Zag NCAA notions, doorstep edition
03-24-17

So this is it for Gonzaga: A stone-cold, straight-up golden opportunity to get to the Final Four. Awaiting the Zags Saturday at 3:09 Pacific is 11th-seeded Xavier, which took down Arizona Thursday night in San Jose, just after Gonzaga had out-steeled West Virginia, 61-58.

Given how persistent the narrative that the Zags haven’t yet attained a Final Four, the prospect is tantalizing -- yet fraught with peril. Playing a No. 11 seed almost makes it look too easy, but it cannot be, not when Xavier has taken out three power-conference programs to get this far, not when it blew to pieces third-seeded Florida State in the second round, not when it denied Arizona, a team a lot of folks figured would be too much for Gonzaga in the Elite Eight.

But it’s right there for the Zags, a weighty eight-point favorite against the Musketeers, who have their own formidable history in the tournament in the last generation.

Random thoughts, notions and factoids in advance of the Zags’ second round-of-eight appearance in three seasons:

-- It’s hard to overstate how gutty was the victory over the Mountaineers, who have to rank among the hardest teams in the country to overcome in terms of sheer ability to force opponents into a style far removed from their comfort zone. For instance, foul trouble Gonzaga prompted the Zags to play multiple possessions of zone defense in the waning moments of both halves, and I can’t immediately remember any zone GU has played all season. This must be the least zone-dependent Zag team in 19 years of NCAA tournaments.

-- Jordan Mathews’ late three takes its place in a small pantheon of famous Gonzaga shots, perhaps just behind Casey Calvary’s renowned tip-in that sank Florida at the same juncture of the tournament in GU’s initializing run of 1999. This one, ironically, was set up by WVU’s pressing, overplaying style -- and Nigel Williams-Goss’ determination to push the ball up the floor after a rebound. Without the Mountaineers’ hounding concentration on Williams-Goss, there likely would never have been a clean perimeter look in those telling late moments, because they weren’t there most of the game.

-- Gonzaga has simply owned West Virginia and Bob Huggins, going 4-0 in the past five years, including a 23-point demolition in the first round of the NCAA tournament in 2012 -- in Pittsburgh, just 78 miles from the WVU campus.

-- It was a bar fight of a game, probably not surprising given the top-five defensive prowess of the two teams, and while WVU’s frenetic defense gets headlines, it was Gonzaga’s half-court defense that produced the big number. Against its Big 12 foes both in league games and the conference tournament, West Virginia shot .441; it hit 26.7 against Gonzaga. And in the four West Virginia-Gonzaga games since 2012, the Mountaineers shot a combined, skimpy .311.

-- I recall a conversation with GU assistant coach Tommy Lloyd many weeks ago, in which he said of freshman forward Rui Hachimura, “We think he can help us,” meaning late in this season. The athletic Hachimura’s development has been slow, but sure enough, he played four minutes of the first half. The contribution was negligible, but on a night when Gonzaga committed 26 fouls (including four by all three starting guards), Hachimura was able to spell Johnathan Williams III when he sat in the first half.

-- In three NCAA games, the Zags have only sporadically shown the stuff that propelled them to the top of computer rankings and the polls -- haltingly, in the second half of the South Dakota State game and the first half of the Northwestern game. But nobody said this was going to be Swan Lake.

-- Given the late-season struggles of Josh Perkins (whose late block of Nathan Adrian was huge), it’s more than a little surprising Gonzaga has flourished despite a sub-par tournament from Williams-Goss. His numbers: 12 for 42 from the field (.286), 10 assists, nine turnovers, but 22 rebounds.

-- Some Xavier numbers: In KenPom analytics, the Musketeers are No. 29 in offense, 67th in defense and 229th in tempo. They shoot 46 percent (88th nationally), allow .449 (230th), and have a healthy 6.2 rebound margin. They foul a lot, ranking 309th in fewest fouls, and at .691, don’t shoot free throws particularly well. Their season took a bad turn Jan. 29 with a knee injury to point guard Edmond Sumner, and they had a six-game losing streak in latter February.

-- Assuming the payout per “unit” -- one game’s advancement in the tournament -- is similar to last season (about $260,000) the Zags have banked some $4.8 million for the West Coast Conference over the NCAA’s rolling six-year window, split among the league members. Combined with Saint Mary’s at-large berth and victory, that number comes to about $8 million, so people around the WCC ought to be pleased. The four WCC victories in the NCAA is the most by the league since San Francisco’s national-title runs in both 1955-56.


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