John Blanchette: USC is the NCAA Tournament’s newest darlings, but there’s no reason to fall out of love with Gonzaga
March 29, 2021 Updated Mon., March 29, 2021 at 9:51 p.m.
INDIANAPOLIS – You know what the NCAA Tournament is all about? It’s about love.
(Everybody dons crowns of olive wreaths, forms a circle, holds hands and sends waves of positive thoughts to Charles Barkley …)
Let’s try this again.
It’s about falling in love.
First, you’re filling out your bracket and you hit on some hunch. Maybe they got hot in the conference tournament you watched on TV. Maybe someone whose basketball knowledge intimidates you was talking them up. Whatever, pretty soon you have them going to the Elite Eight and say, what the hell, take ’em all the way.
Then the games start and you’re over the moon for some Rubeus Hagrid dude whose headband is losing the battle to contain his curls. He’s eating up some blue blood and you’re searching online, trying to buy his jersey from the school bookstore.
By the second round, your pick is toast but you’ve latched on to some other double-digit upstart that won a buzzer-beater and just crashed the Sweet 16.
And so on. Every round a new romance.
The Gonzaga Bulldogs know about that romance. The country fell hard for the Zags from the jump this college basketball season, which began with them No. 1 and never saw them fall. By the time they got through December with four convincing victories over Top 25 teams, the Bulldogs had been installed as the biggest sure thing short of actually holding the national championship trophy after the final buzzer.
Everybody – other than the cranky reflex backlash crowd – loved the Zags, all the way to 29-0.
Know who people are kind of loving now?
The team Gonzaga plays on Tuesday for a spot in the Final Four.
You know, that gritty underdog – USC.
Could be just wandering eyes. Vegas still loves the Zags – by nine points, in fact. None of the talking heads who said, “Who else?” when probed for their picks on Selection Sunday have defected.
And nothing Gonzaga has done in this tournament suggests a weakening. The three wins to get to the Elite Eight have come by an average of nearly 26 points. The Zags have shot 42% from 3 in a tournament that’s been tough on distance shooting.
But suddenly … murmured doubts.
Is it just Zag fatigue? This has been going on since before Thanksgiving. Maybe people are just bored – like the owner of a sleek new coupe with all of 29 miles on it who is back in the showroom kicking tires.
Yes, surely it’s that. And also more.
Gonzaga is running up against something red hot. The Trojans, too, have been dominant – winning their three games by an average of 21 points, including a ruthless 34-point drubbing of Kansas. They’re even shooting it better from 3 than the Zags – 51%.
But mostly, they’re different from anything the Zags have seen.
USC has perhaps the stretchiest starting lineup in college hoops, beginning of course with the brothers Mobley – 7-foot freshman Evan and 6-10 Isaiah. But the Trojans also go 6-8 and 6-7 on the wings, and they, too, have fallen in love – with a zone that due to that length goes sideline to sideline. It’s something coach Andy Enfield trotted out to keep at least one of the Mobleys from having to track someone like Corey Kispert out on the perimeter and discovered his team was really good at it.
In regards to the bigs, it’s the first time all year that Gonzaga’s Drew Timme will get second billing – Evan Mobley being in the discussion to be first pick in the NBA draft and all.
But the real intrigue is deep in the numbers. What makes the Zags go is getting to the rim, both in transition and the half-court. They’re the best two-point shooting team of all-time, at 63.9%; the Trojans have the stingiest two-point defense this year: 41.5%.
“It’s going to take a huge effort,” said Kispert, “to get what we’re used to around the rim.”
Naturally, the “Gonzaga doesn’t play anybody” refrain has made a comeback, mostly from people who couldn’t spell “Pac-12” two weeks ago.
And it’s only slightly more ridiculous than the notion that the weight of trying to finish off an unbeaten season – the first in 45 years – will inevitably shrink the rims on Gonzaga, possibly as soon as Tuesday against the Trojans.
But think of it as a bowling tournament. If one guy in the finals rolls a 299, is the other guy feeling the pressure of throwing 12 strikes – or simply the pressure to win?
That pressure-of-perfection theory is as old as they come.
Time to fall in love with a new one.
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