
Later in the second half, Olynyk was lurking along the right wing when David Stockton found him with a pretty pass, and the 7-footer unfurled for a soaring dunk over Waldow for a 19-point lead.
At that point, the NCAA tournament committee might as well have inked Gonzaga on the No. 1 seed line.
A suggestion that sends Hater Nation into apoplexy.
Coach Mark Few will not agitate for that distinction, and his only real comeback for the hell-no lobby is a hypothetical that can’t be answered.
“We get both sides of it,” he shrugged. “I don’t know how many of those (power conference) teams would go undefeated in our league. Provo isn’t an easy place to play. Moraga’s not easy. Sometimes that gets lost. And maybe if we get put into their leagues, maybe we’d only have three losses. I don’t know.
“We did a great job of controlling what we could control. We’ve done an amazing job and that’s all we can do. Watch us and what we’ve done. Look at our results.”
Or look at what they haven’t done: stop Brandon Paul of Illinois from going off on them for 35 points back three months ago, and get the ball inbounds without incident at game’s end against Butler.
That’s it. Those are the blemishes in 33 games.
“In my opinion, we should be (a No. 1 seed), but it doesn’t matter what I think,” Olynyk said. “Everyone is entitled to an opinion, and what people might say about us we could say about a different team, but it’s all just opinion.”
Bennett has one, too, when it comes to the Zags and a No. 1 seed.
“How couldn’t they be?” he wondered. “They have two or three losses less than anybody else and they’ve played teams. I’d be shocked.
“They don’t have any holes. You ask if they’re legit? They’re legit.”
There’s a process to determine that, of course, presided over by a committee in an Indianapolis hotel room. And after that there’s a process to settle who’s really No. 1.
But at the moment, the Gonzaga Bulldogs are at the top. And it’s a hell of a view.