Only part of has anything to do with 30 victories.
At its most alluring, Gonzaga has elevated its hoops to an art form. The Zags have been a symphony as much as a basketball enterprise.
Cue the visuals: Josh Perkins, floating a little lob pass to a soaring Rui Hachimura. The fast break, lanes filled, inevitably to end well. Zach Norvell splashing wanton threes. Brandon Clarke standing sentinel over the hoop. Geno Crandall, going behind the back -- French pastry, Al McGuire used to call it – for an assist. They lead the nation in scoring (88.8 a game) and in field-goal shooting (.532).
In their best moments, they’ve played beautiful basketball, probably the most pleasing in Gonzaga history. Mark Few, the coach, has always been wired that way, seeing the game not as slugfest, but a measure of skill, and recruiting to that ideal.
You could say he grew up that way. Fifty-five miles from where he came up in Creswell, Ore., was Oregon State, No. 1-ranked for weeks in 1981 under Ralph Miller. Few's senior year, Creswell too was No. 1 in the Oregon Class AA polls, and for teenage kids, it was impossible not to notice the Beavers, who were also one of the most esthetic outfits around. They made the game simple, pressing, pushing the pace and executing half-court offense with great facility.
More than one person has told me the Bulldogs – the Creswell Bulldogs – saw a little of themselves in Oregon State, a high-scoring high school version of the top-ranked team in the land.
But that was then and this is now. The Zags are coming off an almost unthinkable loss to Saint Mary’s, casting a disquieting note over their fandom on the eve of the NCAA tournament. Not only didn’t GU exhibit any of the artistry that has marked its game, it didn’t win.
And that’s the flip side of appealing basketball. There are days you have to grind, and that seemed beyond Gonzaga’s inclination, or at least its capability.
In the moment, I doubt that players have any sense for how esthetic their team’s play might look. But surely something tells them when the rhythm is disjointed or when the opposition is mucking up the preferred pace.
You can see how it might be difficult for a player; you have to find that sweet spot between speed and discretion. Everything (including maybe the coaches) is telling you to quicken the tempo, yet the failure to make the extra pass or to probe just a couple of seconds longer before hoisting a shot is often exactly what the defense desires.
Few was impatient with the media in that Saint Mary’s post-game session. I wasn’t there, but I can infer his frame of mind: This is a team capable of winning a national championship. He might never have this stacked a roster again. Gonzaga had just played nowhere near that level, and everything between that night and Thursday’s game (with Fairleigh Dickinson or Prairie View A&M) must be focused on ensuring that the next time the Zags get beat, it won’t be because of such extreme shortfalls in execution -- but more than that, perseverance.
Sometime in the NCAA, the Zags are going to have to grind to win. In fact, it’s probably going to come as soon as Saturday, when they could line up against Syracuse, the club that ousted them in 2010 and 2016. They’re going to have to get dirty. It can’t all be high-flying. Sometimes, it’s hammer-and-tongs, jam the ball inside, get in a defensive stance and prove your will is greater than the guy with the ball.
My mind drifts to that memorable 1981 Oregon State team. It went 26-0, then on senior day in Corvallis, was rudely brought to earth by a talented Arizona State team in a blowout – the psychological equal of the Zags’ loss to Saint Mary’s. You can imagine what consternation that wrought on the Beaver believers.
Five years before a shot clock, OSU faced Kansas State in its first game of the NCAA tournament. It was an exercise in drudgery. The Beavers led 26-19 at halftime, K-State kept spinning its control web, and never was OSU’s gorgeous game of that season in evidence. It was 50-50 with two minutes to go. OSU missed a one-and-one, K-State held the ball the rest of the way and Rolando Blackman finished it with a jumper, the most devastating moment in Oregon State basketball history.
Shortly, the Zags will see somebody bent on extinguishing the rhythm from their game. They need to make sure that if the poetry isn’t there, the resolve is.