Gonzaga was called "the best team in the country" a week ago by an ESPN analyst — just before losing to Illinois. The Zags will try to rebound on Saturday, when they play Kansas State at KeyArena.
Only a week ago, in print and in depth, an ESPN analyst brought forth this observation on Gonzaga basketball, 2012-13: “I think they might be the best team in the country.”
The perpetrator was Seth Greenberg, freshly emancipated from his annual perch on the wrong side of the NCAA-tournament bubble as the coach at Virginia Tech.
Clearly, his memo didn’t make it to Illinois’ inbox, nor the Zags’, because the Illini used another three-point-shooting salvo at The Kennel last week to produce an 11-point victory in a collision of unbeaten teams.
Saturday night, Gonzaga tries to make amends at KeyArena against Kansas State in the annual Battle in Seattle. But at midweek, it was hard to say what made Zags coach Mark Few grumpier: his team’s defense against Illinois or Greenberg’s audacity.
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“We just didn’t defend all night,” Few said. “We didn’t execute the game plan with ball screens. We’ve been pretty good there, and just kind of started slipping.
“We have different coverages, depending on who it is and where it is, and we probably got the right coverage literally 30 to 40 percent of the time.”
Those words might help soothe the fears of Zag Nation, because Few made it sound fixable. Among that legion, there were some familiar signs of Gonzaga vulnerability, like three-point defense (see Fredette, Jimmer) and ability to withstand top-shelf athleticism.
As for Greenberg, well, it’s become tradition for somebody’s expectations of Gonzaga to exceed the Zags’ reach. Annually, there’s at least one scribe on some prominent website picking them for the Final Four. The same sort of Greenberg-like folderol began to surface in late 2008, when Gonzaga, like this team, won the Old Spice Classic in November. (That club went to the Sweet 16 before bumping up, badly so, against eventual national champ North Carolina.)
Few figures it’s the age we live in.
“I think we’ve had this talk before,” he said. “Anybody that does anything last week or last month, it’s the greatest thing ever. It’s across all genres. Mitt Romney’s performance was the ‘greatest debate performance ever.’
“Well, I’ll bet you Lincoln’s was pretty good.”
I can’t vouch for Stephen A. Douglas’ rebuttals back in 1858, but I would submit that Gonzaga does present a conundrum to today’s analyst. We’re used to teams either trending up (Notre Dame) or down (the Yankees). The one that is steadfastly good but not great becomes a tougher read.
It’s Gonzaga’s curse of consistency.
“I choose to look at it as, we’re always in the conversation,” Few said. “Most of the teams aren’t.”
It’s also true that Few inherited a trace of the gene of his original Gonzaga mentor, Dan Fitzgerald, who doggedly tamped down expectations. None of that should deter the rest of us from a fair assessment of a team that indeed has a lot of assets, even as Few insists, “It’s definitely not the most talented team we’ve ever had, and I’m the guy who’s had them all.”
But he concedes “unbelievable balance” and “some nice depth.” What seems to have crept into the playbook lately is what Few calls “game slippage” after high-level practices. The last three shooting percentages against the Zags — by Pacific, WSU and Illinois — have been the highest since the GU opener. Nobody in the Old Spice Classic shot as much as 37 percent against Gonzaga.
Of course, everything looks better when the shots are going down, and the sophomore guards, Kevin Pangos and Gary Bell Jr., are significantly off their percentages from last year.
It would also help if that depth exerted itself. Last week big man Sam Dower was ineffective with the flu, and swingman Guy Landry Edi, who might have been a defensive answer for the 35 points of Illinois guard Brandon Paul, “had three ridiculous, bonehead turnovers,” Few said, that crimped his minutes.
Point made, emphatically. Another luminary from Illinois, Abe Lincoln, couldn’t have said it more effectively.