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Grip on Sports: There are many reasons as Gonzaga is excused from the NCAA Tournament

Gonzaga forward Killian Tillie, center, watches the NCAA tournament game against Florida State from the bench due to injury on Thursday, March 22, 2018, at the Staples Center in Los Angeles. Gonzaga lost 75-60 in its fourth consecutive trip to the Sweet 16. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)
Gonzaga forward Killian Tillie, center, watches the NCAA tournament game against Florida State from the bench due to injury on Thursday, March 22, 2018, at the Staples Center in Los Angeles. Gonzaga lost 75-60 in its fourth consecutive trip to the Sweet 16. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)

A GRIP ON SPORTS • What’s the difference between excuses and reasons? Point of view, maybe. Or perspective. Read on.

••••••••••

• My dad used to constantly compare excuses to a part of our anatomy that he said everyone had, but no one wanted to hear.

But doesn’t everyone always wants to hear the reasons behind a loss?

It is possible to excuse Gonzaga’s loss to Florida State in last night’s Sweet Sixteen matchup with a simple reason: Killian Tillie’s absence. But there are many other reasons behind the 75-60 margin.

Look, not many teams in the NCAA Tournament could overcome the loss of their second-leading scorer, especially teams like Gonzaga which never really developed any depth over the course of its 32-win season.

The Zags had three bigs, with one of them, Rui Hachimura, a hybrid unmatched by most opponents. But Hachimura was better in small doses. The heavy lifting? That was usually done by Johnathan Williams and Tillie, even when one or the other was having an off game in the scoring column.

Tillie was spectacular in the WCC tournament and then was a non-factor, scoring-edition, in the NCAA’s first two rounds. But scoring is only part of what he does.

He rebounds. He defends. He handles the ball. And the threat of what he can do behind the arc – hitting 12 consecutive 3-pointers at one point this season – stretches a defense, making his teammates’ jobs easier.

Hachimura is special, but he’s not a 3-point threat. Yet. He came into the game as the least-effective shooter behind the arc in Gonzaga’s top seven, hitting just 19 percent of his attempts. The Zags’ other awful shooter behind the arc? Williams, at 23.5 percent. In other words, the two bigs Gonzaga put on the floor last night were given written invitations to shoot the 3-pointer by the FSU defense.

The Seminole bigs camped out in the key and blocked shots. Nine of them by our count. No wonder GU shot 39 percent from the field.

So Tillie’s absence was a huge difference. But the Bulldogs lost by 15 points in a game they were favored by six. There was more to it than that. Dan Bonner, TBS’ analyst, said this about Gonzaga at the end:

“Remember, they played without Tillie tonight and I think not having your second-leading scorer, not having your 6-10 guy who can spread out the defense, has really affected them.”

Then he added the obligatory “not to take anything away from Florida State” line.

But FSU took away just about everything Gonzaga wanted to do, offensively, at times, so I guess it’s OK. The Zag bigs didn’t screen the ball well early. (Come to think of it, that’s another thing Tillie does really well.) It’s a crucial aspect of GU’s motion, which is based on Billy Donovan’s offense he used while winning back-to-back national titles at Florida. The ball screening didn’t improve until Jacob Larsen came off the bench and added some heft and effort to it. But Larsen is limited elsewhere and was used only four minutes.

Hachimura and Williams did a more efficient job in the second half but the Zags still had trouble finishing. And the outside shooting was horrendous all game.

The deeply experienced guards, Silas Melson and Josh Perkins, were 1-for-10 combined. In fact, Melson had almost as many long-range air-balls (three) as GU had made 3-pointers (four).

What kept Gonzaga in the game was its defense, though it took switching to a zone in the first half to slow the Seminoles down. And the Zags were exclusively man after halftime, which wasn’t a bad idea even though they began to wear down. Florida State’s margin of victory was keyed more by transition buckets – the Seminoles were credited with just 14 fastbreak points but I can think of many more than that in transition without taxing my memory.

Gonzaga’s season was exceptional, especially considering what they lost in the offseason: Four players who played big roles in their NCAA-final run of a year ago.

The Zags’ first 36 games were all opportunities to develop an eighth option. Jeremy Jones and Larsen were given the bulk of them. Neither reached a level of dependability Mark Few could be comfortable with.

It didn’t really hurt the Zags against their nonconference opponents, nor did it affect their run to another WCC title. But it showed last night when Tillie couldn’t go. Big time.

It’s reasonable to believe Gonzaga would have been more competitive down the stretch against FSU with him. Without him, the Seminoles excused them from the tournament.

•••

Gonzaga: The later start last night limited the number of stories from Los Angeles, though it didn’t stop Jim Meehan from doing his usual analysis of the game as well as his three keys to the loss. Jim will be back today with more I’m sure. … John Blanchette has his column. … The photo reports from Dan Pelle and Tyler Tjomsland not only caught what was going on in the Staples Center, but what happened at a Gonzaga-based gathering across the street. Whitney Ogden has the story of the latter. … Whitney also talked with Williams after the loss while Theo Lawson touched base with Melson and the youngsters. … Jim posted an early story about Tillie’s injury and Whitney followed up on it. … Tillie’s injury was the main topic of conversation last night and in my TV Take. … Larry Weir had a Press Box pod pregame yesterday. … There is of course other coverage of Florida State’s win, from guys who dropped in on the Zags for one game to the newspapers in the Los Angeles area. And then there is the national coverage to add as well. … The Zags’ women’s program received some bad news yesterday. Leading scorer Jill Barta, the WCC MVP, will not return for her senior season. Jim Allen has the story first reported in Great Falls. … In baseball, Gonzaga lost at BYU.

WSU: The Cougars opened spring practice yesterday in the rain and cold, which was just fine with Mike Leach. With Theo in Los Angeles, Peter Harriman has the coverage. … The offense is a work in progress this spring. … Washington State athletes had a good day in a Whitworth-based track invitational. … Elsewhere in the Pac-12, spring football has a way of keeping itself in the headlines, whether it be at Washington, where the Huskies haven’t even started yet, or at USC, which got some good news heading into spring practice. … Arizona has a news coaching staff. … Arizona State lost a receiver for the season. … Colorado developed some depth. … In basketball news, Washington’s Mike Hopkins has been mentioned in relationship with the Pittsburgh search. … Utah has turned disappointment into success.

Idaho: The NCAA regional is a homecoming of sorts for a couple Oregon Ducks. Jim Allen talks with coach Kelly Graves, who had a long stint at Gonzaga, while Greg Lee caught up with Gonzaga Prep graduate Oti Gildon. … Jim also has more on the top players in the regional, hosted by UI.

Chiefs: The playoff series with Portland begins tomorrow.

Preps: The rain cut down on the spring sports action yesterday, but there are roundups in soccer and softball.

Mariners: The M’s pitching staff has been whittled down by injury. The next man up may just be the last man. … Hey, Ichiro is healthy. As is Hisashi Iwakuma. … And the M’s did win yesterday.

Seahawks: That trade with Cleveland for a long-armed cornerback? It’s off. C.J. Smith didn’t pass his physical. … The Hawks didn’t lose all their free agents. And they added a couple, though it doesn’t look as if Terrelle Pryor is headed to Seattle.

•••       

• Is it Friday already? And no Gonzaga hoops to watch this weekend? That’s different. At least you have time to keep up with the Oregonian’s series on recruiting. Until later …

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