John Blanchette: Gonzaga’s fate in Indianapolis doesn’t depend on quality of late-season opposition
March 8, 2021 Updated Mon., March 8, 2021 at 11:41 p.m.
We’ve reached the point of the program where the convenient truth is that Gonzaga can’t win the national championship because it has Saint Mary’s 30 points down in March.
Hey, maybe there’s something to that.
But probably not.
Because if the Bulldogs don’t go on to win it all, it will have virtually nothing to do with the teams they were playing in January and February, or that they were not especially tested by their old pals in Monday’s West Coast Conference Tournament semifinal.
Iron may sharpen iron, but it’s not the sharpness of the blade that wins the sword fight.
Not that it would have hurt the Zags to see some better swordsmen these past few weeks.
But neither are these muted challenges a unique development, even if Gonzaga being unbeaten in March is.
That status, and Gonzaga’s path to a 24th straight WCC championship game, were not remotely endangered by Saint Mary’s, which fell for a third time to the Zags this season, 78-55. The Gaels are hoping for some extra life in the NIT, but they may need an even more, uh, creative seeding process than the one that had them No. 4 in the WCC with a 4-6 record.
It was not the Gaels’ year, from an early February COVID pause to injuries to their two best 3-point shooters – unproven youngsters though they are. But they simply didn’t punch at their usual weight this season, and the ease of Gonzaga’s romp Monday night was yet another example of the Zags having reached a higher altitude in a relationship that was more rivalry – and more fun – a decade ago.
The Zags have now won 21 of the past 25 meetings, with the average margin in those victories being just under 20 points.
But then, the Zags are everybody’s problem this year.
“They’re the best offensive team in the country,” said Gaels coach Randy Bennett, “and there’s nobody close.”
This is reflected in another streak – the 22 consecutive double-digit victories the Bulldogs have put together since West Virginia got within five points back in early December. According to Elias Sports, no Division I team has managed such a streak in the past 60 years.
And yet this is where the doubt seems to set in.
It’s been mesmerizing lately to see the teams just beneath Gonzaga in the polls face high-stakes games against high-achieving opponents – generally twice a week. Baylor, rusty off a COVID pause, just faced four straight Top 25 teams. Illinois has staked its case with three consecutive Top 25 road victories, one over Michigan – which has also seen Ohio State, Iowa and Michigan State the last two weeks.
That’s sharpening some iron.
Gonzaga coach Mark Few put together the most rigorous tests he could find before Christmas and had a game with Baylor zitzed by the Zags’ own COVID pause. And keeping his guys crisp and focused was obviously a concern even during WCC play, or he wouldn’t have been so public about trying to angle for another big fish – Houston, Kentucky, anybody – though they all wriggled off the hook.
But other than the improv scheduling, this is the situation every year. The past five years have seen the Zags reach a Final Four, two Elite 8s and two Sweet 16s – playing to their seed three times, under it by a round in 2019 and beyond it by two rounds in 2016.
So why the tut-tutting and hand-wringing?
Well, naturally, because it’s not just about a “deep run” this time. At 25-0 and wire-to-wire atop the polls, these Zags are expected to win it.
Bennett has seen all of Few’s teams up close and often, and delivered about as balanced an assessment as there is.
“It’s one of their best (teams),” he said. “The team that went to the national championship (in 2017) was really good. That team had more depth inside – and last year they were good inside, with (Drew) Timme and Filip (Petrusev). Their guards are really good this year, but their depth has been better inside. I’m sure that’s their concern – not a lot of fouls to give in there. But it’s the best offensive team – I don’t know how you can be better than (shooting) 55 percent. Fifty-one usually leads the country; 55 is ridiculous.”
The final analysis: “It’s one of his three best teams,” Bennett said.
Yes, there is a concern that the Zags aren’t stout enough or deep enough inside, but that was a true even back when they were polishing off Top 25 teams. And if there have been stretches – even Monday night – when they got a bit too careless or a little bored, it’s just as true that they have made themselves better than they were back in December.
But mostly it’s true that the company they have to keep at this stage of the season won’t determine how they fare in Indianapolis.
It just never has.
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