PORTLAND – Mark Few often points out that one of the hardest feats in sports is getting back on track when a player or team hits a rough patch.
Few cited an example of each after the top-ranked Zags pulled away from Georgia State on Thursday. GU center Drew Timme rebounded from a sluggish first half with 22 second-half points.
And Gonzaga’s next opponent – young, but highly talented Memphis – is a prime example of a team that has weathered low points to emerge as a formidable obstacle in the Zags’ attempt to reach their seventh straight Sweet 16 when the teams square off at 6:40 p.m. Saturday at the Moda Center.
The Tigers, ranked 12th in the AP preseason poll, fell to 9-8 after a 70-62 home loss to SMU on Jan. 20, the program’s third straight defeat. The postgame news conference went viral when head coach Penny Hardaway dropped a profanity or two when asked if could get the job done at Memphis. He objected to the line of questioning with his roster dealing with injuries and relying on numerous players under the age of 20.
Ninth-seeded Memphis righted the ship, winning 13 of its next 15, including a 64-53 victory over No. 8 Boise State on Thursday.
“It takes incredible fortitude, incredible belief, and not many people can do it in any sport,” Few said. “For them to flip their season the way they did – and I think he (coach Penny Hardaway) did a great job of taking the heat off the team and put it on himself. That was a brilliant move but probably really uncomfortable.
“And they’re playing great.”
The Tigers (22-10) used their speed, size, length and pressure defense to disrupt Boise State’s offense and generate a 38-19 halftime lead. The second half wasn’t nearly as smooth as the Tigers committed 10 turnovers and made just 35% from the field, but they held off BSU after the lead dwindled to five points.
“They worked through some stuff throughout the year. They have turned it on right now and they have got it going,” said Broncos coach Leon Rice, a former Gonzaga assistant. “Don’t underestimate that team. I don’t think anybody that watched that game could.”
The Tigers’ 2021 recruiting class, led by Jalen Duren and Emoni Bates, was ranked No. 1 by 247sports. Gonzaga, with top-ranked Chet Holmgren and McDonald’s All-Americans Nolan Hickman and Hunter Sallis, was No. 4.
Bates (back injury) was sidelined during most of the Tigers’ resurgence over the past seven weeks, but he did play a few minutes against Boise State. The 6-foot-11, 250-pound Duren’s size and strength pose a test for Drew Timme’s assortment of post moves or Holmgren’s inside-outside ability.
“I love Chet. I talked to Chet. I recruited him. I think I talked to him for three times a week for four or five months,” Hardaway said. “Close. Such a terrific player. Just happy for him, for his growth that he’s such a super player.
“With Drew, I watched him play the entire summer in Texas, watching his fundamentals and was like, ‘Man, who is this kid?’ and I got to know who he was. Obviously, we know what he’s done on this level.”
The Zags (27-3) have had mixed results against the most athletic teams on their schedule. They fell to Alabama and Duke, but handled UCLA, Texas and Texas Tech by double digits. Timme added that Saint Mary’s and Texas Tech probably had the most physical defenses.
“They are extremely athletic and big and play with force and that’s going to be a real challenge for us,” Few said of Memphis. “It will be a challenge for us keeping them off the glass. They’re incredible, their physicality and their athleticism and nose for the ball.
“We’re going to have to have a toughness about us finishing around the rim, too, because Duren can protect the rim and some of the other guys can also come down. They’re a handsy team and they really get their hands on a lot of balls and create turnovers off that.”
Hardaway stressed that Duren needs to stay out of foul trouble.
“We’re going to have something to try to bother those guys a bit,” Hardaway said.
Gonzaga is favored by 10 points, but the Tigers enter with a healthy amount of confidence.
“I feel like we do match up with them well, our starting lineup and our bench,” junior guard Lester Quinones said. “It’s not David vs. Goliath at all.”
“I feel like it’s a No. 1 seed vs. a No. 1 seed,” junior guard Landers Nolly II said. “I just feel like it’s going to be a good ball game.”
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