Gonzaga, a No. 1 seed in the NCAA men's basketball tournament, was beaten by a hot-shooting Wichita State team during the first weekend of play. Critics of the Zags will say "I told you so," but coach Mark Few and his team will focus on continuing the program's successful run.
When Mark Few was growing up, the college team 50 miles away had everybody talking. Up the road from Few’s home in Creswell, Ore., Oregon State was No. 1 in the nation in 1981.
The Beavers played the game the right way, unselfishly, and they did it mostly with recruits who weren’t top-of-the-line.
“I loved how they played,” said Few recently. “I loved how they shared the ball. I think that molded a lot of us back in that era. They were kind of a bunch of overachievers that really played great team ball.”
In other words, they were much like the only other team in Northwest history to attain a No. 1 ranking. Thirty-two years after OSU did it, Gonzaga reached No. 1 earlier this month.
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If the Zags aren’t pained enough after their NCAA round-of-32 loss to Wichita State last week, there’s this bit of haunting parallel: That Oregon State team bowed out of the NCAAs with a first-game upset loss to a program close to Wichita, Kansas State. The Hall of Fame coach of that OSU team, Ralph Miller, built his reputation after a long run at … Wichita State.
Somewhere between misery-loves-company and what-goes-around-comes-around, there must be a moral.
At any rate, the tournament goes on Thursday night without Gonzaga. The Zags are left to sort out how much of that exit was due to their own frailties and how much to dratted ill timing and bad luck.
We expect more of No. 1 seeds, and we should. But you could say it was almost accidental, at least unconventional, how Gonzaga got to that station.
It didn’t power through a big-six conference. It succeeded against a good, not great, nonleague schedule, and then swept its games in a league that’s chronically weak in the lower half. The basketball committee regularly rewards programs that test themselves out of league, so, voila: a No. 1 seed.
You can debate whether, even then, it was justified, but it was given, and the shortfall that followed has a lot to do with the vitriol now lobbed Gonzaga’s way.
It took 11 minutes, 11 minutes off your kitchen clock, for the Zags to morph from darlings to dunces. That’s how long Wichita State needed to climb back from a 61-54 deficit to a 67-63 lead and control of the game.
Gonzaga was on its heels by then, making a couple of critical mental mistakes, while the Shockers got hotter than a craps player flinging loaded dice.
Let’s not pretend the Zags were playing lockdown defense, but take in these numbers: In their previous six games, the Shockers hit 25.9 percent on three-pointers. They hadn’t had double-figures threes in 22 games, and in this one, they made 14.
So you argue it’s all a product of Gonzaga’s diluted competition in the West Coast Conference. Well, the WCC is an albatross in other ways, but not here. Gonzaga played 10 games against teams in the NCAA tournament, and together, they shot 35.4 percent on threes against the Zags.
Still, this is a pattern, and something Gonzaga has to address. Throw out the Ohio State game last year, and the past five opponents to oust the Zags from the NCAA have shot 62 of 122 on threes, slightly better than 50 percent.
It was a telling blow when the Zags lost their best perimeter defender, Gary Bell Jr., and, given that they’d stayed remarkably healthy all year, suggestive of an all-around bad night.
Now the big question is the future of All-America center Kelly Olynyk. He could be a prime candidate for national player of the year in 2013-14, or he could be a rookie in the NBA. He’s widely projected to be a back-half, first-round pick.
Wednesday, his dad, Ken Olynyk, discussed in some detail the factors his son would be considering. Then he said, “I think a factor for Kelly will be, from the time he was 7 years old, I’d say to him, ‘What do you want to do?’ He’d say, ‘I want to play in the NBA.’
“That goal is right in front of him. That may be the factor that influences him greatest.”
If Olynyk isn’t back, the Zags need fast progress from 7-foot-2 freshman Przemek Karnowski and more production and toughness from Sam Dower. Without Olynyk, Gonzaga would likely become more perimeter-oriented with Bell and Kevin Pangos back, and could upgrade athleticism with the help of two transfers from the Big East.
Gerard Coleman, a 6-4 guard, averaged 13.2 points at Providence last year and, says assistant coach Tommy Lloyd, “is a slasher like we’ve never had.” Lloyd says Angel Nunez, a 6-8 forward who exited Louisville, “is as athletic as we’ve ever had, vertically,” and a good three-point shooter. But Nunez left Louisville with questions about his work ethic and defense.
There could be staff changes. Ray Giacoletti is a leading candidate at Drake. Few, just named Basketball Times national coach of the year, might replace him with assistant director of basketball ops Brian Michaelson, a former walk-on.
Eleven minutes. Does the whole Gonzaga narrative change in 11 minutes? Mark Few says no, but he’s seen it happen, long ago.
Bud Withers: 206-464-8281 or email@example.com