No. 1 seed Zags are busy preparing for a tough matchup against Wichita State.
SALT LAKE CITY — On the Day After The Day That Almost Was, Gonzaga didn’t look back. No time for that. There were film sessions, a practice, walk-throughs to conduct back at the hotel.
That was a good thing, if Wichita State can be a good thing. No need to dwell on the panel truck that almost ran you down, no reason to conjure up an accident scene.
Dead ahead Saturday night for a berth in the NCAA Sweet 16 is Wichita State, with a team motto of “Play angry.” And the Shockers play irritated, contesting every rebound, banging in the post and flicking away perimeter passes with disruptive hands.
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Thursday, they sat in end-zone seats after dispatching Big East masher Pittsburgh, 73-55, and watched Gonzaga’s game against Southern. They might have had to suppress snickers, as the Zags, suddenly bloated with expectations, looked like they might not be the No. 1 team in Spokane County, let alone the nation. They won 64-58 and moved on.
“I kind of looked at it as maybe a game Gonzaga (thought) they were supposed to win,” said Shockers guard Malcolm Armstead, the transfer from Oregon. “So maybe they kind of played to that competitive level.”
That’s what one of his teammates said 15 minutes later in another part of Energy Solutions Arena, so the coach, Gregg Marshall, might have established the message.
“That doesn’t mean they’re going to play that way coming into our game,” said forward Carl Hall.
For their part, the Zags nearly copped college basketball’s scarlet letter, letting Southern dance at the edges of the first upset of a No. 1 seed by a 16 in 29 seasons of the 64-team-plus tournament.
I witnessed Princeton’s 50-49 loss to Georgetown in 1989, when the Hoyas blocked a last-possession jumper by the Tigers. Monstrous as that would have been then, multiply it by a few gazillion tweets, blogs, websites, message boards and talk-radio assaults, and that would have been Gonzaga. The national scorn might have fried the campus, caused enrollment to plunge and federal grants to cease.
It’s an obsession gone wacko, all fueled by the digit next to each team. Look at it this way: If Gonzaga were to lose to Washington State, would it be a surprise? No doubt. Would it be a shocker beyond imagination? Hardly (they played a two-point game in December). Well, Southern’s RPI computer ranking this week is 188. Washington State’s is 181.
Anyway, the Zags shrugged at the near-miss, and 24 hours later, concluded it was a positive.
“I don’t think there’s been a better team in the country than we are in the last four minutes,” insisted Gonzaga assistant coach Tommy Lloyd.
“A win is a win,” said another assistant, Donny Daniels. “In the last four minutes, nothing was going our way. It could very easily have gone south.”
It didn’t. Gonzaga rallied to normalcy and the mother of all tournament upsets went begging. But Daniels hastened to add, the Zags can do some things better.
“We only had 25 deflections,” Daniels said. “We’ve got to get that to 35. We only went on the ground 11 times. We’ve got to get that to at least 16, 17. Our deflections weren’t good, our ‘Zag plays’ weren’t good. We can’t have that.
“Our goal is to go to a certain place, and if we want to go there, we’ve got to ratchet it up. Tomorrow, it’s a lot about attitude.”
That, and the short turnaround. Second games have been an albatross for Gonzaga the past three years in the tournament, partly because it does better with more prep, partly because the opponents are nastier.
Lloyd had the scouting assignment on Wichita State. He pored over five game tapes, called some people familiar with the Shockers (27-8) and went to bed at 2 a.m. Friday.
“They run 30 different little wrinkles out of this one action,” said Lloyd. “If you’re trying to figure out every one of those, you’re overthinking it. It’s about figuring out a few constants, doing what you do really well, and then fighting. Rebounding, that’s what it’s going to come down to.”
These days, it’s a thinner crowd jumping on the Zags’ bandwagon. Not only did Southern threaten mightily, a couple of GU’s marquee victims, Oklahoma State and Kansas State, are already gone from the tournament.
Not the Zags, not yet. They’re still the 1.
Bud Withers: 206-464-8281 or firstname.lastname@example.org