This was supposed to be the trap game, the upset special, the opponent uniquely qualified to exploit whatever minute weaknesses Gonzaga’s men’s team might possess.
That quaint notion was dispelled about two minutes into the Elite Eight game Tuesday in Indianapolis, as the Zags kept pick-pocketing the ball from USC and moving down the court with the most lethal transition game seen in basketball since the Showtime Lakers.
Yes, that’s hyperbole, but Gonzaga makes you search for superlatives. Can you remember any other college team that passes this intricately, defends this beautifully, plays this unselfishly, and gets the ball down the court after a steal or missed basket with such a lightning stroke of blurry ballet?
It turned out that USC, despite being the tallest team in the country and the best at defending two-point shots, despite having a zone defense that has flummoxed other teams, despite having a lottery pick in 7-foot freshman Evan Mobley who can take over a game on any given night, despite the growing momentum and confidence from blowing out teams in the tournament, looked like your run-of-the-mill Pacific or Santa Clara WCC cannon fodder to the mighty Zags.
The final was 85-66, but it could have been much worse if Gonzaga didn’t understandably get a little sloppy after building a 23-point lead early in the second half. The win put the Zags into their second Final Four – the other coming in 2017 – and did absolutely nothing to dissuade the growing notion that a national title is an inevitability for Gonzaga.
Of course, Mark Few doesn’t want to hear that, even though the Zags come by such lofty expectations naturally. That’s what happens when you are the No. 1 team in the nation wire to wire, take a 30-0 record into the Final Four, and have had just one opponent all year come within single digits. And that was four months ago.
Few is trying to execute a delicate balancing act – savoring the accomplishments as they come while remaining mindful of the ultimate goal. He steadfastly insists that his players have earned the right to celebrate a magnificent game like Tuesday’s without being weighed down by the burden to finish the job.
“Look, man, everyone wants to keep moving this thing forward, but that’s just not how we roll,’’ Few said in his postgame Zoom session. “This is a heck of an accomplishment. We’re going to take it and savor it for what it is.
“That doesn’t lessen our desire to win the next game or win two more games, but we’re smart enough and wise enough to know that these are really, really special times. And these are special accomplishments that need to be celebrated. That’s how we’re approaching it right now.”
The tenor of the game was set immediately when 6-foot-10 Drew Timme, Gonzaga’s breakout star of stars during this tournament, switched onto a smaller guard on USC’s first possession and stripped the ball. That led not only to a blinding fast break by Gonzaga, capped by a Timme layup, but was a precursor to several more steals in the early going that allowed Gonzaga to burst ahead 17-4. The upset dreams of USC quietly exited the arena.
“He does that a lot, quite frankly,’’ Few said of Timme. “He really kind of enjoys those moments when we go to our switching defense like that. He moves his feet well for a bigger kid. I really think it set a tone that, hey, we’re going to be aggressive. This thing is going to start with defense.”
Timme finished with 23 points, but the beauty of Gonzaga is that no one player has to bear the brunt of the offense, or the defense. Corey Kispert had 18 points on 6-for-19 shooting, and as Few said, while complimenting Kispert’s shot selection, “To end up with 18 on theoretically maybe somewhat of an off night is pretty damn impressive.”
It wasn’t an off night, theoretically or otherwise, for freshman Jalen Suggs, who nearly had a triple double with 18 points, 10 rebounds and eight assists. Suggs said he was inspired by watching his close friend Paige Bueckers star for Connecticut’s women’s team the previous night in its tournament win.
“I was extremely nervous all game,’’ Suggs said of watching Bueckers. “I was pacing back and forth. I couldn’t sit down. I texted her after, and we Face-timed and talked a little bit.
“She said some things that really helped me. I’ve been kind of struggling to get my footing in these tournament games. To see her go out there and play great, and talking after, she said some words that got me uplifted and got me going. It definitely helped tonight. She’s the GOAT for a reason.”
Now the Zags are closing in on their own history, trying to be the first team to complete an unbeaten season since 1975-76 Indiana.
That pursuit is now just two victories away and will resume in due time. On Tuesday, still keyed up by the dominance he had witnessed, Few refused to be drawn into an all-or-nothing mindset.
“I think you’re missing the whole point in life if all you’re doing is going to the very endgame and that’s the only way you’re going to celebrate and feel good about anything,’’ he said.
“The fact we’re savoring this and really seizing the moment, don’t anybody misconstrue that for a lack of desire to keep this thing rolling. I just think it’s the proper perspective.”
Right now, it’s hard to doubt anything the Zags are doing.