SALT LAKE CITY – It’s official. Gonzaga is now the most hated team in America.
But the referees who missed the goaltending call are a close second.
One or both of those lineups ended Northwestern’s season on Saturday – Wildcats coach Chris Collins’ vote has been tallied – and the NCAA Tournament will have to go on without … well, what? Charm?
Maybe. Prince Charming, certainly.
Go ahead and tug on Superman’s cape, but don’t throw mud on Cinderella’s gown – especially when you made your bones being America’s scrappy underdog. Now, public sentiment has long since turned against Gonzaga for apparently not knowing its place and shrinking back into mediocre mid-majordom. But being responsible for the exit of the spunky brainiacs from Chicago in their first appearance in the 79-year history of the tournament?
That’s unforgivable. And to get some help from bumbling zebras? Even worse.
No, apparently even worse is enjoying it.
Not long after the Bulldogs survived 79-73 to move into the Sweet 16 for a third straight year, ESPN’s answer to Miss Manners, Jay Williams, tweeted out a video of their locker room celebration and snarked, “Did Gonzaga just win the championship or a 2nd rd game vs an 8 seed?”
To which Gonzaga center Przemek Karnowski answered, “So now we can’t celebrate the win? We will be criticized for enjoying ourselves? Smh.”
Give Shem another rejection in the stats.
Possibly all of this has reeled completely out of hand. The Zags are good, no matter where their tournament trail ends and no matter if their successes are flawed. The Wildcats were as tough and inspiring and lovable as hyped and will be back. The refs – Chris Rastatter, Jeff Clark and Brent Hampton – blew it (their NCAA bosses said so) and were bad besides. The principals should get to rejoice and rant to their satisfaction. Jay Williams should – and did – apologize, like the Guardian before him.
And, yes, the Zags need some poise practice.
“We have some work to do,” said guard Jordan Mathews.
The 22-point Gonzaga lead that got hacked down to five – and should have been three, had the arm Zach Collins snaked through the cylinder to block a layup by the Wildcats’ Dererk Pardon been detected – is evidence of that, fueled by 11 second-half turnovers, another sheaf of missed free throws and a goodly number of defensive breakdowns.
For a team that made it look so easy all season – as the Bulldogs guards, especially, did in the first half – they certainly have developed a knack of making it hard.
“We’ve got to do a better job of keeping the lead and keeping them down when they’re down,” said guard Josh Perkins. “You give a team some life and they start to believe – and belief takes you a long way.”
But it’s a two-way street. The Bulldogs believe, too.
Mostly, in their eight-man rotation, they believe they have a tool for any job, and on this afternoon it happened to be their two freshmen, Collins and Killian Tillie, who came up big – playing the final six harrowing minutes and scoring 10 of GU’s final 12 points in a game in which Karnowski and Johnathan Williams struggled.
Surely, the why-don’t-they-play-more chorus is already in full throat.
“We trust those guys,” said assistant Tommy Lloyd. “It’s hard for people to understand, but these are tough choices to make. All four have great things they bring, but what makes it so good – what makes it work – is the combination of them.”
In the end, the missed goaltend and Chris Collins’ technical for storming the floor are just more briquettes for the national barbecue of the Zags. And a bitter taste for the Wildcats.
“I appreciate the apology,” he said of the NCAA statement. “I feel great.”
But Few pointed out that while that was significant, so were a few of the Zags’ answers – a nervy drive by Mathews and Collins’ post up that gave them a brief 10-point lead, and especially Mathews’ deflection that led to a runout, Silas Melson’s alley-oop pass and Tillie’s jam in the last 100 seconds.
And Collins wasn’t all vinegar.
“They’re good enough to get there,” he said, responding to the Zags-to-the-Final-Four question. “They have all the components to do it.”
That was true for several teams in the original bracket. One of them – Gonzaga’s fellow No. 1 seed and defending champ Villanova – went down on Saturday to another No. 8, Wisconsin.
“You want to play well,” said Lloyd. “But the most important thing is to still be playing.”
And so they are – off to San Jose and a perilous date with West Virginia ahead, and with Few’s 500th coaching victory getting them there.
“It sounds like I’m getting old,”he said.
And sometimes even the wins accelerate the process.