LAS VEGAS – Behold, the Sweeter 16.
In time, talk will quickly turn to the NCAA tournament, and what will inevitably roil to the top is the usual nonsense that reaching the second weekend and beyond is the only barometer of worth.
This is college basketball’s ultimate straw man, and probably a bigger rival for the Gonzaga Bulldogs than any they’ll find in the West Coast Conference.
But take at least a moment to reflect on a ridiculous achievement: 16 consecutive bookings in Bracketville, the latest made possible by a passionate 75-64 dissection of Brigham Young in Tuesday’s WCC championship game at Orleans Arena.
Longer current streaks belong to Kansas, Duke and Michigan State. North Carolina once ran off 27 in a row.
Arizona? Nope. Syracuse? Huh-uh. UCLA? Just not quite enough pedigree.
No, no sense poking that bear. Gonzaga will never overcome the barstool truism that what they’ve done would not have been do-able in the Big Big Conferences, so let’s put it another way: if it’s so easy, then why hasn’t another school reeled off such a run in a league on a par with the WCC?
The trick at Gonzaga is separating the singles from the bankroll.
Each of these things has to be, you know, won. OK, there is the occasional ordination – when the Zags were the No. 1 team in the nation a year ago, there was no scratching and clawing to get No. 15.
But the weight of their history grows with each year. No Gonzaga team wants to be spoilsports – remember Steven Gray’s overwhelming sense of relief at fulfilling the mandated destiny in 2011 – and if any group seemed vulnerable, it was this one.
Two frontline stars lost to the NBA draft. A cresting rival in BYU, and a more challenging league. Midseason injuries that either took out starters or slowed them significantly.
They were flawed, certainly, and perceived as fragile, even as late as the season’s penultimate weekend.
It was, as demonstrated here, a misperception.
If the Zags were lucky, and more, to escape their tournament opener against Santa Clara, they were brutally efficient thereafter. On Tuesday, they were impeccable for a half, and needed just three trips down the floor after intermission to stretch their lead to 20 points. They rarely missed the basket, hitting eight of their first nine shots and 61 percent for the half, and never missed the open man.
“That’s how you want your guys this time of year,” said coach Mark Few. “We were in attack mode – playing great defense, getting in the gaps, making plays, rebounding, making the extra pass.”
Without minimizing the contributions of collective – and let’s insert right here that some sort of mass myopia caused Gary Bell to be left off the all-tournament team – no one typified the attack mode quite like those mismatched roommates, Sam Dower Jr. and David Stockton.
The two grad students put on a post-grad class in teamism – Stockton cutting up the Cougars with penetration and passes, Dower working them over inside for 20 points and 13 rebounds.
“We have a saying at Gonzaga: ‘Every dog has his day,’ ” Few told fans who stayed for the postgame celebration. “Sam waited and waited behind a bunch of pros (Robert Sacre, Kelly Olynyk, Elias Harris) and now he’s MVP of the conference.”
If the coach later anointed Stockton “co-MVP,” it only made his point stronger. Stockton, of course, walked on and earned more minutes and responsibility even when it seemed Few had recruited over him by bringing in Bell and Kevin Pangos.
It wouldn’t be the Zags without a little angst, and that too was part of championship night – BYU launching a comeback even after standout guard Kyle Collinsworth went down with an ugly looking knee injury, and Gonzaga abetting the drama by missing a bunch of free throws. Let it be noted that one who didn’t miss was Przemek Karnowski, Mr. 50 Percent, who promised that he’d be bagging on his teammates about that.
But the Zags had been too good early to bellyflop late.
“What they have is really great consistency,” said BYU coach Dave Rose, a compliment that sounds like anything but.
“They have a formula that’s been a really successful one. You never know where they are going or what’s next. They’re one of the elite teams in the country. They’re really balanced – their depth, their size, their athleticism, leadership.”
And their sense of history – what it is, and what it isn’t.
“We never talk about it,” insisted assistant coach Tommy Lloyd. “We always talk about being the most aggressive team – that you’re never defending anything, you go get it. You still won the last championship, so they can’t take that away from you. You have to go win this one.”
Just one. Sixteen times running.