As we hit mid-February, it's time to turn our full attention to March Madness (with all due respect to my fellow baseball fans geeking out over the start of spring training with pitchers and catchers reporting this week).Here in the Inland Northwest, that means tracking Gonzaga, obviously, who received one of the four No. 1 seeds in the NCAA's first-ever preliminary seeding announcement over the weekend, but also Eastern Washington, Idaho and Washington State, who all need to make a run through their conference tournaments to get into the Big Dance.
A large cardboard zero, representing the number of times Gonzaga (21-0, 9-0 WCC) has lost so far this season, has been floating around the student section for the past several home games. Tonight there was a large cardboard one numeral in the Kennel Club as well, not in case Gonzaga lost, but because of where the Zags are headed.
On Tuesday night, No 1. Villanova, No. 2 Kansas and No. 4 Kentucky all lost. And with that, the way was paved for No. 3 Gonzaga to ascend to the top of the college basketball rankings for the first time since they earned the top stop at the end of the 2013 season.
With a 79-43 win over San Diego (10-11, 3-8 WCC) Thursday night, Gonzaga moved a step closer to that number one spot.
This is a San Diego team that, despite its record, can really score. On January 14 the Toreros put up 88 points in a victory over BYU. Gonzaga held them to less than half that number.
“That’s not an anomaly,” head coach Mark Few said of the Zags’ defensive performance. “That’s what we set out to do.”
Few’s right, even though defense is historically an Achilles’ heel for his teams. San Diego managed a paltry 0.66 points per possession Thursday, which this season is more the norm than the exception for teams playing the Zags. Gonzaga ranks fifth in the nation in defensive efficiency by holding teams to just 0.89 points per possession.
Nigel Williams-Goss led all scorers Thursday with 25 points. Johnathan Williams recorded his first double-double of the season with 13 points and 12 rebounds. University High product Brett Bailey, who leads the Toreros in scoring this season (17.4 ppg), did not have a happy homecoming. The senior forward managed just 5 points in his final collegiate trip to Spokane.
Gonzaga jumped on the Toreros early with a backwards but effective style of offense that has become almost typical of this team.
Przemek Karnowski, the 7-foot-1 center, dished out four assists over the first 10 minutes while Williams-Goss, the point guard, scored at will and connected on his first seven shots. The scoring column of the box score doesn’t look as balanced as we’re used to with the Zags, but the balance of skill at all positions was very clear on the floor.
It’s the kind of balance and skill that top teams have. And should the Zags win Saturday at Pepperdine, that top team will more than likely be them.
It’s still technically winter break at Gonzaga, but a date with arch-rival Saint Mary’s drew the Kennel Club back to campus a few days before classes start up this week.
After a string of games in front of docile crowds for the holiday break, the students showed a national television audience just how electric this building can be, even in a blowout.
And that youthful energy powered the fifth-ranked Zags to a 17-0 record by dispatching the 21st ranked Gaels 79-56.
“We know it’s the toughest game on the schedule,” Saint Mary’s coach Randy Bennett said of the annual trip to Gonzaga.
That tough atmosphere came into play in the Zags favor over the final minutes of the first half. After a string of lackluster defensive possessions, Mark Few had his team employ a trap on a Saint Mary’s inbounds play. It frustrated the Gaels and the ball ended up with Johnathan Williams near half court. The junior forward took it to the basket for a thunderous dunk that sent the Kennel into a frenzy.
The building kept rocking as the Zags followed that by forcing a shot clock violation.
Saint Mary’s likes to play slow on the offensive end, with their possessions this season lasting an average of 20 seconds. But if they last 30 ticks, they're served with a violation. Gonzaga’s defense frustrated the Gaels all night, blocking six shots and forcing nine turnovers.
On the offensive end, Nigel Williams-Goss led the way with a game-high 19 points and six assists. Jordan Mathews (16 points), Johnathan Williams (14 points) and Zach Collins (10 points) also scored in double figures. Most impressively, however, was the Zags' shooting touch tonight.
Of the eight Bulldogs who saw game action before garbage time, only Przemek Karnowski (nine points) shot below 50 percent from the field. Overall, Gonzaga went 65 percent from the field Saturday. And that happened against a strong defense.
Saint Mary’s gave up 56.6 points per game over their first 16 contests this season. The hot shooting Zags needed just 31 minutes to pass that mark.
Gaels’ junior center Jock Landale, an all-America candidate averaging 17.8 points per game, was held to just 10 tonight. The big Aussie went into foul trouble early in the first half, and again in the second, before fouling out of the game late.
When he picked up his fifth and final foul a full throated Kennel Club let a chant rain down on the Gael, “na na na na, hey hey hey, goodbye.
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