LAHAINA, Hawaii – Leave it to Gonzaga coach Mark Few to demonstrate how to celebrate a milestone victory while keeping an eye on the future.
ESPN aired footage of Few performing a nifty back-flip into the ocean off Black Rock, a landmark lava promontory near the team hotel, the Sheraton Maui Resort and Spa.
Judges’ scores weren’t available but Few – and his players – had no trouble sticking the landing.
Duke owned the first few weeks of the college basketball season, the headlines, the highlights and eventually the polls, and deservedly so.
Now it’s Gonzaga’s turn in the spotlight.
The Zags’ pulsating 89-87 victory Wednesday over the top-ranked Blue Devils in the Maui Invitational championship ended some early chatter about the possibility of Duke going unbeaten this season. Some of that figures to be redirected toward Gonzaga.
The Zags’ win wasn’t necessarily a shocker, even though Duke was a seven-point favorite. The eye-opener was that the Zags dominated for lengthy stretches against the Blue Devils, who dismantled Kentucky in the season opener and handled a quality Auburn squad in the Maui semifinals Tuesday.
Tournament MVP Rui Hachimura’s clutch play late against Duke propelled the 6-foot-8 forward into the national player of the year discussion. It certainly elevated his draft stock, with 32 scouts representing 27 NBA teams in attendance.
The Zags were a confident bunch long before tipoff.
“We came here for a reason,” point guard Josh Perkins said after the Zags rallied past Arizona on Tuesday. “I said Coach K (Mike Krzyzewski) was a Hall of Fame coach; we got a Hall of Fame coach on our side, too. We’re looking forward to the matchup and showing the world who we are.”
It probably ranks as the biggest regular-season victory in program history. The Zags earned the right to celebrate at midcourt after Brandon Clarke rejected RJ Barrett’s shot in the closing seconds.
“Hey, the best thing when the Zags come to Maui is we get (Thursday) off, so I’m going to enjoy every hour with my family and friends,” Few said. “We’ll have a nice Few type of day where we do a little bit of everything and get out and about and have a great time.
“The players do the same thing and then we have a big Thanksgiving dinner at night and it’s awesome. We have a lot to be thankful for.”
The trick for Gonzaga becomes how it handles all the attention heading its way, whether or not the Zags ascend to No. 1 in Monday’s Associated Press Top 25.
After all, , the season is not even 3 weeks old and there are nearly 3 1/2 months left in the regular season.
Gonzaga played outstanding basketball in outscoring Arizona 54-29 in the second half and was even better while leading by as many as 16 against Duke – all with injured forward Killian Tillie on the sideline for another month. They’ve set a high standard to maintain and improve upon, with a string of big games approaching against Creighton, Washington, Tennessee and North Carolina.
Few knows what’s ahead on the schedule. He also has experience guiding top-ranked teams under the national microscope. GU reached No. 1 in early March 2013, and again in January 2017. The 2013 team won 32 games before losing to Wichita State in the NCAA Tournament’s round-of-32. The 2017 team went 37-2 and fell to North Carolina in the NCAA championship game.
“It’s going to be a huge challenge,” Few said. “My good buddy (Villanova coach) Jay Wright used the term ‘We just got to stay away from the poison’ last year when his guys moved up and were No. 1 early in the season. What a phenomenal job they did, man. They just kept their eye on the prize and kept getting better and better. Their culture was strong. So we’ve got to learn from them and follow that lesson.”
As good as Gonzaga played for roughly half of the tournament, the other half wasn’t nearly as pretty. The Zags had turnover issues, including 22 versus Illinois and 10 in the first half against Arizona. They committed just 13 turnovers in their last 60 minutes.
Gonzaga entered the tournament shooting just less than 80 percent at the free-throw line. The Zags made just 64 percent on the soft Lahaina Civic Center rims and misfired on four straight in the last 30 seconds against the Blue Devils.
“We made so many mistakes this week,” Few said. “When we get them in the film room it’s probably not going to be the most pleasant experience. We’ll get back to coaching the way we tell them and practicing what we do, but it’s a long haul.
“Hopefully we can get healthy with Killian and that will change us and help us even more. Certainly we’ve been able to grow without him but he’s an integral part of what we do.”
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