Zags and the art of representin'
11-29-17

Taking the temperature of Gonzaga’s performance in the PK80 tournament in Portland over the Thanksgiving weekend, you’d have to give the 15th-ranked Zags relatively high marks. Not a boffo, off-the-charts stone-cold “A,” but surely a three-game B or B-plus.

They thrashed what looks to be one of Ohio State’s weaker teams; did everything but beat Florida in a double-overtime classic, losing 111-105, and in a finale of schizo stretches, beat Texas in overtime. (The Florida game, had it gone to a third OT, was, for me, edging up in the category of best games I’ve ever seen in person to the 2005 Maui Invitational screamer between Michigan State and GU, won by the Zags in three overtimes. Memorably, in that one, neither team led by more than three points from the nine-minute mark of the second half to the finish, an astonishing stretch of 24 minutes.)

Gonzaga coach Mark Few came away from Portland expressing some satisfaction in projecting that his team can compete with anybody in the country.

What made the weekend a success, of course, was a game played at 10 a.m. Sunday, when a lot of people were in church or at brunch or trying to figure out why Washington State is suddenly rendered catatonic in the Apple Cup every year against Washington.

Nobody gets ecstatic about a third-place finish over a fifth in the Motion bracket of the PK80, but to Gonzaga, it’s of value. And that bespeaks an admirable quality about the program, the notion that you can almost always count on it to represent, as they say.

Let’s face it: That game stands to mean more to Gonzaga than to Texas. Those consolation games in pre-conference tournaments are gold to Gonzaga’s resume, while for the Longhorns, well, there will be multiple opportunities to atone, against Kansas and TCU and Baylor and Texas Tech. Gonzaga gets only so many chances against the flaccid WCC schedule.

Texas has generally been picked around the middle of the Big 12. Wherever the Longhorns finish, for the Zags, the game might mean a victory over an NCAA-tournament club, or at the low end, one going to a lesser tournament.

Gonzaga started slowly, then put on a blistering 24-0 run to take control. Of course, the Zags surrendered all of a 21-point second-half lead, and they’ve had a penchant for letting those things get away, from UCLA in 2006 to Iowa State last year, to Texas. That’s another story entirely.

Fact is, with precious few exceptions over the years, you can count on Gonzaga to show up, even if the stakes might seem negligible.

Certainly, there have been nights when the sleepy WCC schedule tripped up GU somewhere; that’ll happen.

There have been days and nights when Gonzaga didn’t get the memo. One of those was Duke in New York in 2009, a 76-41 disaster that caused Few and assistant Ray Giacoletti to soul-search as they roamed Gotham streets in a snowstorm (shameless plug: read all about it in “Glory Hounds”). Another was a 108-87 stinker at Virginia in the first few days of 2007.

Two more: Portland State’s ambush at GU in December of 2008, and Washington State’s 81-59 rout in 2010, although in hindsight, getting schooled by Klay Thompson isn’t such a disgrace.

Seems to me, though, that the consolation games of pre-conference tournaments are a worthy barometer of your native inclination to compete -- because I doubt seriously Few stands in a pre-game locker room and says, “Hey guys, this game means more to us than them.”

Texas was but an extension of history.

This isn’t an all-inclusive list, but go back to 2010-11, and a four-team November tournament in Kansas City. Gonzaga got smoked by Kansas State but came back to inch out a three-point win over Marquette, which turned out to be a 22-15, NCAA Sweet 16 team.

In 2013-14, Gonzaga was in danger of a miserable trip to Maui, losing its opener to Dayton and getting stuck in a nothing-to-gain, RPI-bruising consolation game against Chaminade. Next was Arkansas, a team that would go 22-12 in an NIT season, and Kevin Pangos responded with 34 points in a solid Gonzaga win.

In the fretful 2015-16 season, just about the only resume-builder until Gonzaga caught fire near the finish was a 73-70 victory over Connecticut in a consolation game in the Bahamas. That UConn team finished 25-11 and won a game in the NCAA tournament.

Such games can be sleepwalkers in front of skimpy crowds, perfect surroundings not to give a damn. Sunday, it was fair to assume that the emotional hangover was similar for Gonzaga and Texas -- the Zags having near-missed against Florida and the Longhorns having kicked a big second-half lead against Duke to lose.

However it happened, Gonzaga responded better. Modest though the return might seem, it was worth something.


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