Since their embarrassing loss to now-No. 1 Illinois, the Zags have shown they can handle their tough schedule by beating third-ranked Georgia Tech (Saturday in Las Vegas) and Washington.
When Gonzaga finalized a schedule that included men’s basketball games away from Spokane against Illinois, Georgia Tech and Oklahoma State, the Nos. 3-5-7 teams in the country in the first Associated Press poll, it appeared the Zags, usually willing to take on all comers, might have overdone it.
Saturday night’s surprise 85-73 victory over third-ranked Georgia Tech at the Las Vegas Showdown might have been the program’s best nonleague, regular-season victory in history.
“To beat a top-five team in the country, and a team that played in the national-championship game, and had everybody back, is a great win,” Gonzaga assistant coach Bill Grier said yesterday.
And today that victory earned them the biggest jump in the Associated Press Top 25 rankings, up to No. 13 from last week’s No. 22 ranking.
Gonzaga was shamed against Illinois on Nov. 27, falling behind 58-27 at halftime and getting completely outclassed, albeit to a team that’s now No. 1 in the country. But that seems to have had a positive impact as well.
Said Gonzaga assistant Leon Rice, “Our approach, probably since the Illinois game, was to get better defensively, and have a state of mind of toughness. That showed in the way we played last night being tough with the ball, on the boards, and with our screens.”
After Illinois, coach Mark Few began stressing being aggressive, and Gonzaga (8-1) has been more forceful at both ends, beating then-No. 14 Washington and Tech.
In those two victories, they’ve had similar offense from two sophomores, Adam Morrison and Derek Raivio. Morrison had 26 points against the Huskies and 24 against Tech, while Raivio had 21 against each team.
Almost as encouraging as Raivio’s scoring is the fact he had a single turnover against two guard-oriented teams.
“He did a great job in both games,” Grier said. “He stepped up and knocked down shots, scratched and clawed and competed like former guards Gonzaga has had.”
Raivio is 24 of 44 on threes this season and has 49 assists compared with 19 turnovers.
Against Tech, Gonzaga took a 45-41 halftime lead. Then, when Raivio got a third foul early in the second half, the Zags went to a zone defense that seemed to confound the Yellow Jackets.
With Gonzaga attacking Tech’s full-court pressure, the lead grew to 15. Arizona transfer Will Bynum scored a career-high 28 points and Tech scrapped back into it, but Gonzaga held on.
In Bynum, B.J. Elder and Jarrett Jack, Tech might have the best perimeter in the country (if it doesn’t, Illinois probably does). But Morrison helped overcome them with solid ballhandling.
Before this win, the Zags had two victories in history against top-five teams. One was against No. 5 Clemson in Fairbanks, Alaska, in 1997. The other was at KeyArena last year, against a Missouri team that was ranked third before slipping badly.
Asked if he had wondered earlier if Gonzaga might have overscheduled, Rice said, “At the end of the (Georgia Tech) game, we had a freshman and three sophomores on the floor. If you’re going to play (Illinois, Georgia Tech and Oklahoma State) with a freshman and three sophomores, yeah, there’s no question you have doubts.”
After a game tomorrow night against a struggling Eastern Washington team, the Zags still have a treacherous road. They play Oklahoma State at Oklahoma City on Dec. 28, then go to Missouri on Dec. 30 before opening the West Coast Conference schedule at Santa Clara and Saint Mary’s.
Bud Withers: 206-464-8281 or firstname.lastname@example.org