Gonzaga March Madness: The secret's in the defense

They call it madness for a reason. Why the Zags might just shock us all and pull off a win.
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They call it madness for a reason. Why the Zags might just shock us all and pull off a win.

One smart move the Gonzaga basketball team makes is playing a game in KeyArena each December. Not only does it treat the alums on the west side, it allows a glimpse of the Zags for those of us who head east of the mountains only in lentil season for a bag or two of the Palouse's finest.

The "Battle in Seattle" this season left an impression — something akin to the impression upon a penny on a railroad track run over by a train. It was sufficient for me to believe, then and now, that Gonzaga was a Final Four team. Probably not a champion — this bracket I have in my hand says Louisville — but a stout adversary for everyone in the business of madness that begins Thursday (Zags vs. Southern University at 1:10 p.m.).

The Zags beat a very good Kansas State team, 68-52. You will discover Kansas State as a No. 4 seed in the West Region tourney bracket, after a 27-7 season that included a 14-4 record in the Big 12 Conference. That's the same mark as Kansas, who beat the Wildcats in the conference tourney 70-54 — same margin as the loss in Seattle.

I wrote then that Gonzaga was a Final Four team because of "a 7-foot center that can get 20 points and a defense that can make daylight dark."

By now, the local and national college hoops fan has some knowledge of Kelly Olynyk, the big Canuck from Kamloops with the ponytail and the shooting range from one inch to 22 feet. But a full appreciation has yet to develop for what was a revelation that night in the Key.

Don't take my word for it.

“That’s about as good a defense as I’ve seen a Gonzaga team play,” said Bruce Weber, the K-State first-year coach, who seemed a little wobbly, as if he glanced over the gunwale and seen the Kraken. The Zags made it a point to crush Rodney McGruder, K-State's leading scorer. The 6-4 guard missed eight of nine field goal attempts and, by the end of the game, was ready to sneak out of the Key and run screaming back to the Midwest. The young man played scared.

“They locked in on Rodney," Weber said. "We probably didn’t screen as well as we need to do to help him get open, but he’s also got to shoot open shots when he has opportunities.”

That's what Gonzaga can do to any big scorer, and why the Zags can beat anyone. Ahead 27-26 at the half, the Bulldogs led by as much as 21. That made K-State miss 16 of 22 shots in the second half. For the game, K-State had a Washington-like 18 turnovers and shot 33 percent from the field.

Gonzaga that night was suffocating. I gather it wasn't unusual. Only once in the Zags' last 11 games did a team score more than 61 points, and that was 65 by BYU — the team that beat the Huskies 90-79 in the first round of the National Invitation Tournament. Both games were in Provo. Your honor, I rest my case as to why Washington no longer schedules Gonzaga.

The Zags had a little incentive that night. A week earlier, they lost at home to Illinois, 85-74, which turned out to be 50 percent of their seasonal defeats. The word was that coach Mark Few, despite finals week, laid some serious wood to his team during practice.

“I didn’t think we’d go undefeated playing the schedule we have,” he said after K-State. “But we had to get back our focus on the defensive end. I’m not going to make any proclamations or anything [after the win], but we got our feet back under us, guarding the way we need to to be successful.”

A lot of teams take pride in their defense, but the application that night was withering. Over the past three months, little seems to have changed — including the fact that not a lot of people have noticed how well the folk from Spoke play that part of the game.

Anywhere east of Coeur d'Alene and south of Milton-Freewater there's respect for the Zags, but almost no
one sizing them up for the traditional one shining moment.

Including me.

Louisville will win the Midwest Region, Gonzaga will win the West Region and the two will meet in one Final Four semifinal. The other semifinal won't matter. Louisville has the superior athletes and the superior coach in Rick Pitino, who is the most intensely ruthless coach in the college game.

But I just made a big case for the Zags, and ultimately I don't buy it.

Guess they call it madness for a reason.


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