November 22, 2013 in Sports

Zags reinvent themselves

By The Spokesman-Review
 
Jesse Tinsley photoBuy this photo

WSU’s Ike Iroegbu flies over Gonzaga’s Kevin Pangos for a layup. Iroegbu led the Cougars with 20 points.
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Just in case we needed one, college basketball delivered a reminder Thursday night that there are no absolutes.

In the matter of Gonzaga and Washington State, that means that as much as we’d like to believe otherwise, geography and passion do not automatically make for drama.

But it’s an old lesson.

There’s an iteration of another old lesson in the works at the little palace on Cincinnati, too. It’s that the Bulldogs haven’t strung together 15 straight NCAA tournaments by being one-trick Zags, and we should hardly be surprised at the rapid manner in which they’re reinventing themselves.

Are their opponents surprised? Hard to say.

We had been alerted to some dynamic new hues the Cougars had purportedly added to their defensive palette this season, but off Gonzaga’s 90-74 romp at McCarthey Athletic Center we can only assume the team from down the road has not yet learned to paint within the lines.

Or else it’s more of a Jackson Pollock concept.

But mostly we were left with the feeling that we’d seen a team with no particular identity – and an uncertain chance of finding one – being schooled by a program comfortable in adapting as its personnel dictates.

These are incomplete returns from a few limited precincts, of course.

The Bulldogs are through with a stretch of what coach Mark Few called “landmine-type games at home against teams that are better than people realize,” though not good enough to keep the average margin of GU’s victories under 20. Now comes the Maui Invitational, where the Zags will face better pitching with the burden of some lofty history of their own making.

The Cougars head the other direction, to Florida, for a similar challenge with, well, with nothing to lose.

“We just don’t have the experience right now to compete with a team at the level of Gonzaga,” said WSU coach Ken Bone. “They were by far the better team.”

Ah, the inexperience gambit. Yes, the Zags have two fifth-year seniors, but everyone else in the rotation has two previous years in the program or less. The Cougs have just as many two- and three-year guys, and their true youngster, point guard Ike Iroegbu, was the only reason the game was as close as it was.

To be fair, maybe too few of them had experienced a game at the Kennel.

“They give themselves 10 points off the crowd,” said junior DaVonte Lacy, “and that’s what happened.”

Problem was, Wazzu mostly punched back with isolated jabs and not much in the way of combinations. The Cougars did whittle a 16-point halftime deficit down to nine, but a timely three-point play by the Zags’ Kyle Dranginis stopped the bleeding and Wazzu soon misplaced the GPS again.

With its starting front line from a year ago now earning NBA paychecks and an unrequited summer run at two graduate transfers – college hoops’ version of the unrestricted free agent – it was a foregone conclusion that the Zags would have to reinvent themselves around their not unformidable backcourt.

What wasn’t clear was how well they’d manage it in the context of a thinner rotation – their ranking in the national polls notwithstanding.

Well, so far … ridiculous.

The Zags haven’t shot less than 54 percent from the field in their four games, and they’re 38 of 74 from 3 the last three. Already they’ve had as many double-digit games from 3 as they did all of last season.

If the mainline production of guards Kevin Pangos and Gary Bell was a given, the impact of David Stockton as a starter and Drew Barham as an undersized four man (speaking of reinvention) was not. On this night, the Cougs never seemed to figure out Barham was even on the roster – he finished with 17 points, including 5 of 8 on 3s – and Stockton was nothing short of brilliant with nine assists and no turnovers.

“That’s like his old man’s numbers,” cracked Few.

“When David distributes like that, it really enhances what we want to do. We need him to score some, but when he gets in the crease and finds those goes, we’re pretty efficient – he’s got Gary on one side and Kevin and Drew on the top, and then Sam (Dower) and Shem (Przemek Karnowski) rolling – those are pretty good options, and he’s such a good passer.”

And on those inevitable nights when the 3s aren’t falling?

“I think we can do other things,” insisted Pangos, who’s averaged 23 points in three games against the Cougs and for whom Bone would gladly file early NBA draft papers. “We’ve got two dominant bigs, and we’re getting open 3s because teams have to respect that, and because guys are driving the ball better.”

It’s a good premise in a game that allows no absolutes.

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