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John Blanchette: Gonzaga’s West Coast Conference domination a statement to the college basketball world

UPDATED: Thu., Feb. 7, 2019, 11:27 p.m.

Fifteen seasons back, the Gonzaga Bulldogs clinched the West Coast Conference regular-season title on Feb. 14, something akin to sinking the 8-ball with five of the other guy’s targets still on the table.

Thanks to the rub of that year’s calendar and a schedule that wedged in a nonconference date in February, the Zags had only three league games remaining.

Some highly suppositional math suggests that if all falls right, this year’s Bulldogs actually could close out the competition with two full weekends to play.

Which is not sinking the 8 on the break, exactly. But close.

If that reads as a glove across the cheek of the rest of the league, it’s not. The WCC gave a laudable accounting of itself in college basketball’s pre-New Year’s free-for-all and could still produce six 20-win teams.

Even so, it’s boiled down to the Big Dog and the Big Middle.

So have you reached terminal ennui?

The Zags haven’t. Not even close.

The latest evidence: Thursday’s 92-62 blitz of San Francisco, which by various eye tests could be regarded as the second-best team in the league, though surely counsel for Brigham Young or Saint Mary’s would have a demurrer at the ready. And, yes, you’d expect the Bulldogs to have their game on for the Dons.

But the fact is, every night is taking on the look of a statement game.

“That’s very fair to say,” Gonzaga point guard Josh Perkins said. “We’ve got things to prove, and as long as we’ve got opponents on the schedule, we’re going to take them seriously.”

And what do the Zags have to prove?

“That we’re the best team in the country,” he said, “and I mean that.”

That doesn’t get decided in the first week of February, of course. But certainly you can establish the rhythm and the attitude, among other things.

Gonzaga’s average margin of victory in WCC play – 29.2 – suggests a stomping du jour, which is a skosh misleading. San Diego and Loyola Marymount put up their dukes, and three weeks ago the Dons led with a few minutes to play before the Zags located the afterburner. Likewise, this one was a sword fight until late in the second half, when Zach Norvell Jr. did his Zach Norvell Jr. thing – 13 straight GU points, 10 in the space of 81 seconds.

“He did the same thing against San Diego (last Saturday),” USF coach Kyle Smith said. “That game was tight and he just took over.

“Most coaches would call them bad shots, but he’s a really good shooter – and they kind of live and die with him that way. But watch him compete. I don’t think anything bothers him. He’s going to be very aggressive and have a high belief in himself.”

With a 13-point lead, Norvell had no problem slipping back into the shadows in the second half – he took just three more shots. But it was the kind of soul-crushing burst that can suck belief out of the opponent, and Norvell obviously isn’t the only Zag who can deliver it.

For the Dons, it was the end of a rugged stretch – road losses at USD, Saint Mary’s and Gonzaga after a 17-3 start – and a rugged reminder that progress still comes in baby steps.

Part of the WCC’s big coaching churn of 2016, Smith has done the most remarkable job of the four hired that year – 59 wins in two-plus seasons. The Dons are difficult to defend, have a growing star in Charles Minlend and a pepperpot leader in Frankie Ferrari, whose reaction to the Kennel Club calling him “Frankie Fiat” was among the night’s amusements.

But they haven’t separated themselves from the Big Middle.

And even then, there’s a bigger leap to be made.

“They’re a little more sleek, athletic team,” Smith said. “They really count on blocking shots at the rim, which turn into transitions. They’re what they always have been – just a little different.

“Though from here, they look the same to me.”

There’s something to be said in what the Zags are doing against one of the better incarnations of the WCC, even if it lacks a Top 25 sidekick a la Saint Mary’s of the last couple of seasons. And approach is part of the package.

“We’re just building on what we’ve done in the past,” Perkins insisted, “but I do think this group is one of the more confident teams I’ve been on. One-through-15, everybody believes we’re the best team in the country – and I think everybody believes they’re the best at their position, too.

“If you’ve got the five best players out on the floor, why not go win it all? But to get there, we’ve got to show it night in and night out.”

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