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Blanchette: Zags shine in coming-out party

Pro tip for the Kennel Club:

Kids, when there’s a 74-year-old Naismith Hall of Famer on the visiting bench, the proper etiquette is, “Sit down, Mr. Brown!”

And that will about wrap it up for shortcomings from Monday night’s national coming-out party for the Gonzaga Bulldogs.

How good were the Zags?

So good that even a kid out of the stands was a contender for player of the game. Brad Rustik, a Gonzaga student outfitted in his best Sam Dower Jr. jersey, launched his missile for the half-court shot contest off the top of the backboard, saw it climb another 10 feet into the air and fall straight through the net.

(Your move, Kyle Wiltjer.)

In the non-sideshow portion of the evening, the Zags turned the first men’s game of ESPN’s Tipoff Marathon into a sprint, blowing out fellow Top 25 tenant SMU 72-56 – though the spread was 25 when it mattered – and leaving the legend on the Mustangs bench, Larry Brown, with little to do but call the odd timeout to apply fresh gauze.

“They punched us in the nose,” he said, “and we didn’t respond.”

And if Gonzaga coach Mark Few had any notion of tamping down expectations this season, good luck.

This is not to say the evening’s victims were all they’d planned on being even at this young point of the 2014-15 college basketball season. There is the business about their best big man turning up ineligible about a week ago, and the top recruit – perhaps in the nation – deciding to take his talents to Guangdong Beach to bank some yuan in the Chinese pro league.

Nonetheless, they arrived in Spokane ranked 22nd in the nation and will be in that conversation all season.

And they got handled.

“That’s going to be a great win for us to put in our back pocket,” Few said, “and it will serve us well in March.”

It serves them awfully well for November, too – reinforcing as it does a theme the Zags will have to live by over the course of the next few months. On a roster that is, by consensus, the deepest in gifted players in Few’s tenure, touches and shots and heroics and leading roles will, by circumstance if not design, be rotated and shared.

“This team is doing a good job of moving the ball and understanding it’s a give and take of the offense, and who’s going to be open,” Few said.

This being the Tipoff Marathon, however, it figured that Kevin Pangos would be open the most.

He is what’s known in TV as a recurring guest star in this series, dating back to those nine 3-pointers in his first collegiate start against Washington State four years ago. On this night, he was a mere 5 of 8 from beyond the arc – and sometimes well beyond, including two to open the second half. That was a pretty good antidote to the uptick in vigor the Mustangs brought to the court in the second half.

But there is always more to Pangos than just the 3 – a team-high seven assists and three steals this night, and even five salty rebounds.

“What you’re seeing is a healthy Kevin – one you only saw for the first two weeks last year,” Few said. “He’s a different guy when he’s on the move.”

On the move? That was GU’s entire lineup.

Indeed, an entirely unsung contribution this night came from the ninth man in the Zags’ nine-man rotation. Angel Nunez subbed in after both Domantas Sabonis and Przemek Karnowski picked up their second fouls, and immediately scored on a layup and a pick-and-pop, then blocked a 3-pointer by SMU’s Nic Moore, who fumbled the recovery into a turnover.

But again, this was a night for the ensemble. Nothing exemplified it better than the bucket that pushed GU lead to 20 in the second. Kyle Dranginis fetched a missed Sabonis free throw and then started an impeccable around-the-horn – to Karnowski to Josh Perkins to Pangos and finally back to Dranginis in the corner for an open 3.

OK, the Zags were horrible at the foul line (8 of 20). After dominating SMU on the glass in the first half, they gave up 12 offensive rebounds the second half. The Mustangs aren’t Kentucky, and this game wasn’t in April.

There’s always something.

“I love them,” Brown said. “They’re deep. They have great guard play. They have depth and size – four bigs that all have a different dimension. They’ve got so many perimeter guys.

“They’ve got it all – and a great environment.”

And a guy who can bank it in off the top of the backboard.


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