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John Blanchette: Gonzaga dealt another tough blow ahead of blowout win over North Dakota State

UPDATED: Mon., Nov. 26, 2018, 11:09 p.m.

Quite the party the Gonzaga Bulldogs threw at McCarthey Athletic Center on Monday night.

Marmite and earthworm pizza. Vinegar upside down cake. And a piñata filled with 30-weight Castrol and cockroaches.

OK, so it wasn’t nearly that grim.

The Zags made more 100-point puree out of North Dakota State and everyone got to bask in reflected glow from the new No. 1 team in the nation, though apparently a good portion of the Kennel Club hadn’t heard the news. Probably trying for their own No. 1 ranking in the library.

Perhaps their professors had assigned them to look up the Duke score.

Of course, being No. 1 is old mitre at Gonzaga, unless you want to start parsing it by the calendar. The Zags spent three weeks atop the polls at the end of the 2013 regular season and four more after getting to 22-0 in 2017. That they find themselves top-ranked while everyone is slapping the last of Thanksgiving’s turkey between two slices of Wonder just reinforces this team’s outsized promise – buttressed by last week’s Maui zowies.

Not to mention it means an entire season of everyone shooting for you.

Including fate.

Barely could any bottle rockets be shot off before Monday’s game-goers were confronted with a sobering sight: the newest Zag, guard Geno Crandall, in street clothes, his right arm propped in a forbidding blue sling.

Some hemlock punch with your cake, folks?

He’ll be out from four to six weeks, having broken the third metacarpal in his right hand during practice on Sunday.

“Just kind of a freak accident,” Crandall said. “We were doing some live defensive stuff and I went for a steal and just happened to hit it the wrong way.”

All sorts of wrong, in fact.

Injuries happen in sports and must be overcome, but before getting through November the Bulldogs have lost two key pieces from what figured to be an eight or nine-man rotation – first forward Killian Tillie, described by coach Mark Few in Maui as “some nights our best player,” and now Crandall, whose arrival from North Dakota as a grad transfer in October was characterized as the addition that validated Gonzaga as a title contender.

Suddenly a team with reasonable depth has just nine available scholarship players for the next month – and two of the five guards are mere seedlings.

Now, Gonzaga has had it no worse and no better than most teams when it comes to such setbacks over the years, but it hasn’t had a double-whammy like this in a decade, going back to Josh Heytvelt and Steven Gray missing the first 10 games of the 2009 season.

They got through that 8-2, one of the losses that 51-47 war against a top-10 Washington State team in the Kennel.

That schedule was not this one, however.

In the next 15 days, the Zags must play at Creighton, home against Washington, in Phoenix against No. 6 Tennessee and at No. 11 North Carolina. In Omaha, they’ll face a team coming off winning the Cayman Islands tournament with an upset of No. 16 Clemson. Washington was ranked 25th before the season.

But then, that’s the Zags at the top of those same polls, and their Duke deed was accomplished with Tillie watching from the bench.

Crandall, with every right to feel lousy, seemed to have the best perspective of all.

“It’s just another hurdle to get over,” he said. “Thankfully, it’s not so serious that I need surgery or it’s season-ending. I’m just trying to positive and be there for the guys because we have a tough stretch coming up and we’re going to have to perform.

“Nobody cares that I’m out. Nobody cares that Tillie’s out. They just want their shot at us.”

To be frank, Crandall has not yet been the overnight sensation that GU’s previous grad transfers, Byron Wesley and Jordan Mathews, were. His late arrival on campus and the step up in competition has made for fitful progress – though while he didn’t shoot it well, his play against Duke suggested a turning point.

“He’s been so amazing through everything,” said assistant coach Brian Michaelson. “He put in so much work (to finish school at UND) at get here, and from the day he got here he’s been so selfless. The leadership and confidence he brings to this team hasn’t been seen from the outside maybe like our staff has seen it.”

Noted Few, “When he got here, our practices picked up. Our competitiveness within the team picked up.”

Monday’s romp allowed extra court time for freshmen Greg Foster Jr. and Joel Ayayi, and maybe circumstances will dictate more force-feeding. But chances are, it’s the roles of backup bigs Filip Petrusev and Jeremy Jones that will increase – as well as the workload on GU’s starters.

“It’s just life,” said Crandall. “Ups and downs. The good thing is, it just keeps going. We’ll be pushing to get healthy – and keep winning games in the meantime.”

Because the party’s still on.


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