The Zags and running it up (whatever that is)

Happened to catch a Seattle radio segment the other day on which CBS sports bracket specialist Jerry Palm appeared. (Yes, occasionally sports-talk radio here veers dangerously from assessing what Seahawks mini-camps will look like in May and realizes we’re well into college-basketball season.)

The subject of Gonzaga’s 98-39 boat-racing at Santa Clara came up, and with it, the fact that the NCAA’s new NET rankings recognize margin of victory – but only out to 10 points. Never was it specifically alleged that the Zags’ clocking of the Broncos represented running it up, but still, I sensed an undercurrent in the conversation that Gonzaga might have treated the game differently than it would have without that NET factor.

Which, if that’s what Palm and/or his host believes, is ridiculous. I suppose if you want to split hairs, you can argue that with 14 minutes left, Gonzaga led 66-25 and it was going to be virtually impossible for five guys plucked out of Jack and Dan’s at closing time to lose the game with a lead like that, and the GU starters could have come out then. Or even earlier.

As it was, if memory serves, Gonzaga had all its starters out of the game for good at around the nine-minute mark, which is about as early as you’ll ever see. True, that left Killian Tillie, Geno Crandall and Filip Petrusev to wreak more indignity on the poor Broncos, but them’s the breaks.

Indeed, the most minutes by a Zag was Josh Perkins’ 26. Brandon Clarke played only 20 minutes and Rui Hachimura 18.

I bring this up because in a year in which Gonzaga is clearly the class of the WCC – by a bunch -- the subject is likely to arise again.

At 10 points, the scoring-margin component of the NET is almost so negligible as to be moot. If you win by nine or 10 points, it’s often the case that it was a one- or two-possession game inside the last minute. Example: Gonzaga’s 13-point victory over USF a while back was anything but comfortable.

Putting aside the NET, and looking at the subject from the sportsmanship angle, I’m often intrigued by discussions of running it up. There are so many gray areas that it’s become a silly topic. What’s running it up to one person isn’t to the other. Case in point: I was watching one of the football bowl games in December, and a team that was blowing out its opponent had the ball with a fourth down on the opponent 15- or 20-yard line in the fourth quarter. The team leading eschewed the field goal and went for it on fourth down, causing a cry of consternation from the play-by-play guy. How dare they?

Well, in many quarters, kicking the field goal with a five-touchdown lead is considered bad form – worse than simply lining up and running the ball and giving the defense a chance to stop you. But in either case, it’s stupid to get worked up about it when there’s no agreement on what either act signifies. Over the years, I’ve pretty much come to subscribe to the drawling dictum of the old Florida State football coach, Bobby Bowden: “It’s not mah job to stop mah offense, it’s yo’ job to stop mah offense.”

Funny, but “running it up” even carries two different connotations. At its most innocent, it means scoring a lot. Taken at its most nefarious, it means pouring it on to embarrass your opponent.

A final thought on it: Some fans think a game is only about who wins and who loses – end of story. Coaches don’t look at it that way. They coach against the game. They want to see improvement with certain combinations. They want to see how certain vulnerabilities are addressed.

Mark Few wants to see Tillie’s timing on certain ball-screen sets, he wants to see Crandall’s advancement with Perkins playing off the ball. He wants to see things that suggest his team is on an upward arc toward March. It isn’t about giving gratuitous minutes to the guys at the end of the bench – though they certainly deserve their run -- so the crowd can repair to the nearest bar to discuss the night.

The Zags face a four-game stretch with BYU, San Diego, USF and Saint Mary’s. Don’t look for them to beat any of those outfits by 59 points. But down the road, there will be a good many moments when the question isn’t winning or losing, but far more esoteric matters.