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Sports >  Gonzaga basketball

John Blanchette: Early separation making it near impossible for opponents to hang with this Gonzaga squad

UPDATED: Thu., Jan. 7, 2021

By John Blanchette For The Spokesman-Review

For scouting and preparation purposes, this scheduling on the fly has to induce at least a little stress.

Gonzaga and Brigham Young met up Thursday night in a pairing made just 60 hours before, the hookup happening when their original dates had to check into the COVID tent – which seems to be covering more and more of the West Coast Conference daily.

It’s not like Patton driving the Third Army to Argentan, but there are logistics and an emotional pivot to finesse – the Cougars having to gear up for the No. 1 team in the country after two weeks without a game, and the Zags readying for what’s expected to be their closest competition in the WCC.

But there’s an upside to the rush, too.

Less time for hype.

Why bother with pumping air into the balloon when the Bulldogs are so determined to pop it?

Here at the tipoff of 2021, the Zags rarely have to count beyond the number one. They are atop both polls, of course, and the first NET computer spit-out of the college basketball season. They’re the most prolific offense – the first team to open the season with 11 straight games of 85 points or more – and the most accurate marksmen.

And something else: They’re the fastest out of the blocks, too.

Just an eye-test opinion, but the evidence Thursday night at the Kennel was absolutely crushing to the Cougars, who arrived figuring this would be a good measuring stick for their ambitions and wound up having it rapped across their knuckles by Sister Gonzaga instead.

The clock hadn’t stopped yet for the second timeout when the scoreboard showed a 30-7 Gonzaga lead – which actually looked better for BYU than the 23-2 start.

No one expected the 133-point pace to hold up, and it didn’t – the Zags winning 86-69, though the spread was still 32 with 11:30 to play.

Which left BYU coach Mark Pope to live with one hard conclusion.

“I’m not good enough yet and we’re not good enough yet to handle the Zags the way they were tonight,” he told his postgame radio audience.

Problem is, they’ve pretty much been that way every night – particularly those nights they sense a challenge.

In taking college basketball by storm in the season’s early stage, the Zags tore through four Top 25 teams, of course, and another Power 6 program (Auburn) before squaring off with BYU, which is getting a little love from the AP voters.

Only one of those games was a struggle – an 87-82 win over West Virginia, in which GU actually trailed at halftime, which is probably a future trivia question.

Otherwise, the Zags have spent a lot of time glancing in the rearview mirror. They led Kansas by 14 in the first 8½ minutes, Auburn by 17 in the first 12½ . Iowa trailed by 14 with as many minutes gone, and Virginia was in a 36-16 hole.

In an aggregate 60 minutes from the front ends of those five games, Gonzaga has outscored its opponent 170-82 and shot 62%.

“These guys continue to show that they’re excited to play,” coach Mark Few said. “What you’re seeing on the floor is a group that wants to play and loves to play together, and I mean really, really enjoys hooping.

“Maybe with the high-level teams, there’s a respect for that opponent that really amps up their competitive fire. But innately, they all – especially that top seven or eight – have a really good competitive fire among them.”

Those numbers cited above suggest it’s all about Gonzaga’s offensive firepower which is considerable. But the blast-off Thursday night was every bit as much about defense – six BYU turnovers led to eight of those early points. Meanwhile, freshman Jalen Suggs was checking BYU’s leading scorer, Alex Barcello, into the beginnings of a miserable night, and Anton Watson was a marvel at various spots – defending the Cougars’ giants in the post, tipping away passes, making smothering steals out of GU’s press.

“Not that our guys weren’t excited to play,” Pope said, “but the moment was too big for us, for this group, to start. Their length and athleticism was not a surprise, but it’s different when you feel it, and we did not respond well early on.”

The Cougars did respond better when Pope let his best athletes, Gideon George and freshman Caleb Lohner, get some extended minutes. Good to keep that in mind for the rematch.

That doesn’t happen until the WCC finale on Feb. 27. Now the Zags have an open date – presumably – on Feb. 6, and don’t be surprise if Few hunts down another Top 25ish nonconference opponent just for the challenge.

“They have a chance,” Pope said, “to be a generational team.”

And they seem to want to prove it, right from the opening tip.

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