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Gonzaga Basketball

TV take: The Zags are looking like the Zags again after convincing win over Saint Mary’s

By Vince Grippi The Spokesman-Review

Two key games in the last weekend of West Coast Conference play. Two contests in the Bay Area. Against the best and the third-best teams in the conference. Two Quad 1 opportunities. And two exceptional halves.

But instead of waiting until after halftime as they did Thursday night, 23rd-ranked Gonzaga dominated the first half against Saint Mary’s en route to a statement-making 70-57 victory in Moraga, California, on Saturday.

Sure, the standings didn’t change, but the win was significant for both.

The loss cost Saint Mary’s a perfect conference season. The win, or wins if you prefer, cement Gonzaga’s spot in the NCAA Tournament, no matter what happens in Las Vegas. And showed, as Sean Farnham said, the Zags are looking like the Zags again.

Bringing it to us on ESPN – after the inevitable start in ESPN News – were Farnham and his usual tag team partner, Dave Flemming.

What they saw …

• The two most efficient offenses in college hoop since conference play started? According to ESPN, it’s 17th-ranked Saint Mary’s and Gonzaga. After 15 WCC games, they were tied according to a graphic the network showed in the first half. After the Zags’ win?

Probably not tied any longer. As Farnham kept emphasizing throughout the game, the Bulldogs (24-6, 14-2 in WCC play) are just rolling on the offensive end. But it was their defense that might have made the difference in this one. They flummoxed the Gaels throughout the game-deciding first half, forcing seven turnovers – Saint Mary’s averages less than 10 per game but finished with 13 – and challenging most shots. Only the Gaels’ 10-2 edge in offensive rebounds kept Saint Mary’s within 20 at halftime.

“They disrupted everything Saint Mary’s wanted to do,” Farnham said, also pointing out Nembhard’s six first-half assists and floor generalship allowed the Zags to shoot 60%.

“The guy with the ball (Nembhard) is the guy who controlled the game,” Flemming said and that continued in the second half. The point guard finished with a double-double, 20 points and 10 assists. Oh, and just one turnover.

“He’s been outstanding,” Farnham understated.

• And he wasn’t alone as Gonzaga won for the eighth consecutive time and snapped the Gaels’ NCAA-best 16-game winning streak.

“They’ve got weapons,” Farnham said about the Zags in the second half, as Graham Ike was dominating inside, scoring 22 of his 24 points in the paint. He also grabbed 10 rebounds. The other? A little surprise. Ben Gregg chipped in 12 and his usual energy.

• The best part of having Flemming and Farnham on a big WCC game? They know the conference, especially the conference’s best. And that’s what Saint Mary’s and GU are.

When the Zags change how they attacked with the high ball screen – with Braden Huff in the game for Ike, the freshman was in a corner and not the post – Farnham spotted it, highlighted it, explained it and showed how the difference impacted the Gaels’ defense.

Just what an analyst is supposed to do.

What we saw …

• You know, Farnham is a smart man. Often with great ideas. His best recently? Campaigning for the NCAA selection committee to dust off a former criterion.

Years ago, the committee used to take a school’s final 10 or 12 or 15 games into account as it made its tournament picks and seeds. Actually, it was important for the group. But it was also criticized. And a change was made.

It is no longer part of the selection process.

But, as Farnham pointed out Thursday in the Zags’ win at USF and again Saturday night, it’s time to bring it back. Why?

The transfer portal. With turnover rampant, for good or bad, it takes longer for teams to gel. For players to find their roles. For coaches to become accustomed to what they have.

The path to success has changed. As Farnham says, it’s time for the NCAA to change with it. But, as we all know, the organization is slow to embrace change – in every aspect. Only feet-meeting-fire can get it to move at times. That’s what he’s trying to do.

Good for him.

• How would that impact Gonzaga and others? Well, the Zags have won 13 of their past 14 games. Mark Few, who has to front-load his schedule to build an NCAA resume (usually for seeding, not for inclusion, like this season), watched as his now-look squad squandered its early high-profile chances. But he adjusted. Changed the lineup. Carved out roles. And has GU playing its best basketball.

It’s possible that all could go for naught, although we’re sure no one would look forward to playing the Zags in the next few weeks.

Washington State took a different gamble, as Kyle Smith knew he was starting this season with a new hand. He gave the Cougars a decent deal early, going all-in with how his team would come together during the Pac-12. Seems he’s read the cards correctly. So far, the cards have been in his favor. But a larger emphasis on the stretch run would help Washington State as well.

Eastern Washington’s David Riley went another way. Challenged his Eagles in the nonconference away from home. Knew he would lose some games, but counted on the experience paying dividends. It did. Eastern won the Big Sky regular-season title handily. The nonconference tests while the Eagles were learning, however, killed any chance of at-large consideration. If Eastern had won more back then, it would be in the mix, sure. It didn’t happen. The play lately, as shown analytically and in results, sure seems as if it should carry a bit more weight.