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Sports >  Gonzaga basketball

Dave Boling: Gonzaga is catching on – playing ‘nasty’ can lead you to Natty at NCAA Tournament

March 18, 2023 Updated Sat., March 18, 2023 at 9:58 p.m.

By Dave Boling For The Spokesman-Review

DENVER – Nasty isn’t an NCAA-recognized statistic.

But the team with the greatest abundance often ends up the winner. Especially this time of year.

Gonzaga’s men’s basketball team has been developing its own brand of nasty in recent weeks, crucial since officiating in the NCAA Tournament seems now to favor the most aggressive teams.

It will be tested when the No. 3-seeded Zags take on sixth-seeded TCU in the Round of 32 Sunday evening.

The Horned Frogs’ star guard, Mike Miles Jr., is built like an NFL strong safety with almost limitless skills. He’s been nursing a sore knee but still scored 26 points in a first-round win Friday over Arizona State.

TCU this season has registered wins over Kansas (No. 1 seed), Texas (No. 2 seed) and Baylor (No. 3 seed) – all foes in the Big 12 Conference, where nasty grows like field corn.

The term under focus today (nasty) is applied as an abstract noun describing a state of being rather than in the adjectival sense (nastiness) and may be emphasized by elongating the soft “a” (as in “naaasty”).

Nasty involves playing with demonstrably more physical force than your opponent, enforcing your will, releasing you inner school-yard bully. See the ball. Take the ball. Dunk the ball. Repeat.

The topic arose last week after Gonzaga stole the life force from a talented and preternaturally nasty Saint Mary’s club in the West Coast Conference Tournament title game. Speaking of their defensive toughness and togetherness, Zags coach Mark Few gave his club this high praise: “We were nasty.”

It’s not a term often applied to the modern-era Zags, typically known more for elite skills and finesse.

Nobody has won more games in the NCAA Tournament than Gonzaga the past five years (18-5), but when outcomes have gone against Zags, it’s often because they’d been outnastied.

The 2019 loss to Texas Tech in the regional finals was an example. And in the national title game in 2021, Baylor nastied the Zags across the floor.

Gonzaga’s Nolan Hickman attempts to block Grand Canyon guard Chance McMillian on Friday in Denver.  (Tyler Tjomsland/The Spokesman-Review)
Gonzaga’s Nolan Hickman attempts to block Grand Canyon guard Chance McMillian on Friday in Denver. (Tyler Tjomsland/The Spokesman-Review) Buy this photo

The Zags were shoved out of the NCAAs almost a year ago by an Arkansas team that nastied them for 40 minutes. Losing at this level is always painful, having the game physically yanked away adds another depth of heartbreak.

Arkansas coach Eric Musselman came in with a game plan to capitalize on the reluctant whistles.

“We wanted them to feel some bodies,” Musselman said after they held GU to 20 points below its season scoring average. The ploy destroyed the Zags’ offensive flow and tempo.

But in that recent Saint Mary’s game, it was the Zags who applied a defense that held the Gaels to 51 points and 33% shooting. They got a lead and kept pushing it, showing a competitive killer instinct that occasionally has flagged once a lead has been obtained.

Some examples. Forward Anton Watson has been the most naturally nasty all season, with plays of exertion and determination – and a sense of ownership of any loose ball – being his style.

With the Zags up by 34 late in the game, a ball came loose and Watson instinctively dove full-horizontal across the floor, cross-checking a Gael in the process, to gain possession. The play itself was meaningless to the outcome, but the effort, alone, pressures teammates to make a similar commitment to nonstop nasty.

Backup forward Ben Gregg surely has caught on. Not only has he become a perimeter threat, but he has flashed a Watsonian intensity on defense. Against Saint Mary’s, he not only blocked a guard’s baseline drive, but he slammed the ball off the head of a Gael under the basket. While the block was athletic, the hair-ball ricochet slam was pure naaasty.

In their first-round win over Grand Canyon on Friday, the Zags got eight blocks out of Watson, Drew Timme and Julian Strawther. All exhibited degrees of nasty.

“We know what’s coming this year,” Watson said of the lesson from the Arkansas loss last year. “They really don’t call the fouls and let you play. You just have to be ready for it.”

Here’s the promising point for the 2023 Zags: When even your best scorers, Timme and Strawther, are also aggressively defending the rim, selling out, holding nothing back, well, that creates a team ethos of nasty.

Then it all becomes self-sustaining.

Because nasty is as nasty does.

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