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John Blanchette: College basketball living by razor-thin margins, while Gonzaga adds another blowout to its record

UPDATED: Sat., Feb. 13, 2021

By John Blanchette For The Spokesman-Review

College basketball’s fossorial animals managed to dig up another munchable on Saturday, if one of fleeting relevance.

It seems Gonzaga, with its stop at San Francisco, became the first No. 1-ranked team to play a fifth consecutive road game since UCLA in 1973 – those being the Bruins of Bill Walton, back when he wasn’t orbiting Jupiter.

Even coach Mark Few marveled a bit at what he called “a crazy stat.”

“I don’t think we’ve ever played five on the road in a row,” he said, “even when we were crappy back in the early ’90s.”

You can hear the millennials now:

Gonzaga played basketball in the early ’90s? Who knew? And they were crappy?

Well, for a year. Don’t let it be too much of a blow to the old self-esteem.

Of course, it took a pandemic and the resulting weekly scheduling audibles to force the Zags into living out of their duffel bags. And – also of course – they’ve managed just fine.

Their ruthless 100-61 mauling of USF on Saturday ran the average margin of victory during this stretch to 23.6 points, including wins over their closest purported challengers in the West Coast Conference, Brigham Young and Pepperdine.

It was Drew Timme who lent this drubbing a distinctive flair by scoring 15 points in GU’s 17-2 start – posting up with siccum, confounding defenders with his footwork and contortions, stepping out to hit 3s and giving himself up for charges. This would lead to a 28-point night – one short of his career high – plus 10 rebounds. On the downside, he did end up eight blocked shots short of a triple-double, but that would have required the Dons to take half their attempts from inside the arc.

If Timme’s teammates took considerably longer to find their groove, they made up for it with some smothering defense – continuing to allay concerns of that being what stands between the Zags and March immortality.

Consider that Gonzaga’s defensive efficiency has climbed to No. 4 nationally – ahead of their long-distance rivals at Baylor, which has earned universal respect in that department – after being 17 slots lower just a month ago.

Yes, this has been achieved against WCC competition like the Dons. Who only beat Virginia even before Gonzaga did this season.

“We’ve been talking about trying to get better every week,” Few said. “That was something the 2017 did a great job of. I feel like these guys are starting to understand that.”

Sometimes getting better means getting back – and this was Gonzaga in the same form it showed when it went scorched earth through the Top 25 on the 2020 side of the season.

But read off a scores list in another time zone, there was little to separate victory No. 20 from the 19 before, and so the sameness mirrored the day’s other news of Gonzaga being the overall No. 1 seed in the bracket tease the NCAA Tournament selectors issue the second Saturday of each February for five years now.

Oh, it could have been Baylor, too, with the Zags second. But the metrics at the moment favor Gonzaga.

“Razor thin,” said the committee chair, Kentucky athletic director Mitch Barnhart. Funny, he used the same term a year ago when the preliminary list of 16 seeds had Gonzaga as the third No. 1 ahead of San Diego State. It must be the Zags’ fate to constantly ride the razor blade of life.

The bracket reveal was created to draft on college football’s weekly playoff rankings, except by doing it on Saturday morning basketball’s big splash is always out of date within hours – and indeed, Villanova, Missouri, West Virginia and Tennessee all lost Saturday. But these seedings figured to be trivial no matter when they dropped.

For one thing, the season continues to be ravaged by COVID-19 pauses and cancellations. Nearly every team has had to shut down for a time – Baylor’s on pause at the moment – and it’s getting harder to squeeze in do-overs. In just the WCC, 31 of 61 games scheduled to this point were scrapped, and just seven have been made up.

“Nobody will be penalized for being on pause,” Barnhart said, before cautioning, “We have to evaluate resumes as they lie.”

But even more problematic is the state of the conference tournaments. The NCAA has given conferences until Feb. 26 to decide whether a tournament or the regular season will decide their automatic qualifiers. But there’s been rumblings about elite teams – like you know who – opting out of the conference events to spare themselves coronavirus risk, or scaling back the participants.

“The committee encourages that if a tournament is being played, that all of those teams that have qualified for that tournament should participate,” NCAA basketball vice president Dan Gavitt said, “to honor the game and the extraordinary extent that players and coaches have gone to play a safe and responsible season – and also to help with the bracketing and seeding and selection process, as well.”

Turns out reconciling prudence with bad optics is a razor-thin proposition, too.

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