Coming off a disappointing end to the WCC tournament in Las Vegas, it can be difficult for Zag fans to think positively about things to come. But we’ve got plenty to be positive about. Being the fan of a team that wins so consistently can make any loss difficult to stomach. I think it’s best to remember Nietzsche’s: “Whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” Know that any weaknesses revealed in our most recent loss will be used to further strengthen the team’s play. And we should thank goodness that the game Gonzaga Men’s Basketball lost last Tuesday to Saint Mary’s wasn’t played in the round of 64, 32, the Sweet 16, Elite 8, etc., etc. of the Big Dance. I have no doubt that since that loss emphasis has been placed on the problematic areas of the Zags game that were revealed. Before we touch on the game every Gonzaga fan will want to forget, let’s remember what we are thankful about from the WCC tournament.
Zag nation received perhaps its greatest gift of the season on Monday night facing Pepperdine when it welcomed Killian Tillie back onto the court at Orleans Arena in Las Vegas. He seemed in quite excellent form for his first night back after missing time due to his foot fascia difficulties. Tillie picked up where he left off last year in the WCC tournament (in the 2018 tourney he went 13 of 14 from deep, shot 78 percent overall, and averaged 24 points a game over 3 games—and picked up MVP honors). Few limited Tillie to 15 minutes last Monday night where he was perfect from 3-point range against Pepperdine, going 3 of 3, accounting for all his 9 points. He also had 6 rebounds and Zags fans everywhere were breathing a deep sigh of relief. The Prodigal Son returned.
In that game, all the starters and six players total (Petrusev had 10 off the bench) finished in double figures for the Zags (A point for Tillie and 2 for Jeremy Jones would have made that 8 players). This included the dynamic duo of Rui Hachimura and Brandon Clarke, going for 16 and 15 respectively. Clarke, 6 for 7 from the field, also had 7 rebounds, 5 assists and 2 blocks. Rui added 5 rebounds, 2 assists and 2 blocks himself. Besides getting up and denying some shots the opportunity to get to the basket, the Zags were picking a lot of pockets on Monday night, with 11 steals (4 by Geno Crandall who also had 6 assists). Josh Perkins, who got in a bit of early foul trouble, also had 6 assists and 11 points in 26 minutes and was perfect from the free-throw line. In 24 minutes, Zach Norvell (aka snacks, aka microwave) fared even better. He was 8 of 10 from the field, 2 of 4 from deep, finishing with 18 points to lead all Zags, adding 2 steals and 3 assists.
Team-wise, the numbers were great too. The Zags were up 37 to 28 in rebounds. Gonzaga shot 37 of 62 overall on field goals, just shy of 60% overall. They were 11 for 23, or 47.8% from deep. If you want to nit-pick for problems, the turnovers were a little heavy and Gonzaga gave it up 13 times. Free throw shooting, which had been on a stairstep up in percentage each of the last few games dipped below 70% overall on a 15 of 22 effort. But the way Gonzaga shared the ball for good buckets and great shots was reminiscent of the best moments all season.
Oh, how quickly and mysteriously the tables can turn in college basketball. Sometimes you just have an off night—and Tuesday night against the Gaels was that for sure. Gonzaga was 18 of 48, or 37.5% on field goals overall against Saint Mary’s, and shot an embarrassing 2 for 17 from deep (just 11.8%). The Zags were bested on the boards as well by a margin of 34 to 27. Norvell, 8 of 10 the night before, was 1 for 11 shooting field goals and 0 for 6 from beyond the arc. Perkins, making good decisions and shooting well during the games leading up to the championship, went 4 for 14 and 0 for 3 from deep. He and Brandon Clarke were the only Zag players scoring in double figures on a team that regularly has at least 5 players going for more than 10. Brandon Clarke, such a reliable bright star for this team this season, had the best stat sheet for the night with 16 points on 6 of 8 shooting, 4 of 4 from the charity stripe, with 8 rebounds and a block. Tillie, in limited minutes again, was 2 of 3 from the floor, 1 of 2 from deep and finished with 5 points.
Sometimes the train just goes off the tracks. Sometimes things just go awry. You stand up and shake it off, take what you can learn from it and move forward, leaving as much bitterness behind as possible. As much as human beings long for certainty and the ability to predict outcomes, the world (and college basketball especially) consistently denies us the privilege. You have to hand it to Saint Mary’s for putting together a stellar effort in the game, playing outstanding defense, and just out hustling the Zags. Jordan Ford had a career night. I’m sure the administration of the WCC likes that outcome a lot, with two teams from a very underrated conference making the tournament. It would be great to see the Gaels make some waves in their bracket and lets all hope for a rematch in April (though that’s a serious longshot)!
I have no doubt that Gonzaga and its phenomenal coaching staff have done and are doing everything they can over the extended break to prepare the players for the tests they’re going to face in the tournament. And while this loss hurts, I think it does two positive things for the team going into the big dance. First, it may have revealed some areas where work can shore up potential difficulties to come on Thursday and beyond. I also think it can put the team in a more hungry, focused mindset to help the team be more aggressive. Tasting defeat makes those who haven’t felt it for some time realize how distasteful it is and can turn the complacent, superior-feeling mind back into one focused on the moment and the work at hand.
I don’t know what you’ve got on your bracket, but I’ve got Gonzaga slated for a rematch with Florida State in the Sweet 16 and another rematch in the National Championship with North Carolina, this time faring better than last time, besting the Tar Heels 88 to 77. I made up another one in which Saint Mary’s and Gonzaga meet in the national championship just for the heck of it—wouldn’t that be some sweet revenge! Best of luck to you in your brackets. If you’re smart you’ll send the Zags on a stairstep down the West bracket as far as they can go!
~ Clark Karoses