Maui wowie: Zags get one to remember over Duke

So much was made nationally of Duke’s fabulous start against Kentucky, and its nonpareil freshman class, that it obscured the chance Gonzaga might have Wednesday against the top-ranked Blue Devils. Lo and behold, it was a pretty good one: The Zags controlled most of the game, steadied themselves in some teetering moments down the stretch, and in the Maui Invitational final, upset the team widely presumed to be the 2019 national champion, 89-87.

You can almost see it now: Deep in March, if these two teams collide again, the stage will be set for Mike Krzyzewski, maybe the greatest college coach in the sport’s history, to prove to the world how far his team has come from that November day in the Islands, and the Blue Devils will own the motivational edge.

To which Zag fans would surely say: So be it.

Victories against Duke, the unquestioned kingpin of the landscape, must be cherished, savored, burnished and placed on the mantel inside a glass case for perpetuity. This is a Duke program that in 2009 beat the mess out of the Zags so badly (76-41) that, as recounted in Glory Hounds, it sent Mark Few and his assistant, Ray Giacoletti, out into a Saturday-night snowstorm in New York for a long, long walk to ponder how to resurrect their fallen team.

Among other things, the upset broke Duke’s crazy 17-game, five-tournament win streak in Maui, which dates to the 1992-93 field 26 years ago. In the five previous finals, the Blue Devils had vanquished BYU (1992), Arizona (1997), Ball State (2001) – Ball State? – Marquette (2007) and Kansas (2012).

Assorted thoughts:

 The Zags were No. 3 entering the game, a spot behind Kansas, giving rise to some speculation that Kansas, which survived a struggle against Marquette, might be ranked No. 1 next week. I seriously doubt it. Not when so many hosannas were being thrown Duke’s way this month.

 If that happens, it’s the third time (2013, 2017) for Gonzaga to attain a No. 1 ranking, with essentially three different casts. Think about that in the context of the program’s history.

 It’s often noted that Gonzaga’s increased profile as a national player is due to its defensive chops. No argument there, but I think the biggest noticeable jump in recent years is its rim-protection capability. It now has legitimate shot-blockers. Consider this: Nobody shot better than the low 40s against the Zags in Maui, and Idaho State’s 45.7 is the opponent best in the six games this year.

 Most arresting stat in Maui: Gonzaga had 58 assists to the three opponents’ 22. When Gonzaga allowed baskets, it was getting beat off the dribble or by the three (hello, Illinois).

 Short trip, sometimes, from the outhouse to the penthouse. If Trent Frazier hits his three on Illinois’ final possession Monday night, people are wondering what’s wrong with Gonzaga. Instead, after playing three lackluster halves to begin in Lahaina, the Zags followed with three scintillating ones.

 This stands to be a nasty offensive team as long as it takes care of the ball. It shot low-50s percentages in all three games, and its lowest point total is 84 in the six games.

 Jeremy Jones was the forgotten man among the trio that sat out the 2015-16 season at GU, lost behind fellow redshirts Nigel Williams-Goss and Johnathan Williams III. But he’s blown his cover. With Killian Tillie sidelined, he played 51 minutes in Maui, with 23 points and 21 rebounds, and his double-double against Illinois – punctuated by two clinching free throws in the last seconds – was absolutely pivotal.

 When it comes to assessing NCAA-tournament resumes in March, this will be a chip of monumental proportions.