Blanchette: In biggest weekend, Zags don’t bring A game
SALT LAKE CITY – So was life as No. 1 as much fun as everyone thought it was going to be?
Maybe this is the wrong day to ask.
The Great Gonzaga Proving is over. The backlashers’ snark and outrage has been replaced with smug glee. The Bulldog People will fumble about to raise the ransom to buy back their hijacked hope.
Usually that only takes until the start of another season.
This funk may not be undone so quickly.
Nor, in all likelihood, will the impact this is bound to have on future NCAA brackets.
Gobsmacked by a ridiculous 3-point show by Wichita State and losers of a 76-70 crusher in the round of 32 of the NCAA Basketball Tournament, the Bulldogs will spend the next few days fidgeting under an unwieldy yoke:
• Being “the greatest team in the history of basketball at our school,” as pronounced by coach Mark Few, whose vote counts the most.
• Being the least fulfilled of them all at the final horn.
Such is the price of being No. 1, both in the polls and on the seed line – and both well-earned, regardless of the taunts coming from Schadenfreude Nation and anyone who thinks of either as a handicapping tool.
Problem is, everything in college basketball must be re-earned in March.
And the Bulldogs simply didn’t.
They turned up here at EnergySolutions Arena with a B game, and maybe then only if you’re grading on a curve. They were fortunate to muster their usual end-of-game steeliness to put away 16th-seeded Southern the other night.
And against one of those junkyard dog outfits that are inevitably more vicious than pedigreed opponents, the Zags played the most dangerous game. They absolutely failed to match Wichita’s snarl, got casual guarding the 3 (losing Gary Bell to a foot injury hardly helped) and wilted on some elementary plays when it was time to win.
(Like the inbounds brain cramp. In this game? Really?)
And they owned up to that.
“We’ve been nails,” said Few of his team’s ability to close out games, “but tonight we lost shooters and made some really uncharacteristic plays down the stretch.”
Bottom line, two straight opponents on college basketball’s biggest stage seized that moment to have their best games of the year.
And it was up to the Zags to do something about that.
“We didn’t play our best,” acknowledged guard Kevin Pangos. “That and having it all come to such a sudden end makes it hard to process right now.”
The guess here is, he has company in that regard.
For all the hoohah over No. 1 seeds and their 116-0 record in NCAA openers, it’s less known that on 14 occasions they’ve been bounced 48 hours later, the most recent unfortunate being Pitt in 2011. It’s happened to Stanford twice, Kansas three times.
History is bitter consolation. Kansas, Kentucky, North Carolina – they can get over it by polishing their nationals titles. There’s no telling when Gonzaga might come this way again.
Or anyone like them.
Indeed, they may have just put a kibosh on any non-BCS conference team with an argument for being a No. 1 seed for the next decade, the results-to-bracketing recoil being what it is. Great regular seasons like Gonzaga’s will be, if not dismissed, given less weight when it comes time to put those teams on the top line.
Kelly Olynyk is one Zag who wouldn’t accept revisionist history.
“I don’t think the loss is anything above or beyond that,” he protested. “It’s great to win, great to move on, great to have that recognition.
“But the record, the 32 wins, being ranked No. 1 and a No. 1 seed – those don’t get erased just because you lost. Those achievements are still going to be there. It’s not like they don’t matter because we lost in the tournament.”
No, this wasn’t about the seed. Georgetown losing to Florida Gulf Coast didn’t mean the Hoyas weren’t a legit No. 2. It meant they didn’t play well enough.
Same for the Zags. And that’s haunting enough.
The Bulldogs have now exited on this same day four years running, but the fact is the previous three teams played better relative to their skill and achievement in the maddest part of March than this team did.
No wonder Few was in such a wistful state.
“For five and a half months, it was unbelieveable,” he said. “A hell of a ride. That’s the danger of this tournament. It’s a couple-week deal. But nobody was having more fun than us for five and a half months.”
It’s just that college basketball’s season has another half-a-month of fun to go.
Without the Zags.