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John Blanchette: With perfection out of the picture, Gonzaga focused on building best team for March

UPDATED: Sun., Dec. 9, 2018, 7:14 p.m.

PHOENIX – What, you thought they were going to go 40-0?

No, nobody – not even Gonzaga’s well-indulged constituency – is that unrealistic, having been derailed at 29-0 just a couple years ago.

Yet surely it wouldn’t have been too presumptuous to think the Bulldogs might guard the only guy who’d made a field goal in the last 3 1/2 minutes, right?

Some expectations aren’t too high.

But such are the lessons learned in a long college basketball season, and if they manage to end up 39-1, well, the Zags can kick themselves later – though they may have been kicking themselves more than a little bit on the flight home after their 76-73 loss to Tennessee on Sunday in the first Jerry Colangelo Classic at Talking Stick Resort Arena.

On Monday, they’ll wake up as something other than the No. 1 team in America.

Dressed up as such for two weeks, they’d have a right to feel a little naked. But, hey, these are only costumes anyway, and borrowed at that. At least until March.

“We don’t care about that at all,” insisted Gonzaga swingman Corey Kispert. “There’s only been one team ever to go perfect in a college basketball season and the chances of that are slim.”

Well, eight, actually – all decades before he was born. But his larger point stands.

This kind of thing is hard.

And the Zags made it even harder – on purpose.

To challenge a gifted and driven team, coach Mark Few carved out a 31-day stretch that would take the Bulldogs from Lahaina Harbor to Tobacco Road and test them against three Top 15 teams, some other established brands and a regional rival on the come. Then fate took two aces out of the Bulldogs’ deck, just to screw with the odds.

“But this stretch of games is something we’ve been looking forward to since May,” Kispert said.

And, in fact, the Zags dealt with it – if not always gracefully – until about six minutes remained in Sunday’s game.

Now, closure issues have nipped at the Bulldogs all season. They led by 10 against Illinois before surviving in the final minute. Against Duke, what was a 13-point lead had to be rescued with four remarkable defensive stops in the last 60 seconds. And Rui Hachimura’s last-second heroics were needed to turn back Washington.

On this day, however, they had no answer for Tennessee’s Admiral Schofield, who scored 25 of his 30 points after halftime – and 23 of the Vols’ last 33.

“I was the one hitting the shots today,” Schofield said, “but honestly, any guy on our team could be in that position.”

Except nobody else seemed to want to try.

Until Jordan Bowden threw in a couple of 3-pointers after the Zags went up 64-55 with six minutes to play, it was all Admiral, all the time. Destiny jumped on his shoulders along with his teammates when he banked in a 3 – his fifth – to give the Vols a 73-71 lead with 77 seconds left. So with the game tied, it surprised no one that Schofield would wind up with the ball.

The surprising part was that both Hachimura and Josh Perkins tracked point guard Jordan Bone after Schofield set a pick, leaving him nearly 10 feet clear for a pass and a shot from behind the NBA 3-point line.

The seventh-ranked Vols have learned some lessons of their own against a not-quite-Zaggish schedule – except Schofield found his revelation in a football game.

“I remember us playing against Kansas and coach (Rick Barnes) saying we played with too much emotion,” Schofield said. “I didn’t understand until I watched the Georgia-Alabama football game and Georgia came out with a lot of emotion and couldn’t finish. To me, it just looked like everything they had going, offense and defense, was all emotion – and Alabama stayed poised.”

Poise has not been the Bulldogs’ friend of late. Maybe it’s a product of playing in too many emotion-laden games – in Maui, at Creighton, against UW. Maybe it’s fatigue from a rotation abridged by the injuries to Killian Tillie and Geno Crandall. But the breakdowns on both ends were obvious against the Vols, who made eight of their last 10 shots to Gonzaga’s two of nine.

“It’s not so much the No. 1 or the undefeated (season),” said Gonzaga guard Zach Norvell Jr. “It’s losing, period – a game like that, when you give the lead away and you make a couple of bonehead mistakes as a team.”

One more big test remains, Saturday at North Carolina.

“But this stretch has helped us discover how good we are and can be,” Kispert said, “and we’re not even a full team yet, which I think gets lost. And we’re really looking forward to that.”

Since they were never looking to go 40-0 anyway.

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