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Gonzaga Basketball

Dave Boling: A High-flying, ball-swatting Julian Strawther could earn a himself new reputation in this NCAA Tournament

By Dave Boling For The Spokesman-Review

DENVER – Julian Strawther plays with such graceful efficiency across all levels of the court. He’s springy, with rise and bounce and hang time, and he continues to invent ways to loft a basketball into the net.

His game is elegant, refined. So, who knew he was hiding an alter ego as a high-flying, shot-swatting, thoroughly dangerous dude?

This is what we learned about Strawther Friday night in Gonzaga’s 82-70 NCAA Tournament first-round win over Grand Canyon University:

When circumstances dictate, he can be a bad, bad man.

We’ll get to all his points and rebounds later, and how this kind of play benefits Zag hopes of another long tournament run, and how we need to appreciate Strawther while we can.

Although no word has been given on his willingness to declare for the next draft, the NBA absolutely has to be eager find work for him next season. Especially after what he showed Friday night.

But first, let’s set the scene of the assault. GCU’s 6-foot-9, 260-pound Yvan Ouedraogo drove hard to the rim. He resembled the Front Range in a purple uniform. For context, this guy is the size of Karl Malone.

Strawther is 6-7 and maybe 200. But in the face of grave peril, he climbed the ladder and fearlessly swatted Ouedraogo.

It could have been a highlight from a computer-generated superhero movie.

Strawther seems far too sportsmanlike to give into the temptation but he could have been excused for flexing, unleashing a Mutumbo finger-waggle, and warning the vanquished to “get that weak stuff out here.”

When Strawther arrived at the postgame interview area alongside legit rim defenders Drew Timme and Anton Watson, the three went through the stats sheets and commented on their block numbers. All agreed that Strawther’s two blocks stood out.

But especially the one that sent the clearest message. What was he thinking, endangering his well-being like that?

Turns out, coach Mark Few has been lobbying persistently for Strawther to attempt such feats of manliness.

“This guy right here (Few) makes sure to let me know every day that I’m 6-7 and I’ve got to go up and contest these guys,” Strawther said. “It was a big point of emphasis all week. I mean, I knew that I was going to hear it if I didn’t do it.”

Few chipped in: “See why I want him to do it … it works.”

“That was a big-time play by ‘Ju,’ man, he was confident and in the moment,” guard Rasir Bolton said. “We have all the faith in the world in him and it definitely brings energy to the team when he makes plays like that.”

Strawther led all scorers with 28 points, making 3 of 6 3-point attempts, while also pulling in 10 rebounds. Such a complete game. Such a joy to watch.

His game has evolved this season. Aside from the don’t-mess-with-me attitude, his mastery of the lane-floater has been crucial for the Zags.

Rather than trying to power all the way to the rim, he goes airborne from 8 to 10 feet, hangs there for a while, and then, with a motion akin to lofting a lawn dart, he tosses the ball above helpless defenders.

He has to be netting 80% of them, and they’re unstoppable.

The Zags had trouble pulling away from GCU early on, as the crowd was surprisingly mixed between GU and Antelopes fans.

But the Zags got their feet under them, and avoided the kind of first-round embarrassments that struck No. 1 Purdue, No. 2 Arizona and No. 4 Virginia.

They’ll need to get full games from all their standouts as they progress, taking on sixth-seeded TCU in the Round of 32 Sunday.

Will these be the last chances to enjoy Strawther, a junior, as a Zag?

You know the scouts have been studying his game, and to be critical, they probably would have questioned his ability to mix it up under the basket when the game demands.

Maybe the reputation was for playing soft.

With one dramatic play on the baseline Friday night, Strawther put to rest any concerns about his willingness to do the dirty work when his team needs.