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Monson: Is Gonzaga really a No. 1? Is it?

Published March 17, 2017 9:19 pm

NCAA Tournament • Zags look shaky coming out of the gate against No. 16 South Dakota State.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2017, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

After No. 1-seeded Gonzaga breathed deep and beat South Dakota State at Vivint Smart Home Arena on Thursday, Zags coach Mark Few was asked if the Jackrabbits really were a No. 16 team.

A better question was whether the Bulldogs are a No. 1.

They managed to pull away in the bump-and-skid of the second half and eventually won by a mile: 66-46. That was the positive news. The negative? There was plenty of bad road en route. Much of what transpired likely caused people to doubt — people who bet in their brackets on the Zags going far, many of whom have them in their Final Four, but also future opponents who couldn't have been impressed much with the soundness of Gonzaga's overall game.

"Well," Few said, afterward. "We had to really dig deep to show our toughness, to find a way through that thing …"

His team showed toughness, it's true, but it also showed vulnerability.

"I'm just telling you the extremes [between a 1 and a 16] are scooting closer to the mean, year in and year out," Few said. The question in this particular case was: Who did more of the scooting … Gonzaga in arrears or South Dakota State moving on up?

For a while, it looked like the Zags.

Not sure exactly what happened in the first half. Here's what didn't happen: Nobody played good basketball. This was supposed to be a first-round game of the NCAA Tournament, but, for the better part of 20 minutes, it seemed as though we'd all taken a wrong turn and wound up at the CBI or CIT or AAU or EIEIO tournament.

The thing stunk, like Old McDonald's freshly fertilized north 40. Maybe the guys on both sides were nervous, but you'd expect better from a No. 1 like Gonzaga.

South Dakota State, a bunch that finished 8-8 in the Summit League, an outfit that lost six of its first seven games and five of its first six conference games, kept the game close. The Jackrabbits led over the initial 19 minutes — and then, as mentioned, faded from there.

For an extended early period, nobody could hit a shot — Gonzaga made 31 percent of its attempts, SDSU hit 33 percent — from the field. From the free-throw line, the teams combined to make 7 of 15. The teams totaled more turnovers (11) than assists (8). These guys weren't so much putting touch on the ball, they were more loading refrigerators from the dock onto a freighter.

The Jackrabbits saw success by cordoning off the paint with their 1-3-1 zone defense, crowding that area, the Jacks daring — no, begging — the Bulldogs to fire away from deep. And they did, hitting just 2 of 14 attempts in the first half and 8 of 30 overall.

That part of it made for a perfect upset atmosphere, a mix of ineptitude and magic playing into South Dakota State's hands. It looked as though maybe these Jackrabbits really could do what nobody else ever has — knock off and out a No. 1 in the first round.

They couldn't, though, because they really aren't that good.

Through the second half, the Zags slowly took control of the game, gaining more efficiency, looking more like … well, at least a ragged version of themselves. Even over the more positive stretches, it was far from perfect, and far from convincing — in a single-elimination tournament that is a lot of things, but almost never forgiving.

The best you could say about Gonzaga is … they survived.

They did not put fear in the hearts of Northwestern or Vanderbilt, whoever plays them next, and whoever might play them in later rounds, if it comes to that. The Bulldogs might have won all but one game this season — a loss to a mediocre BYU team — and they may be, analytically speaking, favorably seen by some college basketball experts who submerge themselves in geeky formulas, but they were not much more impressive in Thursday's first showing against the Jackrabbits than a Ford pickup rolling over roadkill on a winding county two-lane.

Measurements and judgments are a bit tougher on a team that raises expectations the way Gonzaga has this season. It had best hope, for its own sake, that the team that outscored South Dakota by 16 points in the second half is the team that shows up for the rest of the tournament, not the blobby mess that revealed itself in the first.

GORDON MONSON hosts "The Big Show" with Spence Checketts weekdays from 3-7 p.m. on 97.5 FM and 1280 AM. Twitter: @GordonMonson.






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