Continuing our look back at the season that was, we now leave the hype behind and enter one of the better moments for the Gonzaga faithful. Mark Few and Jerry Krause have been recognized for their willingness to throw the Bulldogs to the wolves and let them battle the best in the country. This year was no different and by the end of November, Gonzaga was faced with the challenge of playing three teams ranked within the top 25. The Old Spice Classic took place in Orlando and was without question the most impressive preseason tournament field of the year. Tennessee, Georgetown, Michigan State, Maryland, Oklahoma State, and others all traveled down south to take part in the classic. In early season tournaments like the Old Spice, teams are still typically trying to find their groove before they hit conference play. For a small conference team like Gonzaga, however, it was their opportunity to show the entire nation that they were for real.
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When Gonzaga took the court on November 27th against Oklahoma State, the game was supposed to be a pretty simple challenge for the Bulldogs. The Cowboys were coming into the season with a new coach, Travis Ford, and an entirely new identity. If you followed Oklahoma State through the season however, you know that Travis Ford has this team pointing in the right direction. Along with an NCAA Tournament appearance, the Cowboys gave Gonzaga all they could handle but thanks to the emergence of some key bench players, the Zags advanced, This was the game in which Ira Brown played some key minutes and really brought some enthusiasm to a previously dead team. In fact, the bench combination of Ira Brown, Demetri Goodson, and then healthy Robert Sacre looked to be a trio that would provide great things for Gonzaga all season. Sadly, Sacre got bit by the injury bug and Brown's minutes were very up and down but the three of them were special all tournament long. Looking back on the game, I have to say that I am impressed. Oklahoma State proved to be a very good basketball game, and looking at our recap, Gonzaga did not play one of their better games and still came out strong with a 12 point victory.
The match up that everyone had been talking about since the Classic brackets came out was Gonzaga-Michigan State. The mention of the game brings back memories of 2005 and the Maui Invitational in which Adam Morrison and Maurice Ager delivered some of the best individual performances in recent memory. The idea of Mark Few and Tom Izzo butting heads was also appealing but it wasn't meant to be. Gary Williams and the Maryland Terrapins proved that they should never be doubted. It was supposed to be an awful year for Maryland as they really only had one serious threat, Greivis Vasquez. Vasquez was recruited heavily by Gonzaga and Gonzaga assistant Tommy Lloyd even helped bring the youngster to America. It didn't work out between the two parties and Vasquez found a home with Maryland. The Terps demolished Michigan State in their first round match up behind some Vasquez heroics and set the stage for a Gonzaga/Maryland match up. Vasquez would have no heroics against the Zags as they completely shut down Maryland. Instead of settling for the three like they did against Oklahoma State, Gonzaga came out on the offensive and Josh Heytvelt and Austin Daye were sensational against an over matched Terrapin team. Austin had a double-double and Heytvelt finished with 22 points and nine rebounds to give Gonzaga a 81-59 victory.
Gonzaga was hitting on all cylinders at this point but their were two sides to this bracket and the other side was putting on one hell of a show for the onlookers. Tennessee had the most difficult road for a high seed in the entire tournament. They had to start out with a very game Siena team that would wind up going to the second round of the NCAA Tournament. Then they had to take on Georgetown, who by all means peaked too early but was playing great basketball at this time. The two programs matched up in the second round and put on an absolute show. Georgetown came out hot and actually built up quite the impressive lead but thanks to the play of Tyler Smith and the rest of the Volunteers, Bruce Pearl's team was able to outlast the Hoyas and set up Gonzaga-Tennessee part one as the two teams were already set to play later in the year.
Gonzaga and Tennessee was the game that no one was surprised to see as the championship game in the Old Spice Classic. Michigan State was supposed to make some noise but the intrigue of these two teams facing off so early in the season made for a great game. Both teams are just fun to watch because they play the game with an emphasis on offense and getting the ball up and down the court. Tennessee is especially fun to watch because they have the ever emotional Bruce Pearl as their head coach and he does an outstanding job filling those kids with emotional toughness. Toughness had been the question for Gonzaga all summer and into the start of the year. The Zags have always had great talent but everyone wanted to know if they could get punched in the mouth and get up and fight back. The November 30th match up against Tennessee proved they could. The game was tight throughout the entire first half as it was becoming quite clear that these two teams don't like each other. Gonzaga shot lights out the entire game as five Bulldogs would enter double figures, led by Steven Gray and Matt Bouldin. By the ten minute mark of the second half, Gonzaga was running in full force and built an 18 point victory. Tennessee wouldn't go quietly into the Orlando night and they battled back quite valiantly and they were helped by some very stupid choices by Gonzaga. I can still remember Matt Bouldin and Jeremy Pargo pulling up for a three-point shot early in the shot clock when Gonzaga already had an 18 point lead. The 18 points cushion proved to be too much for Tennessee and they wound up falling to the Zags 83-74.
With the Old Spice Classic victory, everything was just about perfect in Zag Nation. It was not only the fact that Gonzaga defeated three "BCS" teams but it was the fashion in which they did so. Gonzaga basically answered every major question coming into the season. The depth was as god as advertised with Ira Brown, Steven Gray, Rob Sacre, and Demetri Goodson all coming in and playing important minutes. They played with toughness and really attacked against Maryland and Tennessee. They played so tough in fact that Meech even got in a little tussle with Tennessee guard Bobby Maze at the end of the first half. They had swagger against some of the best programs and coaches in the nation and came away from the Old Spice Classic as one of the best teams in the nation and the top five ranking that came a few days after proved it.