If February comes in like a pack of rabid hyenas, it goes out like a lion. A regal, ancient lion.
So it may be appropriate the final day of February this year ended with P.J. Carlesimo serving as the analyst on ESPN’s Gonzaga-Pacific broadcast.
The top-ranked Bulldogs won, 86-66, on the Tigers’ Senior Night, but the winners were those watching on TV.
What they saw …
• Carlesimo may not be the king of college basketball, but his family has been royalty for decades, with father Peter, the former Fordham athletic director, serving as director of the NIT Tournament. P.J. had a decent run as Seton Hall’s head coach, reaching the Final Four in 1989 but losing the NCAA title against Michigan in the Kingdome. He then moved on to the NBA, including serving as the Seattle SuperSonics’ final head coach, so he knows both games.
And that made him a good source on a night in which Gonzaga (28-2 overall, 15-0 in the West Coast Conference) wasn’t really tested – again – after the first few minutes.
Carlesimo, working with Kanoa Leahey on the play-by-play, put his knowledge to work talking about Rui Hachimura and Brandon Clarke, two Gonzaga underclassmen who seem headed to the NBA.
“We saw Gonzaga a couple times last year,” Carlesimo said to Leahey in the first half, “but I saw them practice a lot – Spokane is not far from Seattle, where I live. I really liked Rui as he was last year.”
But he’s even more impressed now by the junior big man.
“He’s made a big leap,” Carlesimo said. “I mean he’s two levels better than last year, and I thought he was pretty good last year.”
• As much as he likes Hachimura, who finished with 27 points and six rebounds (the latter an area where Carlesimo feels he needs to improve), he also was unstinting in his praise of Clarke. And when the two were playing off each other?
It made Carlesimo actually sound excited – if only just a little.
Late in the first half, Clarke came up with a steal on one end, dribbled down the court and fed Hachimura for a layup.
“Bigs get the steal, bigs get the assist, bigs get the finish,” Carlesimo said, admiringly. “The guards didn’t even touch it.”
Clarke finished with another double-double, with 21 points and 13 rebounds.
• Those individuals are one thing, but to get to the top of the polls, the team has to be exceptional. That’s what Carlesimo continued to harp on – in a good way.
He pointed out the obvious, how good the Zags are offensively. They lead the NCAA in a trio of categories. But he seemed more impressed with what they were doing defensively.
They held Pacific to 37 shooting from the floor (23 percent in the first half), which played well into what seemed to be Carlesimo’s favorite statistic, field goal percentage defense. The Bulldogs came in seventh in the nation, and with Clarke’s rim presence – he blocked four more Tiger shots – are, as the former coach kept emphasizing, tough to score on.
Except from beyond the arc. The Tigers hit 12 of their 24 shots, scoring more than half their points from long range.
“I love the defense,” Carlesimo said after the final buzzer.
What we saw …
• The game began with some hope for the home team. The Tigers (13-17, 3-12) actually led for about 5 minutes. Part of it may have been Gonzaga’s opponent Saturday, Saint Mary’s, and the Zags looking ahead.
The slow GU start was epitomized on Josh Perkins’ drive less than 7 minutes in. The Gonzaga point guard, who finished with eight points, came off a high screen and found only himself at the rim. He missed the shot. The Tigers led 10-6.
“This is about as good a start as (Pacific coach) Damon Stoudamire could have asked for,” Leahey said.
“This is a better start than he would have asked for,” Carlesimo answered.
• There was a Killian Tillie sighting Thursday night.
Midway through the second half, ESPN showed Tillie, who is out with a partially torn ligament in his right foot, going through light warmups before the game.
Leahey and Carlesimo talked about easily Killie was moving, and mentioned that his recovery was exceeding expectations.
• If you like fast games and a “let-them-play” attitude, you probably loved the way the veteran officiating crew of Kevin Brill, Glen Mayberry and Deron White worked.
Though there were a typical number of fouls called, the game had a flow despite Pacific’s patience on the offensive end.
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