Alabama's sobering message to the Zags

A couple of years ago, a provocateur tweeter took note of Gonzaga’s 20 straight NCAA-tournament appearances and single foray to the title game, and tapped sarcastically, “Pretty nice return.”

I took the bait and replied to the effect that the tournament is insanely competitive, annually.

And Saturday night, that’s what struck me about Gonzaga’s 91-82 defeat to Alabama. It was evident even up in the cheap seats at Climate Pledge Arena, which aren’t so cheap.

This was going to be the year Gonzaga broke through the glass ceiling and won its first NCAA championship. It had a premier player-of-the-year candidate coming back in Drew Timme, it had the No. 1-rated recruit in the nation incoming in Chet Holmgren, and it had significant other pieces like Andrew Nembhard and Anton Watson and a handful of gifted newbies.

This was going to be the year.

It still may be.

But Alabama showed the Zags just how fragile the presumption is. And how fragile the presumption is that Gonzaga will win a national championship in your lifetime.

‘Bama got into the lane too easily, it kicked the ball to perimeter shooters adroitly, and the flurry of treys thrust the Tide into a lead Gonzaga never could overcome. And Alabama defended, holding GU to 45-percent shooting.

It left Gonzaga with so many things to address: Dribble penetration, defensive rotations. Timme’s sudden need to force his own offense. The all-too-frequent evidence that the Zags got less than the best shot available. Free throw shooting, which was horrendous.

It’s too early to say definitively that this team can’t shoot as well as the primo 2020-21 edition. The latest Zags shoot threes at .340, that club shot .368. But Nembhard is at .281, four percent off last year, and the combo of Timme and Holmgren are only eight of 31, which means either they figure to be better, or they need to find something closer.

Against Alabama, Timme said, they came out flat.

Huh? In a parlay of the biggest building with the most partisan Gonzaga crowd possible in the nation, they came out flat?

Strange as it sounds, maybe Timme was right. I felt there was sort of an odd vibe of Gonzaga appreciation in the place, as if the occasion – splashy new arena meets college hoops monolith – was bigger than the competition.

‘Bama, where’d it come from? It lost to Iona. But then, where did Purdue come from? Yeah, it was No. 7 when the Zags were preseason No. 1, but now people are seeing the Boilermakers’ offense as unstoppable. And here we thought the long-term threat was going to come from Duke or Villanova or UCLA. But wait, there’s Calipari’s guys, and Kansas is perennially tough, and here’s Baylor, back for more.

Point is, there’s nothing guaranteed anybody, which amplifies something I’ve believed for a long time: The national-title talk around Gonzaga is overstated – not because the Zags aren’t capable of it but because it’s not necessarily the inevitable culmination of their generation-long ascent. Aspire to get to the Final Four, and if you’re good enough then to go 2 and 0, God bless you.

The good news for the Zags is, there ought to be a mountain of upside. Julian Strawther is just a pup. Nolan Hickman and Hunter Sallis are fresh out of high school. Rasir Bolton is adjusting to a new system. And Holmgren is just scratching the surface.

None of this even accounts for the expected bump when Mark Few makes the whole greater than the sum of the parts.

Gonzaga still has as good a chance as anybody to win the ’22 championship. It’s just that there are a lot of anybodys out there.