About a week ago, the question among Gonzaga fans was: Is this the year?
You know, THE year?
They’ve had fast starts before, but this November, whoa, sizzling.
With their veterans looking tournament ready and the kids playing with surprising maturity, the Zags torched No. 5 Texas and No. 2 UCLA, and were convincing in a slightly off-peak loss to No. 5 Duke.
But this week, the question became: What in the world is wrong with the Zags?
A lackluster struggle in a 64-55 win over Tarleton State was followed by a wretched first half Saturday against No. 16 Alabama, which found them trailing by 16 at halftime.
This first Battle in Seattle inside Climate Pledge Arena drew a sellout of 18,048, and featured a pro-GU crowd that, at times, gave this the feel of The Kennel West. But in the end, the Zags’ rally was doused by Alabama 91-82.
Going 2-2 against ranked opponents early in the season isn’t terrible. New faces need time to assimilate. But the Zags’ successes engender this scrutiny and critical judgment. Two losses in eight days seem excessive for a team that went 62-3 the past two seasons.
The problems include those that can be quantified and those that have no columns in the stats sheet.
When you can’t shoot free throws and can’t defend the perimeter, you’re going to lose to a hot-shooting and athletic Alabama team. Missing 12 of 25 free-throw attempts, including some front ends of bonuses will kill most teams.
Getting outscored 30-6 on 3-pointers in the first half is another lethal shortcoming.
Coach Mark Few pointed to the Zags’ improved “energy and spirit” in the second half, which allowed them to pull back within four, 76-72 with 5 minutes left.
“When you play teams like Alabama,” Few said, “you’ve got to be our best.”
And this is where Few delicately addressed a point that can’t go unnoticed by Zags fans.
Sometimes, he said, Alabama was more “purposeful,” and were “beating us to some of those 50-50 balls.”
And that should be the most concerning part of Saturday’s loss. The Zags played with grit and determination in the second half. The problem is that it was so conspicuously better than what they showed the rest of the game.
Few’s Zags have mounted a string of success (22 straight NCAA Tournament appearances, 99 weeks in the Top 25, top-five rankings in 63 consecutive polls, and five consecutive 30-win seasons) by rarely allowing opponents to be more purposeful or get to more 50-50 balls.
Playing under this same roof, which was lifted off old KeyArena and dropped back down on the new stadium, Gonzaga earned its first NCAA bones in 1999. In the second round, particularly, they upset No. 2 seeded Stanford despite playing much of the foul-plagued game with undersized bench denizens. Guys like Mark Spink and Mike Nilson, played as if a 4-minute stretch on the court was the most important moment of their lives. They weren’t just stoppers, but disrupters, annoyances who, through sheer energy and will, grabbed momentum and put it in a chokehold.
The expectation for effort was established and sustained by a series of Pendergrafts and Harts that carried that competitive DNA through the team’s rise, as the rosters became littered with prize recruits.
Through the years, Few rarely had to concede that opposing teams played with more purpose.
Leading scorer Drew Timme (23 points) was on point when he lamented the Zags’ “flat” start and play that rated below standard for the full 40 minutes. The team and the fans deserve better, he said.
Timme again proved himself to be a master of low-block choreography – unleashing the drop-step, step-through, and exploiting the geometry of the backboard bankshot. He’s likely to play at high-energy levels every night, and so will Anton Watson, a versatile forward who plays with a bulldog’s tenacity.
“We’re a young team, still figuring things out,” Timme said.
No question. It’s a long way until March, with many lessons to learn.
But the Zags have constructed their schedules to cash in on these early-season games against highly ranked team. Wins now build seed equity for March.
Losses like the last two provide lessons.
Maybe something can be learned by going back and watching the way the Zags played 20 years ago.
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