True enough. In its first real test of 2019-20, the Zags fell behind 14-11. They looked disconnected.
And right about then, they turned on the jets, blew away A&M with a 20-0 run and won by 30 points on the home floor of a Power Five school. What looked like a grinder turned into a night on Easy Street.
Granted, A&M isn’t a team that needs to be checking bracketology every week to see where it’s headed. For much of the night, it looked like it was playing with a medicine ball, not a basketball.
Still, it’s hard not to give props to a Gonzaga team that, despite a wholesale makeover, put the throttle down against an outfit from the SEC.
Maybe we shouldn’t be surprised. One of the standards of the Gonzaga program over the years under Mark Few is the ability to start the season fast. It’s almost a necessity, given that the Zags play an inverted schedule, zigging when a lot of other folks zag. The tough games are in November and December, and then the schedule turns mushy in January and February.
Think about some of the pelts Gonzaga has accumulated early in the season. As far back as 2003-04, it won a tournament in Washington, D.C. by beating Maryland. The next year, its first signature victory in the McCarthey Athletic Center was a thunderous 99-87 conquest of a ranked Washington team. In 2005, in Maui, it upset Maryland and won the memorable triple-overtime screamer over Michigan State.
And on and on. There were two championships in the Old Spice Classic, a Maui title in 2009, and then last year, the mother of all November accomplishments, a second Maui title won by beating No. 1-ranked Duke.
Want to go really retro? About the time Gonzaga was clearing its throat for its improbable burst onto the national scene under Dan Monson, it won the Top of the World Classic in Fairbanks in stunning fashion, in what turned out to be the last season (1997-98) before going to the NCAA tournament was a regular deal.
So, to tonight. A&M has a new coach, Buzz Williams, assembling his own system. Few is trying to replace three players who went to the NBA, plus Josh Perkins, GU’s career assists leader. There’s some continuity for GU with players like Filip Petrusev and Corey Kispert and Joel Ayayi, but . . . a 30-point margin?
For me, the most palpable aspect of the game was, after those first several fragile minutes, GU looked connected. It still has guys who pass the ball, seek the best shot and have a knack for finding the open man. That’s an unexpected quality when you’ve just remade your roster. At times, the Zags’ interior defense let them down, but still -- a 30-point road victory. The guard tandem of Ryan Woolridge and Admon Gilder matched each other with 16 points and seven rebounds, and I thought Joel Ayayi was a revelation with eight points, seven rebounds and six assists.
Pat Forde, the writer, tweeted the other night in the wake of Kentucky’s shocking loss to Evansville that he believes Kentucky coach John Calipari “undercoaches” intentionally in the early season, the implication being that he likes to let players struggle so as to allow them to see the error of their ways, then get them ready for the important part of the season. At Gonzaga, Few doesn’t have that luxury. If the first six weeks of the season pass without notable victories, it’s a 10 seed waiting to happen in March.
The Zags are going to face a whole bunch of teams better than Texas A&M, and soon. In the Battle 4 Atlantis tournament later this month, Oregon and North Carolina could await. But by now, we shouldn’t be surprised when Gonzaga, new cast or old, starts fast.