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Blanchette: Nothing-to-lose Zags hit new heights after surgical demolition of Utah

The Bulldogs’ bench explodes after little-used teammate Jack Beach scores late in the game after the outcome against Utah was well in hand. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)

DENVER – It has long been Mark Few’s contention that March matters too much in college basketball. Too much hubbub about the destination, not enough about the winter’s journey. The emotional Everest over the admirable grind.

This might be the year, however, he allows for an exception to that strongly held precept.

Because there isn’t a team in the NCAA men’s basketball tournament playing better than his Gonzaga Bulldogs at the moment, and the collective will it’s taken to get them to this point is a remarkable, exhilarating thing.

No coincidence that once the weekend is over, the Zags will be one of 16 teams standing.

Left underfoot on Saturday were the Utah Utes, victims of an 82-59 ambush that more resembled open-heart surgery without anesthetic.

This may or may not be the Zags’ one shining moment, but it will stand as another high point in a program that’s produced many, many contenders.

“We played our best game of the year,” said Few, “on the biggest stage when we needed to.”

But, hey, the Zags have been doing that for a month, really, after a season of stumbling into the footlights.

This, however, was of another echelon. This was an evisceration of the nation’s 13th-ranked team, winners over Duke and seven other NCAA tournament teams, led by a projected lottery-pick center – and the Zags dominated in every possible facet.

That started with Domantas Sabonis’ KO over Utah’s Jakob Poeltl in the heavyweight main event in the middle. Throw in a defensive game plan and execution – on Poeltl, specifically, but for the Utes collectively – that will set a standard for future Gonzaga teams. Add Eric McClellan as a dazzling X-factor with 22 points and dizzying, soul-breaking plays. Shooting, boardwork, game management, a hitman’s mentality – the Bulldogs had it all.

“The look these guys had when they started the game,” marveled assistant coach Tommy Lloyd, “it was like, ‘We’ve got this.’”

And the Utes had nothing resembling an answer.

But then, that’s been typical of the Pac-12’s representation in this tournament, now a dismal 2-6 after considerable self-promotion all season.

Fellas, this is no way to get on DirecTV.

Meanwhile, Few’s argument for West Coast Conference brothers Saint Mary’s and even BYU has taken on a whole new depth. At least those two teams took GU to the limit in Las Vegas; Seton Hall and the Utes barely bothered to come out of the locker room at halftime after getting pushed around.

“Aggressors always win this time of year,” said guard Silas Melson. “Hopefully, the other team will lay down after taking a few blows.”

So you could say the Zags have aced the eye test. And they’re magnanimous enough to give their critics a break.

“We’ve just gotten so much better over the year,” said senior guard Kyle Dranginis. “I don’t think anybody could have seen us playing this well.”

The why has been kicked around a bunch already – the long reinvention after center Przemek Karnowski went down, the transition from denial to acceptance by the team’s maligned guards, even the coaching staff’s willingness to return to the drawing board. But the obvious upshot is that this team is playing looser and more confident – and embraced the March mentality in ways other Gonzaga teams haven’t always managed.

Being the underdogs – in seed, not the betting line – has been liberating, to be sure.

“I could sit here and say it doesn’t matter,” Few said. “But it’s a different feeling. It’s been really comforting and freeing. We can go into these games and kind of just let it rip – play great basketball, play confident.”

But still be, well, Gonzaga.

“For us, it feels sweeter,” said senior Kyle Wiltjer. “People write you off. You try not to listen, but you hear people say, ‘Oh, they’re not going to get past this team.’ Once the game starts, you have to still bring that confidence that we’re still Gonzaga and the better team. A lot of underdogs think they can win, but they don’t always believe.”

For Dranginis and Wiltjer, the turning point came after the Senior Night clunker against Saint Mary’s that essentially ended Gonzaga’s at-large prospects – which, of course, was when desperation set in.

“We were on the ropes,” Wiltjer admitted.

Funny how that’s birthed the nothing-to-lose Zags.

“It’s flight or fight,” Dranginis said. “You can take that criticism of being written off and get down and quit or stand up and fight.”

Now the Zags take the fight to Chicago, still unsure whether their opponent will be Syracuse or Middle Tennessee State. In either case, the Bulldogs’ own achievements and that both of those teams are double-digit seeds, too, will remove any underdog’s costumery.

“A few weeks ago, this probably seemed a little far-fetched,” Dranginis said. “But now it’s right there for us.”

Make too much of March? Not in the year of this, the Sweetest 16.