Big Bill Walton in GU’s corner
Gonzaga fans have not always been high on Bill Walton.
Or with Bill Walton.
However, the psychedelic icon now doing games for ESPN may be getting the Zag Nation to come around.
Walton tossed out one opinion during the San Diego game last Saturday that was no doubt cheered by everyone who loves Gonzaga — and thinks the Zags absolutely got done by the officials during that national championship game against North Carolina.
It’s gospel here that only foul trouble kept the Zags from winning a title.
Walton not only agreed when it came up on Saturday, it seemed he might still be fuming about that game himself.
As a career shot blocker, Walton understood just how ridiculous it was that Gonzaga wasn’t allowed to contest a shot against the Tar Heels.
“One of the worst officiated games ever,” Walton said on the air.
“Zach Collins — the world owes him an apology.”
Big Bill is now welcome in Spokane forever.
In the immortal words of Yogi Berra: “It seemed like déjà vu all over again.”
See, it wasn’t your imagination, after all.
Gonzaga really did appear to play the same game twice during last week’s trip to Southern California.
At Loyola Marymount on Thursday night, the Zags led just 32-31 at the half, used a 13-2 closing kick to survive 73-60 — and you thought, well, they won’t let that first-half nonsense happen again.
But they did.
On the scoreboard, at least, their bout with San Diego in the Jenny Craig Gym two nights later looked even closer.
This time, the Toreros kept it tied 30-30 at the half — despite major foul trouble for Isaiah Pinero, who torched the Zags for 30 points in Spokane — and the game seemed destined to be a late struggle when it rumbled ahead to 37-37.
This time, though, the Zags didn’t wait as long to wake up.
They scored four baskets in less than two minutes and then, when the veteran Toreros appeared to be plugging their way back, Gonzaga ripped off another run to go up 15 with 8:30 remaining and basically waltzed down the stretch for a 79-67 win.
So despite the first-half struggles and almost total lack of a transition game for the full week, the Zags are now 25-2, 12-0 in the GAC (Gonzaga Athletic Conference) and ranked No. 2 in the Associated Press poll.
IF YOU want to feel even better, CBS Sports does a ranking called its Top 25+1, and CBS ranks Gonzaga No. 1 — basically on the strength of their head-to-head meeting with Duke, the AP’s No. 1.
You know how we’re always complaining that the Eastern media goes to bed before Gonzaga games, and isn’t interested in the WCC or Pac-12, anyway?
Well, last week that might actually have done the Zags some good — especially if those sleepy folks on the other side of the Mississippi only managed to keep their eyes open for one half.
We always assume that national pundits have no respect for the WCC, but on this trip, it looked like the Zags felt the same way.
They basically sleep-walked into both games, then got bullied by Loyola Marymount and played dead even with San Diego in each first half.
About the only good thing to come out of these passive periods was the best quote of the season.
Coach Mark Few was speaking about Rui Hachimura after the Loyola Marymount game involved everything physical except brickbats and knuckle-dusters, but he could have been addressing the whole team.
“If you tip-toe into a bar fight,” Few said, “you’re going to get your ass kicked.”
Few, who almost certainly has avoided most bar brawls, no doubt would bring a bazooka if forced into one.
BUT HIS point, despite being hilarious in how it was delivered, was spot on.
Hachimura was pushed, shoved and hacked by LMU (and still managed to find 22 critical points), yet turned up in laid-back California mode again in San Diego.
And in front of Bill Walton, too (for more on Walton’s call of the game on ESPN, see below).
Rui scored 16 of his 22 points against the Toreros after the break, but he wasn’t the only one who tip-toed into action for the second time in 48 hours.
Josh Perkins dropped 11 of his 15 points in the second half — along with 8 of 9 assists — and Zach Norvell Jr. was another late arrival with 14 of his 18 during that 49-point outburst in the second half.
“We got in it with defense,” Perkins said. “Our defense keys the offense, and we picked it up after halftime.”
Although it wasn’t nearly as colorful as Few’s reference to a bar fight, Norvell Jr. came up with a pretty good quote of his own after the San Diego game.
“We’ve got to be more aggressive right from the start,” he said. “We can’t just wait around and kick it in during the last six minutes.
“But I said that about the last game, too.”
IT’S HARD to analyze what happened during that strange week in Lotus Land.
Are the Zags just a little WCC-weary, anxious to get down to business in the NCAA tournament, and …
Thus hard to motivate until challenged?
Or are there some actual problems that opposing coaches see on tape, especially in rematches as these games were?
Both Loyola Marymount and San Diego used roughly the same strategies as they had in Spokane (and feel free to translate “roughly” in the literal sense with LMU), but they were at home — and USD had star guard Olin Carter III back in the lineup after injuries.
Hachimura said bluntly after the game that he thought San Diego was the second-best team in the conference.
Or as Few suggested …
Is the WCC just deeper now, with better players and teams like these who match up well with Gonzaga?
We should know in just about a month.
Let’s be honest here.
It’s hard to get too excited for a coming home game against Pepperdine (Thursday night at 6), and then a rematch with BYU (Saturday at 7), a team the Zags dispatched by 30 in Provo.
At least this will be our first look at the Waves, who are 10-15 overall, 5-8 in the WCC and an unpleasant 2-10 away from Malibu.
Hey, we wouldn’t be wild about leaving Malibu for Spokane at this time of year, either. Call Southwest Airlines and make that reservation for next month.
BYU, the way, has found this clever way to finish second and perhaps earn that double bye at the WCC tournament.
The Cougs (18-10, 10-3) have lost only to Gonzaga at home, along with San Francisco and St. Mary’s on the road.
Meanwhile, the California teams have been cutting each other up on occasion, opening the door for BYU to slide into second place.
Assuming the Cougars don’t pull off another upset at The Kennel on the order of two years ago — never mind, NOTHING will match two years ago — their critical test will come at home against San Francisco since they’re just about done with anyone else (St. Mary’s, Loyola Marymount) who could knock over the applecart.
BYU’s schedule is interesting, to put it mildly.
San Francisco comes calling at the Marriott Center on Thursday, just before the Cougars take off for Spokane.
YOU CAN honestly say this will be one of the few games where a team won’t be looking ahead to the Zags.
If BYU survives the Dons’ visit — and San Francisco has not been all that salty on the road at 5-4, with some soft victories — the only remaining hurdle for a second-place spot will come in the final conference game, also in Provo against San Diego.
You can make the argument that, although the WCC is much stronger this season (it’s ranked a respectable eighth by hoops guru Ken Pomeroy), only Gonzaga is likely to make the NCAA tournament — unless someone upsets the Zags to win the automatic berth in the WCC tourney.
Finishing second would give teams like BYU, San Francisco and even St. Mary’s (8-4) the best possible shot at that stunner.
Naturally, the Zags have every intention of trying to run the table to enhance their own credentials — a No. 1 seed is very much on the line — but it’s a shame that some of the other WCC teams probably won’t get a shot to show off their goods at the Big Dance.
The rest of the country may not know it, but there are some good teams here.
Does Gonzaga actually have one or two serious weaknesses that will show up in the NCAA free-for-all?
For a good part of the season, there was a worry about the defense.
KenPom’s metrics had the Zags lolling around No. 100 in defensive efficiency for a while, and none of the last 11 national champions were ranked lower than 18th in that metric — although Pomeroy himself pointed out that a long run in the NCAA can lower a middling number to something pretty good.
Slowly but surely, the Zags have improved on the defensive end, and were 27th in defensive efficiency before these last two low-scoring games.
Move on and we’ll see.
The other two items that Pomeroy noted as potential problem areas for Gonzaga were making sure teams didn’t kill them with offensive rebounds, and creating turnovers to fuel their transition game.
YES, THEY’RE ranked No. 1 in offensive efficiency, although those two sleepers in Southern California won’t help that number.
We’ll call your attention to the box score from the Zags’ rather unsightly 73-60 victory at Loyola Marymount.
The numbers you’ll find are positively scary.
LMU shot the ball woefully — 37.9 percent from the field, an abysmal 7.1 percent (1 of 14) from 3-point range, and an equally ugly 56.3 from the free-throw line.
So how on Earth did the Lions keep that game close until the final few minutes?
Just like other teams who have hassled and/or beaten Gonzaga — Tennessee, North Carolina, San Francisco at home — Loyola banged away for 15 offensive rebounds to just six for the Zags.
They had trouble converting because they just can’t shoot, but the flashing red light was there.
LMU also had just five turnovers, despite possessing and moving the ball endlessly to milk the shot clock — and only two of those turnovers came on Gonzaga steals.
WE DON’T like to jump to quick-fix conclusions, but this time we’re going to do it anyhow, because the answer here — preventing teams from getting second shots, anchoring a solid defense and even helping force turnovers — is pretty damn obvious.
Even though the 6-10 Frenchman played in just nine games between his injuries and averaged only 17 minutes per game as he worked off plenty of rust, the Zags were noticeably better in every phase with Tillie on the floor, or …
Tillie allowed Few to rest both Hachimura and Brandon Clarke, and the two bigs also could worry less about foul trouble with Tillie ready to step in and soak up minutes.
Yes, there were excuses against Tennessee and Carolina, rebounding disasters that came with Tillie (and Geno Crandall) missing, and at the end of a murderous string of games.
Fatigue could have been an issue.
But Loyola Marymount?
Let’s just state for the record that Tillie likely would have changed the dynamic of that game completely.
So once again, it’s the huge question …
Will Tillie play, and can he be effective, in the NCAA tournament?
Teams like Virginia operate exactly like Loyola Marymount, only with much, much better players at every position.
You may have to limp through it, Killian.
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Steve Cameron is a columnist for The Press. He’s a former sports writer with the Denver Post and Kansas City Star and the author of 13 sports books. He’s hosted radio programs specifically on college basketball. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org