INDIANAPOLIS – And on Sunday, the Gonzaga Bulldogs reached the West Coast Conference portion of their March Madness schedule.
Dead ringer, anyway.
Fellow Jesuit school in the dark unis. Put up some resistance for a while. Overmatched in the paint, slow to pick up on the extra pass. Ganged up on the ringleader and gave up on the other guys. Harried by an underrated defense. Resigned to enjoy the routine Gonzaga exhibition of ruthless efficiency and sheer joy.
Plus – judging from the timbre and outrage from Hinkle Fieldhouse’s upper reaches– a fan base that did its undergrad work at BYU.
It was all very same-old-same-old, the 83-65 scalpel the Bulldogs took to Creighton that carved out a place in yet another Elite Eight – the fourth in the last six NCAA Tournaments for Gonzaga.
The Bluejays are much better than most of Gonzaga’s conference brethren, of course – they’re a No. 5 seed in this tournament, after all. But the Zags made them look very WCCish, which is what Coach Mark Few had in mind when he made the most important decision of the season, back before games had even started.
The plan all along, you’ll recall, was for the transfer from Florida to put in the sit-out year that was once the NCAA norm. The Zags were already deep and talented at guard. Jalen Suggs, the highest-ranked signee in Gonzaga history, was on board to run the show, with grad transfer Aaron Cook as capable relief. Corey Kispert, Joel Ayayi, even promising freshmen Dominick Harris and Julian Strawther – the Bulldogs had lots of pop on the perimeter.
But as practice proceeded in the fall, Few took a tip from what that guy in the movie said and ran it by his staff.
Greed is good.
“I said, ‘Listen, I think we need to try to see if we can get a waiver,’ ” he recalled, referring to an appeal to the NCAA for Nembhard’s immediate eligibility.
He also ran it by the team’s veterans, Kispert and Ayayi, to gauge whether it might be splashing peroxide into the punchbowl.
“Then I sat Jalen down and said, ‘Hey, what do you think about this? Are you all right with that?’ ” Few said. “He just got the biggest grin on his face – I’ll remember it the rest of my life. He was like, ‘Coach, are you kidding me? That would be awesome.’ ”
The assumption is the bluest of chippers are there for their minutes, their shots, their assists. And some surely are.
The best ones? They’re about “our victories.” Or even just “our fun.”
“I’ve found over the years that the real players, they don’t fear anybody,” Few said. “They welcome all great players around them. And I told the staff after I met with Jalen, you know, this takes us from a top-15, top-20 (team) to top-five and a national championship contender.”
When the Bluejays loaded up from the opening tip to stop Kispert, whose long-range shooting is considered indispensible, Nembhard lofted in the game’s first 3-pointer. Ayayi had a couple more and Nembhard another, and shortly after the first TV timeout the Zags were up 10 points. Creighton was daring those 3s and never abandoned the strategy.
But the 3s were the least of it.
Once again, the Bulldogs’ ball movement was impeccable – passes finding cutters, passers probing for a better option. The Zags scored 50 of their 83 points in the paint. Ten of their first 13 buckets of the second half came at the rim. Each of the team’s seven rotation players had an assist; Nembhard had eight (and 17 points).
“It’s just like playing in the park with a bunch of guys that click so well,” Nembhard said. “So it’s been really fun.”
OK, greed isn’t always good. Certainly not on the court.
“It’s one of the best passing teams I’ve seen, one through five … in a long time,” said Creighton coach Greg McDermott.
Nembhard becoming available just dialed that up, and especially so against the Bluejays.
“When he’s in that zone,” said Few, “he’s the best I’ve ever coached as far as making decisions on ball screens.”
Much is made of how Ayayi is a far-too-unsung “fourth option” on this splendid team. If that makes Nembhard No. 5, then the characterization is even more apt. The late decision to play him fed into the mystery, but his game was long coveted by the Zags, who had recruited him hard out of Montverde Academy in Florida. There he overcame a dangerous case of volvulus, a twisting of the intestines which, during surgery, sent Nembhard into septic shock. Upon recovery, he led the school to a national high school title.
Having won one of those, he’s not oversweating this undefeated-national-championship quest – even if those outside the program are.
“At this point, every team has to go undefeated now to win the tournament,” he said. “So there’s not really pressure to keep that streak. It just is what it is.”
What it was Sunday was an opponent out of Gonzaga’s league. With the look of a team actually in it.
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