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John Blanchette: Don’t take offense, but Gonzaga’s scoring starts on defensive end

UPDATED: Fri., Dec. 1, 2017, 11:48 p.m.

Fifty-four points in the second half. Zach Norvell Jr. going from zero to 21 in not quite that many minutes. Silas Melson, career high in points. Killian Tillie, career high in points. This drive, that dunk, this 3, that three-point play.

If there was anything the Gonzaga Bulldogs couldn’t do on offense Friday night, it was only because they didn’t try it.

Not that any of it mattered as much as getting a few stops.

Really. Just a few stops.

That’s all it took to turn a loss in the making into a 91-74 romp over the nation’s No. 25 team, the Creighton Bluejays – another resume win not even a month into a season in which dimmer skeptics wondered if they’d get any.

“It has to start with defense,” insisted coach Mark Few. “That’s why these last several teams of ours have been so good, and the best ones have been exceptional.”

Yes, the days of there being no “D” in Gonzaga are, well, Donezaga. And as Few noted, this is no overnight development.

Last year’s Zags were national runners-up at the Final Four and one step better on defense, by the popular statistical metric of the day. Not a single Gonzaga team in the last five years has ranked out of the top 30.

“This is the standard that’s been set,” said senior Silas Melson, who’s played a big role in setting it.

And it’s a standard which, during Friday’s first 20 minutes, seemed to be clotheslining the Zags every time the Bluejays slipped a screen for a layup or flung in a 3 against GU’s zone. With 15 points and three assists, Marcus Foster seemed destined to win Big East Player of the Year in a single evening. The Zags managed to string together consecutive stops exactly twice, and with Josh Perkins sidelined for the last seven minutes with fouls, felt lucky to trail just 44-37 – and needed a 16-point outburst by Melson to accomplish that.

It had the manic Kennel crowd – in full attendance and full throat, finally – wistfully looking at the bench, hoping to see a big rim protector like Przemek Karnowski trundling to check in, or Nigel Williams-Goss closing out on a shooter.

Hey, sometimes the coaching staff has that wistful look, too.

“It was ridiculous, really,” assistant coach Brian Michaelson said of that 2017 team. “You had the best two rim protectors we’ve ever had and teams became so afraid that you didn’t even have to plan for an inside attack. There was not a double team of any sort we had to do back there, so you didn’t worry about rotating on shooters. And with four guys, you didn’t have to worry about fouls.”

Then is not now. The Zags are smaller, not as deep and too young in spots to have a full embrace of either concept or will.

But they have their moments.

Friday’s came at the start of the second act. In Creighton’s first 10 trips down the floor, the Bluejays managed a pair of free throws and five turnovers.

“Tremendous response by our guys,” Few gushed.

The Zags adjusted their ball screen coverages that had surrendered five easy baskets to Creighton big man Martin Krampelj, on top of letting Foster and Khyri Thomas go free too often. They also locked down the defensive boards – the Bluejays had one second-chance opportunity in the first 12 minutes.

“Before I knew it,” Perkins said, “we were up 10.”

Getting Norvell untracked certainly helped. But you don’t go from seven down to 10 ahead in a shade more than seven minutes without stops.

“When they switched, it kind of messed us up a little bit,” Foster said, “because they would have (Johnathan) Williams on me or Khyri Thomas and we would feel the need to really exploit that mismatch. He’s long and athletic. Even Tillie got on us and they were able to use their length against us so we couldn’t get easy layups.”

That’s a defensive versatility these Zags can exploit, and while Melson remains one of the better defensive guards in GU history, Perkins is growing in that regard. He had back-to-back stops on Foster when the Jays were trying to keep the door open – until Tillie’s soaring dunk and a couple of Norvell solos slammed it.

On two short preps – 24 and 48 hours – the Zags have had to deal with “two of the best offenses in college basketball,” as Few called Florida and Creighton, and tackled the latter without freshman Corey Kispert, whose sprained ankle kept him in a walking boot.

It hasn’t been perfect. Maybe that’s for the best.

“It pays dividends late in the year,” Melson said. “As the season goes on, games get tougher. You’re going to run into bumps like that in March almost every game. It’s good to get better at it right now.”

And they are. Right before our eyes.

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