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John Blanchette: Future looks bright for Gonzaga with play of young Bulldogs

ESPN’s Tipoff Marathon goes on – and on and on and on. Be careful not to lose yourself in that Niagara vs. Hartford telecast this morning and make yourself late for work.

But this Gonzaga team is the one you might consider binge-watching.

The hype and expectation will surely go into overdrive after the Bulldogs dispatched San Diego State 69-48 on Monday night – which, you know, is really something that needs to happen on Nov. 15.

But how are you going to stop it?

The Zags just took one of the West’s signature programs – 11 straight years in the postseason, and a defensive reputation among the nation’s best – and had it buried by 30 points before they started admiring the result in the rearview mirror.

And it was something to admire.

“We lost to a team,” said Aztecs coach Steve Fisher, “that’s – I’ll repeat – really, really, really, really, really good.”

That’s the second five-really assessment from an opposing coach already this year, if you’re scoring. Which is more than the Aztecs could do.

Now, this is probably no time for a basketball team to be impressed with itself, so the Zags will hold that in abeyance.

“We won’t see how much it pays off until later,” said senior guard Jordan Mathews. “But coach just said they’re going to be a 25-win team and probably win the Mountain West, and to beat them like we did shows we can beat anybody.

“We just have to play.”

And that’s exactly what it looked like – play. There was an uncommon energy and joy not unlike Saturday at the park – kids from different neighborhoods figuring out how to win with each other. Just with better organization.

Not that it didn’t take a while.

Marathons are all about stamina, and for a spell it seemed as if the Zags and Aztecs might put in 26 miles up and down the court before they made a shot.

Soon enough, Gonzaga figured it out – though they had to bring two freshmen big men, Zach Collins and Killian Tillie, off the bench to do it. Then Mathews heated up – he would score 17 points, on 5-of-7 shooting from the arc – and the plot was as thick as it was going to get.

And San Diego State?

Well, the Aztecs are playing shorthanded – three regulars are hurt, and two that played Monday have been. But they’ve never been one of college basketball’s high-octane outfits. It may be cruel to suggest this Aztec team could actually set offensive basketball back to, well, the age of the Aztecs – but it may also be true.

“We lost our mental capacity to think at the offensive level,” said Fisher.

They also faced a new wrinkle in Zag weaponry: a good zone defense.

Now, the Bulldogs have trotted out various incarnations of zone in the past, but usually out of a certain desperation and almost always for short bursts.

“Maybe we just thought of it as a way to keep guys out of foul trouble,” said coach Mark Few. “Now we’re trying to use it more as a weapon to win games with. We’ve been holding on to it to use it tonight.”

The wraps came off out of the first TV timeout – when the Zags trailed 6-2. They never really came out of it.

The results were undeniable: San Diego State shot just 21 percent in the first half, 29 percent for the game, and committed 15 turnovers.

“That’s a recipe for getting beat up,” said Fisher.

Just when it comes out again will depend on matchups and need. But need always seems to arise more often when a team is comfortable with a particular strategy.

“What’s funny is coach Few and I had a conversation early in the preseason, thinking maybe we don’t need much of a zone this year,” said assistant coach Tommy Lloyd. “We could do some things like maybe play off certain guys and do some switching with our man and that could be our secondary defense.

“Then we decided to put in our zone just really simple – we used to get way too complicated – and when we saw it we thought, ‘Hey, maybe we’ve got something here.’”

The Marathon has been good to the Zags – at least ever since the Aztecs came in here six years ago and stared down Gonzaga with a team that would go on to win 34 games. If ESPN was counting on this one to hold an audience, however, the network was disappointed.

“They’ll be good once they settle in,” Lloyd insisted. “It’s tough this early, bringing in a team that’s hurt on the road for the first time. I don’t think their season is going to be defined by that.”

But Gonzaga’s will – if only because it suggests just what the Zags can achieve.

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