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John Blanchette: This season’s Gonzaga team deserves to take a bow, even if it fell short of Final Four encore

UPDATED: Fri., March 23, 2018, 10:30 p.m.

One inherent risk confronts any player who joins the Gonzaga basketball repertory.

Being stumped for an encore.

The curtain has come down on the 20th consecutive boffo season of the Bulldogs’ little theatre of the absurd. This year, the early reviews were cautious, but later re-evaluations strong – to the point perhaps of creating excessive word of mouth. And then on closing night, one of the stars turned up with laryngitis and the Zags forgot their lines.

OK, that’s one analogy unduly mangled.

But the premise holds. Having had so much success for so long, it gets increasingly difficult for each successive Gonzaga team to distinguish itself. Being part of a proud lineage is reward enough, certainly, but every team covets a unique place – a contribution that added to the history or to any mystique.

And sometimes it happens.

The breakthrough team of 1999 put Gonzaga square in the national lens. The next two established that it was a phenomenon and not a one-off quirk. The 2002 team played the extraordinary game with Arizona and, lose or not, that was enough.

There were teams – 2007, 2011, 2016 – that kept the NCAA Tournament streak alive through sheer force of will, and seniors who raised fists to the ceiling that it didn’t end on their watch. The 2013 Zags were the first to reach No. 1. The 2015 edition finally followed those 1999 footprints.

Last year, of course, the never-good-enough-for-the-Final-Four backlash was finally quelled, leaving just one more step.

But the 2018 Bulldogs stumbled before they could take it.

In Thursday’s Sweet 16 game against Florida State, the Zags encountered a team that was deeper, more athletic and simply more ready for its moment.

“The more I watched them,” Gonzaga coach Mark Few said of scouting the Seminoles on video, “I got a bad feeling in my stomach.”

When the last hope of injured teammate Killian Tillie being available was snuffed after he tested his hip pointer and faltered, it appeared something went out of the Bulldogs, as well. They still had enough to win; the Seminoles were almost daring GU to magically whisk the tablecloth from beneath the china and flatware in the second half.

But the Zags simply couldn’t summon their A game – in a setting where B is failing.

So no Final Four encore.

But what these Zags achieved was a new level of program maintenance.

It’s hardly to be diminished. For the third time in four years, the Bulldogs won more than 30 games. Never until now has it been done back-to-back.

That’s with a schedule that included the heavyweights of the PK80, Creighton, a Villanova team that’s looking more and more like a national champion and into the second weekend of NCAA play. That’s with a lineup that lost 62 percent of its scoring, an NBA lottery pick, the winningest player in college history and the new prototype for leadership.

“Speaking from experience, it’s a lot harder to maintain a high level of success,” Few said during the tournament.

“We’ve done both. We’ve built our program up. And we were the Cinderella for a while. And the maintenance part is a lot harder than I think people realize.”

So is carrying the weight of a prior team’s accomplishment.

Particularly with the 2018 team’s makeup. The understated seniors. Two freshmen. Last year’s eighth man. A coltish sophomore who’d played the equivalent minutes of fewer than four games. And the often despaired-of point guard – and, say, can we maybe rethink just a little bit?

“This team is just different,” Few said. “And I think at times, I needed to take a step back and be fair to them. I was holding them to the standard of last year’s team. I reached a point in January or February to back off a little bit and let them be who they are.”

And in the process, they set their own standard – and one for the program.

“They’re what you want a program to be,” said Ohio State coach Chris Holtmann, “and that is year after year after year they have good, young players, or players sitting out, or whatever. So there’s never going to be a significant dip in the program.”

Never’s a long time in the era of early draft entries and high-stakes recruiting. If they can hang on to all their good, young players – and Zach Norvell Jr., for one, insists he’ll be back – the Zags are probably an elite guard away from a Final Four-capable team.

“This is what we expect in this program now,” assistant coach Tommy Lloyd said, “but we don’t take it for granted. It’s awesome to be associated with it. You’re sad for this year, but you’re already looking forward to next year – the adjustments we can make and how we can grow.”

In other words, the encore.


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Analysis: Gonzaga absorbs Texas A&M’s early shots, pulls away for comfortable win

UPDATED: 12:04 a.m.

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