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Gonzaga Basketball

Blanchette: Men’s college basketball stacked with tough teams this season

The shortest day of the year was long on big doings in college basketball.

The Bluegrass Bilefest saw Louisville get out from under the weight of losing to Kentucky yet again, the Cardinals prevailing 73-70 – and apparently without the help of getting the Kentucky game plan from the Wildcats’ radio color guy.

Duke’s serial kicker, Grayson Allen, made an early bid for the 2017 Lou Groza Award, delivering a spinning leg hook to Elon’s Steven Santa Ana that drew a technical foul and sent Allen into a third-grader’s meltdown on the bench. Home room teacher Mike Krzyzewski dragged his pupil by the ear to apologize to his victim afterward, and a new Internet meme was born: Graymond Allen.

Kansas lost its freshman center, Udoka Azubuike, for the season to a wrist injury. Syracuse lost in the Carrier Dome by 33 points to St. John’s.

And here in Spokane, Gonzaga put a 102-65 bruise on South Dakota.

The significance may be muted nationally, but not here. With the rout, the Bulldogs completed the nonconference schedule undefeated for the first time – the 12-0 start also being a school record. The 1944 Zags went 11-0 but couldn’t get by Whitman College on the second night of a two-game January road series.

The guess here is Whitman had a damned good RPI that year.

Even coach Mark Few, not one to overstate value, counted himself impressed.

“When you get this far along, with all the success this program has had,” he said, “it’s harder than heck to do something that nobody else has done before you.”

Here’s something else the Bulldogs have done: elbowed their way into a national conversation otherwise revolving around college basketball’s blueblood programs.

You know them all – Duke, Kentucky, Kansas, North Carolina, UCLA and Indiana. The previous two weeks, all six were ranked in the Top 10 – something that hadn’t happened in more than 20 years as the game incrementally became more egalitarian. The Hoosiers dropped out this week over the shame of losing to Butler, which is only No. 13.

There are a bunch of other truly outstanding possibilities as well – starting with top-ranked defending champion Villanova.

Man, March can’t get here fast enough.

“There are some high-end teams in this deal,” acknowledged Few.

And among them, the Zags.

“I have no doubt in my mind we’re right there,” said assistant coach Tommy Lloyd. “Now, we’ve got to do it and prove it on a daily basis, but I would love the opportunity to match up with some of those teams.”

They’ve matched up with good ones already – Arizona from the Top 25, Florida and Iowa State which have both spent time there. San Diego State and Washington have been underachievers, but even the purchased victories on the schedule – Akron and Wednesday’s victims from the badlands – have a chance to audition as bracket Cinderellas.

But this is, as Few noted, a special year nationally, featuring one of the best freshman classes to come along of late along with quality upperclassmen patient enough to wait on their NBA dreams. The newbie-heavy teams – Duke, Kentucky – are scary enough; the ones with a veteran core look as tough in a more subtle way.

And that’s Gonzaga – even if seven players are wearing Zags uniforms for the first time.

“We’re experienced,” Few allowed, “but some of them are inexperienced in winning at this level.

“The interesting thing is they’ve really given of themselves to mesh so well this early. The ball is moving and they’re covering for each other defensively. Those are good signs of a team that likes each other and wants to play together.”

If a couple of second-half leads have vaporized and the rebounding visuals have been alarming, the Bulldogs have been remarkable for their consistency in bringing it every night – as much as any Gonzaga team.

Still, with so much of college basketball’s traditional royalty loaded, too, you have to wonder if the Zags picked a stacked year to be this good.

“I was thinking about that today,” said Richard Fox, the ex-Zag center turned TV analyst. “I watched Kentucky and Louisville some tonight and I’ve seen Duke and UCLA and I think to myself, ‘They’re fine.’ I don’t think they’ll be overwhelmed at all with the talent those teams have.

“This year’s Gonzaga team is a lot better than last year – and they lost two NBA players. That to me is what’s crazy.”

And there’s also the sense that this isn’t a parochial sentiment – that the level of regard nationally is given less grudgingly than before.

“I don’t think it’s a question,” said guard Nigel Williams-Goss. “We’re with those teams at the very top, competing to be the best team in the country. If we continue to improve and buy into the system, the sky is the limit for us.”

The big doings seem to be just beginning.