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John Blanchette: Gonzaga may have muffed the final against North Carolina, but the rest of the semester deserves high marks

UPDATED: Sat., Dec. 15, 2018

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – So how bad was it?

At halftime on Saturday evening, North Carolina introduced its “brand new football coach,” Mack Brown – like there’s anything brand new about Mack Brown – and listened to his stirring pep talk for 21,750 believers bathed in blue.

And then even he stuck around to snag a rebound away from Gonzaga’s defenders.

OK, that’s not true. Those were real, live, hard-working bodies pulsing the Bulldogs into puree on the glass, and credit is due.

So in the wake of the 103-90 pounding at the “Dean Dome” and their second straight loss – and possible tumble out of top 10 next week – how much credit should be accorded the Zags as this semester ends?

Well, plenty.

If they muffed the final, they aced nearly all the quizzes. And they still impressed the guy doing the grading on Saturday.

“It was a big-time game,” North Carolina coach Roy Williams said. “One of the best crowds we’ve ever had for a nonconference December game. That just says a lot about their program, too.”

In fact, had the Zags reversed the order of their 9-2 report card through the first 40 days of the season, their devotees would be gleefully rubbing their hands instead of wringing them.

But wringing them they are.

Because they saw countless defensive lapses in a sometimes listless zone that led to North Carolina shooting better than 50 percent from field – 13 of 25 from 3 – and surrendering a C-note in regulation for the first time in 11 years.

“Defensively,” guard Josh Perkins acknowledged, “we’ve got some things to work on.”

They saw their faves wilt on the boards – the Heels holding a 42-21 advantage, and an even more unsightly 27-0 edge in second-chance points.

“I’d like to say yes to it being about playing them,” forward Brandon Clarke said, “but it’s been a glaring issue with our team and something we really need to work on.”

And, not as tellingly but almost as critically, they saw the Zags shoot blanks in three tasty opportunities to inject some tension into the proceedings in the second half – a turnover and two missed 3s with a chance to make it a two-possession game. The clutch suntan the Bulldogs showed off in Maui seems to have faded.

This is the news – and everyone knows how a news cycle works.

No one much wants to mitigate these revelations with the old news about the demanding schedule and injuries to Killian Tillie and Geno Crandall – probably since the Zags rose above them to climb to No. 1 in the nation a few weeks ago.

But those issues are still important factors in any assessment.

“I really loaded up on the schedule for this particular team and it’s been a rough little run – but I’d definitely do it again, especially with this group of guys,” coach Mark Few insisted, later adding, “I’ve never had any of my teams play a schedule this tough.”

Well, that’s arguable. Gonzaga teams of the mid-2000s faced more Top 25 teams in the nonconference than the three the Zags have played, and the 2007 Bulldogs faced eight that were ranked in that year’s final poll.

But Duke, Tennessee and North Carolina are legitimate NCAA title contenders – and all five of the other Power 6 programs Gonzaga has beaten are in the top 100 of Ken Pomeroy’s latest go-to ratings.

It will be suggested that while it took the Zags longer than expected to feel Tillie’s absence – at least in sheer results – this lesson showed how much they do. But it also showed how much they miss the defense and grit of guys like Johnathan Williams and Silas Melson – and if you want to go back another year, Przemek Karnowski and Nigel Williams-Goss.

Stops seemed to mean more when they were around. Rebounds, too.

“That’s one thing we’re going to have to get a lot better at if we’re going to accomplish what we want to accomplish,” Few said.

But an opponent like North Carolina – playing at extreme pace with a deep rotation – makes stops and boards mean more, too.

Now this murderers’ row is behind them. Dead ahead are four more nonconference games against the lower part of the order, followed by a West Coast Conference schedule that – even without a Top 25 Saint Mary’s – will feature more tough outs than normal.

“We’ve got a resilient group,” Perkins said, “and I still believe we’re the best team in the country. We’ve got some things to fix, but that’s the good news. It’s only December. Once we’re back and at full strength and fix these problems, we’ll be back at the top, no question.”

Confidence. Unlike recycled football coaches, it never gets old.

Follow along with the Zags

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