John Blanchette: As college basketball’s bluebloods tank, Gonzaga content to wait for that honor
Feb. 8, 2021 Updated Mon., Feb. 8, 2021 at 11:03 p.m.
So it’s suddenly grown a bit harder for Gonzaga.
Not panic-level hard. No IRS audit nerves hard. Nothing like that.
Just a bit harder – the way it’s supposed to be at this point of the college basketball season.
The latest degree of difficulty was encountered Monday night – Big Monday throwback, anyone? – when the No. 1-ranked Bulldogs ventured to Provo, to play in front of the usual 19,000 … uh, 200 hostiles at the Marriott Center and came away 82-71 winners over Brigham Young.
OK, maybe that doesn’t sound so hard.
But after darting to a 15-2 lead from the opening tip, Gonzaga never did break the Cougars. The Zags did stretch their lead to 22 at one point, but only because they have Jalen Suggs and BYU doesn’t.
And even then, the Cougars didn’t go away.
This, of course, came on the heels of last week’s clunker against Pacific, in which the final score was also of the oh-never-mind variety but which saw the Bulldogs trail by seven points in the second half. That Gonzaga team showed up in the last couple of minutes Monday.
There figures to be more of this, providing there are any opponents left in the West Coast Conference for the rest of February.
Five teams are doing the COVID-19 pause thing at the moment, including Santa Clara, which was supposed to be GU’s Thursday night opponent. The Broncos have had to bail on the game three times now. At this rate, it’ll have to be played after the NCAA Tournament.
So, yes, in addition to addressing the challenge of revving up their own motors and facing incrementally tougher tests, the Bulldogs are finding it difficult to find opponents who can pass theirs.
But, hey, things could be worse.
Gonzaga could be an honest-to-goodness blue blood.
Yes, we’ve been around and around this mulberry bush before, and while Monday marked the 90th consecutive week the Zags have been in the Associated Press Top 25 – that goes back to the end of 2016, and is the longest active streak in college basketball – it’s not enough to end the debate.
Remember, Imagine Dragons had a pretty good run in the Billboard Hot 100, too, and nobody ever called them the Beatles.
It’ll take at least a national championship and more than two decades in the public consciousness to sway the doubters, though baskeball’s they-don’t-play-Qanonbody crowd will still be going strong in 2050, surely.
At the moment, however, the Bulldogs don’t want to be running with that blue blood crowd.
Gonzaga’s 90-week streak tops the charts now because the Monday’s poll was the first after 231 straight that Kansas wasn’t among the Top 25. And not just the Jayhawks.
Nowhere to be found was Duke. Or North Carolina. Or UCLA. Or Kentucky, which has been so fragile this season that you can barely find it on the map.
Not since Dec. 18, 1961, has an AP poll not included one of those bullies.
Also unaccounted for this week are other notable historical elites Michigan State, Indiana, Louisville, UConn and Syracuse.
Not being title contenders, OK. But not even in the picture? And a handful of them that can’t even aspire to the tournament bubble?
Who kidnapped college basketball?
Naturally, this sort of thing will be waved about by the backlashers as evidence that the Zags – and fellow undefeated Baylor – are doing their dominant thing in the down-est of down years. Fact is, it only underscores how remarkable Gonzaga’s season has been.
The reasoning for the blue blood bellyflop, mostly, has been youth – too much of it, not as talented as it’s been and not as drilled because of the COVID limbo programs faced even before the season started.
And so it is. A glance at the experience levels weighted by the KenPom statistical trove shows Duke as 343rd nationally, Kentucky 341st. UCLA is 259, Kansas 265.
But on that same chart, Gonzaga shows up at 255th.
The Zags have their old hands – Corey Kispert and Joel Ayayi, notably. Andrew Nembhard started 60-odd games at Florida before his transfer, and backup guard Aaron Cook has his degree in hand. No noobs there.
But the Zags have their kids, too – most notably Suggs, who is one of those exceptional one-and-done talents that used to automatically gravitate toward the blues. Though he’s had some minor struggles of late with his shot and just staying in games because of foul trouble, he’s that rare breed of freshman who can single-handedly elevate a team. Late in Monday’s game as BYU scrapped back, he bobbed and weaved downcourt with the Cougars’ Brandon Averette on his shoulder desperately trying to get an angle for a steal – and then casually took it to the basket for a layup because everyone was so mesmerized.
Now, you could argue that landing a player like Suggs alone boosts Gonzaga’s blueblood stock.
But who wants to be in that company?
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