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Gonzaga Basketball
Sports >  Gonzaga basketball

John Blanchette: With momentum halted, Gonzaga must start nearly from scratch with No. 3 Iowa up next

UPDATED: Thu., Dec. 17, 2020

Gonzaga head coach Mark Few talks with his top-ranked Bulldogs during the team’s most recent game on Dec. 2 against West Virginia in Indianapolis.  (Associated Press)
Gonzaga head coach Mark Few talks with his top-ranked Bulldogs during the team’s most recent game on Dec. 2 against West Virginia in Indianapolis. (Associated Press)
By John Blanchette For The Spokesman-Review

In the coming week, we can probably expect to learn that:

  • Gonzaga has arranged to host a college basketball bubble event that includes Baylor, Michigan State and Villanova on New Year’s Eve and Day, and that the West Coast Conference season will just have to wait.
  • Bulldogs donors have endowed in perpetuity the Mark Few Chair of Coaching Shiznit, with an assist from LeBron James.
  • Chet Holmgren, the No. 1 recruit in the class of 2021, has reclassified to become college-eligible now, even though he hasn’t even given a commitment yet, much less signed a letter of intent.
  • Freshman sensation Jalen Suggs has developed a 100% reliable, no-side-effects COVID-19 vaccine, plus a distribution plan to get it to every Spokane resident within 24 hours. After all, what can’t he do?

And then we’ll wait for the encore.

Sustaining a basketball season until the denouement in March and April seems so distant and iffy at the moment that there’s a hyperfocus on daily developments – both the factual and the fantastic. We can thank the Zags for delivering.

On Thursday came notice that in its scramble to reconstruct a schedule that has been blown up multiple times because of COVID restrictions, complications and, finally, positive tests, Gonzaga has hastily arranged a Dec. 26 meeting with Virginia.

This, in all likelihood, is the solution for the earlier shelving of the No. 1-vs.-No. 2 showdown with Baylor – though Few said efforts continue to reschedule that one, too. But Baylor had to pause operations, too, and now no Saturday openings remain in 2020, which is college basketball’s showcase day – and what this pairing was meant to be.

Thursday’s odder development was the announcement that Ben Gregg, the 6-foot-10 recruit who signed with GU last month, will join the program immediately, having fulfilled his graduation requirements at Clackamas High School. This, mostly, was the upshot of Oregon’s prep season being on hold.

“We all came to the conclusion that it might be best for him to just get up here and at least be able to start playing in a controlled environment,” Few said. “It’ll be a good development piece for him. As far as him helping us, we’ll just have to wait and see.”

In other words, he won’t be the X-factor against Iowa.

Oh, right, the other development: For better or worse, Gonzaga’s season resumes Saturday morning. The mere playing of a game would be humdrum, except for this: The Hawkeyes are camped just behind Baylor in the polls.

And for this: the Zags’ two-week limbo.

On the morning of Dec. 5, the school suspended the men’s program after two more positive cases. Baylor and four home games were scrapped. The announcement mentioned only competitions, perhaps implying it was full speed ahead on practices – except that it wasn’t.

“It has not helped us in any way, shape or form,” Few said – referencing basketball, not recovery. “This is the biggest challenge I’ve faced as a head coach. (Thursday) will be the first time we’ve all been back together on the practice floor since the day before the Baylor game.

“We were able to get together last night and that looked like our first practice of the fall – balls going everywhere and people leaning over and grabbing their shorts because they were gassed.”

Anything basketball related was limited to what Few called “a small group.” So many of the things that make the Zags the Zags – their exquisite timing, polish and rhythm – have likely been dulled. Conditioning has slipped. The early wins over Kansas, Auburn and West Virginia can no longer be considered momentum.

“But we were in a wonderful place going into that Baylor game,” Few countered, “and I think it’s going to come back rather quickly.”

If you’re going to insist on playing through a pandemic – and Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski has argued against – then you’re not allowed to carry on about the obstacles. As Few noted, “Everybody’s got a story, and you just have to power through it.”

The daily bulletins – schedule rewrites, testing results, program pauses, ramp-ups, surprise roster additions – help keep the housebound consumer engaged. But the participants battle the numbing sameness we all do.

“These guys want to play, and almost their whole lives it’s been about playing ball and being out there,” Few said. “They understand the seriousness of everything that’s going on around them, but I don’t know if everybody understands just how isolated they are. We’re isolated in our own group, but with the situations that come up, then they totally isolate in their rooms all day. It’s tough, but as I’ve said over and over this year, I’m continually amazed by the resiliency, the drive, the dedication, the wherewithal.

“These guys want to keep playing and when they do get their opportunities, man, they’re overjoyed to get out the floor and be around each other and go out and play the game they love. That’s why I think it’s my job to do everything I possibly can to help them have a special year – all the while making sure it’s safe.”

And maybe, come Sunday’s paper, there can be a result in the headlines.

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