The consensus was, when Gonzaga finally released its men’s nonconference basketball schedule, the season actually began in Hawaii. At the Maui Invitational. It would be, the story went, the Zags’ first big test.
Did that give their first couple opponents short shrift? A little. But then again, with second-ranked Purdue and 7-foot-4, 300-pound Zach Edey as the first tournament opponent, it was largely justified.
At least until the tip at Honolulu’s Stan Sherriff Center, brought to those of us stuck in the 40-degree weather by, arguably, ESPN2’s best, Dan Shulman, Jay Bilas and Angel Gray.
Gonzaga took a five-point edge into halftime then couldn’t put a long-range shot into Hanauma Bay and fell 73-63 to the 4-0 Boilermakers.
What they saw …
• Bilas is really good at describing the why and wherefore when games call for it, such as key nonconference games late in the regular season. But in a Thanksgiving-week tournament, he understands he’s introducing new groups, often to casual fans. And the former Duke forward shines while doing that as well. Case in point, a first-half discussion he had with Shulman about one of Gonzaga’s core tenets. Mark Few wants his teams to have no fear.
“I don’t know what it is in the water in Spokane,” Bilas said. “The competitive nature of, year after year, of these guys. They are unafraid to take shots. They will take a swing at you. And they are not worried about the consequences. The understand ‘hey, we may lose but we’re not afraid.’ ”
A bit later he delved into a dichotomy the Zags display, saying the players are nice guys, the type to help grandma across the street. “And then the game starts and they want to cut your heart out and watch you bleed all over the court,” he added.
Shulman asked where that came from. And Bilas began to answer. He talked about recruiting competitors and the program’s competitive atmosphere but then the action intervened and he didn’t finish his thoughts.
• We found out, a little, of what Few thought of the first half, which finished with Gonzaga (2-1) leading on the scoreboard 35-30 and also in fouls, 11 to 3. A huge part of that latter number was Edey’s presence. Four Bulldogs took turns guarding him and, while they forced the All-American into 4-of-11 shooting, they also paid a price.
“He’s really tough to guard,” Few said about Edey in his walk-off interview with Gray. “We’re not really built to guard him one-on-one. I think we’ve done a pretty admirable job of making him take tough shots and he’s hit a lot of tough shots. Again, we’ve got enough guys to cycle through if we do hit some foul trouble.”
Did they? Every big Few has except Braden Huff (one) had two fouls at halftime.
Everyone else from Graham Ike to Anton Watson to Ben Gregg, were saddled with two.
“What’s keeping Purdue in the game right now is the free -throw line,” said former Georgia Tech coach Josh Pastner in the halftime studio. He even pointed out the numbers 9-of-11 (Edey was 7-of-8) for Purdue and 1-of-2 for the Bulldogs.
What we saw …
• The second half was a bit different than the first, mainly because Gonzaga lost its touch and Purdue found another gear.
The Boilermakers scored 22 of the half’s first 30 points, as Gonzaga missed all of its 13 3-point attempts. Part of that, and GU’s 35% second-half shooting, as Bilas pointed out, was Purdue’s defense. But GU’s ball-screen continuity disappeared from the repertoire.
The fastbreak? It became part of Purdue’s.
“Purdue did not play this fast in the first half,” Bilas said after the Boilermakers’ seventh fastbreak point in the first four minutes following intermission. “They are getting out and running. The running Boilermakers.”
The edge they built stood up despite a couple Zag runs. But without a 3-point threat, it was like rolling a flat basketball up Mauna Loa. And as worthwhile.
In the second half Edey and the Bolermakers just “wore down Gonzaga” Bilas said. He was only 4-of-5 in the final 20 minutes but still finished with 25 points and 14 rebounds. Purdue won the paint battle 44-30, due in part to fastbreak points, facts Bilas pointed out as the clock ran down.
• The tournament’s location was changed, of course, after the wildfires tore through Maui, and Lahaina, where it is usually played. Instead of canceling, organizers moved to Honolulu and decide to use it as fundraiser for relief efforts.
As part of that, ESPN2 showed multiple vignettes and reports on the fire itself, its aftermath and the people it impacted. They served as tear-inducing calls for action.