Zags Tracker with Steve Cameron: Turning a stinker into a positive

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JOHN LOCHER/Associated Press While the Zags did a faceplant Tuesday night, Jordan Ford and Saint Mary’s scored an unlikely victory in the West Coast Conference tournament championship game in Las Vegas.

THIS WEEK

Well…

That was a bolt from the blue.

Given that Gonzaga was ranked as the best college basketball team in the land, Tuesday’s night’s uniformly ugly 60-47 loss to Saint Mary’s in the WCC tournament title game seemed almost beyond belief.

Scrolling the box score, scanning replays…there was absolutely nothing to like about the Zags’ worst overall performance in years.

It was tough to watch, even tougher to absorb and extremely painful, unless…

Unless, maybe you’re Mark Few and you have your eye firmly on the NCAA tournament and a serious shot at the Final Four.

Coaches in any sport will tell you that they are most nervous when things are going great.

Especially at the collegiate level, where young athletes are surrounded by admiring classmates and fawning alums, kids can start to believe the hype when, say, they’ve won 21 straight games and seem like a cinch to romp in the conference championship game.

Few will never say so in public, obviously, but I guarantee that a part of him wasn’t all that displeased by his team’s utterly miserable performance.

In the week-plus before the Zags begin what they hope is a deep run into the NCAA event, Few and his staff now will have everyone’s attention.

If there was any arrogance in this squad or some misplaced belief that Gonzaga was bulletproof…

It’s gone.

RIGHT THERE on a horror show of game tape, the coaches can point out every one of the Zags’ flaws, and discuss how they can be corrected.

The season is no longer on cruise control, which may turn out to be a very good thing.

Preaching urgency is tougher when a team is rolling along like some kind of juggernaut.

Coming off a pretty much disgraceful performance, however…

It’s back to hard work and brutal concentration if you intend to fulfill your own expectations over the next several weeks.

And now everyone in the program knows it.

The Zags weren’t even back into street clothes before they were facing reality, and no doubt the coaching staff was glad to see it.

“We just have to take the feeling we have right now and have it put a spark in us,” said senior point guard Josh Perkins.

“It gives us another reason to push. We don’t want to feel this way again. It’s a bump in the road. It’s not a ditch. Our end goal is still intact.

“We still have something to prove. Just stay together.”

A FEW years ago, on a train trip across the country, Hall of Fame football coach and broadcaster John Madden was delving into the philosophy of sport, and he offered a telling overview.

“You’ve never as good as you look when you win,” Madden said, “and you’re never as bad as look when you lose.”

The point there is that the Zags have won 30 games, been No. 1 in the nation twice, remain the only team to have beaten Duke when the Devils were at full strength, and basically ran roughshod over the entire WCC — Saint Mary’s included.

This is simply a very, very good team that had a bad hair day.

If Gonzaga were to play the Gaels again next week in a Las Vegas rematch, the Zags would once again be a double-digit favorite and probably live up to those numbers.

“You have to play at your highest level to beat them,” Saint Mary’s Coach Randy Bennett said during the flush of victory.

“And you need them to have an off night.”

Maybe that’s a point to remember here…

The Zags not only had a cold night all around, they wandered into an arctic chill territory — and with all due to respect to Saint Mary’s and a good game plan that was well executed, this defeat was more about Gonzaga getting away from its own roots.

WE DIDN’T see intelligent ball movement, nor hard work on the glass, nor crisp handling of assignments on defense.

In short, the Zags didn’t do any of the things that had brought them 21 consecutive double-digit wins.

“We got bullied on the boards,” admitted soph wing Corey Kispert, who is not generally a kid you imagine being bullied.

Think about this: Despite horrendous shooting and decision-making, the Zags were down just 42-41 when the Gaels’ Tanner Krebs missed a short shot.

Once again unable to capture a defensive rebound, the Zags more or less just watched as Jordan Hunter — whom they turned into an All-American for one evening — scored on a put-back and was fouled in the process.

“We just can’t let that happen,” Kispert said.

No, they can’t.

EVERY GAME this season in which the Zags have struggled — including all three of their losses — have had that one common theme.

They’ve been pushed around on the boards.

Tennessee, North Carolina and now Saint Mary’s turned second-chance points into an offensive game plan.

If the Zags are going to make any kind of splash in the NCAA tournament — and they still have the weapons to do it — that rebounding issue must be addressed.

Opposing coaches who wish to remain anonymous will tell you that Rui Hachimura, in particular, sometimes plays as though he’s afraid of foul trouble, and thus won’t use his considerable strength to do some dirty work.

Most of the other problems from Tuesday night’s dive into the ditch, however, almost certainly will self-correct.

The Zags have proven themselves to be a tremendously unselfish team that makes great decisions will the ball, so having all that turn into a rash of hurry-up, one-on-one hoops is something you probably won’t see again.

LIKEWISE, THIS team is not likely to shoot under 40 percent again — against Saint Mary’s or anyone else.

Zach Norvell Jr. is a proven scorer, so when you see him make one shot in 11 tries (including zip-for-six from deep), it’s fair to say you’re watching an anomaly.

And the entire team going 2-for-17 on 3-point tries?

No future opponent will be counting on that.

One interesting item from the box score involved the newly recovering Killian Tillie.

The Frechman is a wild-card weapon who can change a game from inside and out, but Few was careful to protect Tillie’s still-tender foot by limiting him to just 12 minutes.

Tillie took three shots, made two of them — including another 3-pointer — and clearly could have made a massive difference on the boards with more involvement.

But Few chose prudence over a chance to win the conference tournament.

Gonzaga’s goal from the first fall practice was getting to the Final Four.

As Perkins noted, that target remains.

Now there’s a great teaching tool available to help the Zags get this train back on the rails.

NEXT WEEK

Never mind losing the WCC tournament finale.

The biggest question surrounding Tuesday night’s utter capitulation to Saint Mary’s is whether or not the defeat might cost the Zags a No. 1 seed at the Big Dance.

Most college hoops experts think not.

There are countless other conference tournaments that need to be played out over the weekend, of course, but the general feeling is that one weirdly bad night at the office won’t affect the Zags’ seeding.

The NCAA tournament committee likely still would prefer to have Gonzaga as the top seed in the West Region, for TV and gate receipt purposes if nothing else.

For the Zags to fall one line in the tournament bracket, four teams would somehow have to prove themselves head and shoulders above the crowd.

That’s really a long shot.

IT’S TRUE that any loss, particularly so close to the NCAA tournament, will stick in your mind, but getting upset by Saint Mary’s (No. 35 in the new NET rankings used by the committee) is not the same as being rumbled by Pepperdine.

Saint Mary’s has some holdover national recognition, so analyzing a slowdown game in which Gonzaga did everything wrong gives the committee a good reason to throw the occurrence out of its thinking.

And hey, even if it shakes out that the Zags slip to a No. 2 seed, so what?

They’re either good enough to go deep into the tournament (very likely), or they’re not.

It isn’t like you draw the Toronto Raptors in your bracket just because you fell down a single seeding line.

The big picture here is the same as it’s been all year.

There are about six to eight teams that you could legitimately see playing in the national title game, and Gonzaga is one of them.

SO EVEN though the suspicion here is that the Zags will hang on to their No. 1 seed, it probably doesn’t make that much difference in how the tournament plays out.

What could make a major difference, though, is Tillie’s availability.

The Zags need another reliable big man, and this is a guy who ultimately will play in the NBA.

If there was any takeaway from the loss to Saint Mary’s, it might have been that games where you see guys like Tanner Krebs and Jordan Hunter playing key roles are much less likely to happen with Tillie beefing up the Gonzaga front line.

The seeding committee knows that, as well.

Tillie has another week to let his foot get more comfortable, and to practice hard.

This might be an unfair thing to lay on a player who has been involved in just 11 games and started none, but…

The Zags are good enough to sniff the Final Four with the core group that succeeded all year.

For a chance to cut down the nets in Minnesota, though, it may come down to the diverse talents of a 6-foot-10 Frenchman.

That unique mystery begins to unfold next week.

• • •

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: scameron@cdapress.com

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