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Gonzaga Basketball

John Blanchette: Anton Watson caps stellar day for Spokane hoops, even with COVID concerns sneaking into the NCAA bubble

By John Blanchette For The Spokesman-Review

INDIANAPOLIS – It was here, in this very building, that Gonzaga was supposed to meet Baylor for the College Basketball World Championship of December. And it never happened. Called on account of COVID-19.

So this was progress.

The Bulldogs’ game Saturday night actually came off – unlike the Oregon-VCU date earlier in the evening which went on the books as a no-contest after several Rams tested positive for the virus. That was a heartbreaking development and yet also loomed as inevitable. The NCAA could individually bubble wrap each player and still not avoid an infection.

Well, each male player. The female players don’t seem to merit the same treatment in NCAA world.

Survive-and-advance is taking on a whole new vibe in this edition of March Madness. Sighs of relief still come after the games, but also before – once COVID testing is cleared.

And speaking of tests, Gonzaga’s first one at Bankers Life Fieldhouse was more pop quiz in nature, lasting maybe 5 minutes.

That was not quite enough for Robert Jones to get his point across. Norfolk State’s funny, but flinty, coach had taken extreme exception to being on the very bottom tip of the S curve where a First Four win would then match his team with the No. 1 of all Nos. 1. Then he more or less implied that he expected to win.

The Spartans … did not win.

The spread was 20 points at halftime, 30 just 6 minutes into the second, then 40 and closing at 98-55, sending Gonzaga into a quick turnaround for a second-round meeting with Oklahoma at 11:40 a.m. Monday.

That’s 12 years now the Zags have won at least one NCAA Tournament game, Steph Curry postponing the beginning of that streak by a year.

“Hey, accruing NCAA wins is the hardest thing you can do in our profession, in my opinion,” Gonzaga coach Mark Few said. “To be honest with you, I didn’t know we’d won 12 in a row.”

One game does not a table run.

But as Step 1 toward the ultimate destination, the Bulldogs could hardly have been more dominant.

For all the outside angst generated by fan bases fretting over the potential ignominy of losing to anyone in the suite of 16s, these games normally reveal little. The exception was Gonzaga’s first experience in 2013, when the struggle to get past Southern suggested strongly that the Zags’ midseason game was better than their postseason game, and sure enough a premature elimination soon followed.

Thundering the poor Spartans was surely the opposite of that.

Feel free to infer what that suggests, at your own peril.

But there was at least one revelation.

No, not the off-the-backboard alley-oop from Joel Ayayi to Jalen Suggs, who seemed to be calling that audible as he was crossing half court.

The evening’s eye-opener was Anton Watson – too instrumental to be the Zags’ fifth Beatle, but not often playing, well, loud enough.

But on this night he had the amp cranked up to 11: 7-of-7 from the field for 17 points, seven rebounds, four assists and three steals in 24 minutes. On occasion, the level of his offensive aggression seems married to whether that first shot goes down; on this occasion, that first shot was a layup – followed by two dunks and another layup.

So, pretty good for the old confidence.

“To come out first game and do this,” he said, “it just feels amazing.”

It also capped All-Greater Spokane League day at the tournament. Hours before across town, Shadle Park grads Tanner and Jacob Groves lit it up in Eastern Washington’s gallant stab at taking down Kansas; late night belonged to Gonzaga Prep’s current contribution to college ball.

“Hey, man, they sleeping on Spokane hoopers – I’ve been saying that,” Watson said with a laugh. “No, (Tanner) and his brother were cooking today. I watched that whole game.”

They had all day to kill. Heck, two days. Few noted it was the longest the Zags had waited to get a tournament under way, and the anxiety churned up by watching double-digit seeds work their March magic.

But now there are other anxieties.

Few has been effusive about his regard for the precautions the NCAA has put in place to keep teams healthy and playing, no matter how draining the testing, quarantining and being herded from place to play can be.

“I don’t really know the situation that happened with VCU,” he said. “I’m very confident with our guys because we took so many steps even before the conference tournament.

“We put ourselves into the hotel just to kind of keep us safe from our own students, everybody running around Gonzaga, then just continued that after the conference tournament.

“We’ve been testing clean forever now. I feel good about our situation, but I just feel horrible for VCU. Gosh, it breaks your heart.”

And the tournament can do that even without the virus.