Gonzaga's victory over San Diego last night was a culmination of their second great response of the year. Just before Christmas, the Zags lost a laugher to Duke in New York. They responded by defeating Oklahoma, Illinois, Saint Mary's, and Portland. Then, in late January, Gonzaga was upset by San Francisco. Since then, they have routed Portland, defeated Memphis on the road, and cruised past Saint Mary's and San Diego. I'm not sure which stretch of wins is more impressive but it's obvious both taught this team different lessons. The Duke game might have just been a throwaway. It was a perfect storm of Duke playing incredibly well and Gonzaga looking incredibly tentative and young. They were embarssed. But it wasn't the real Gonzaga. The USF game, however, was the climax of an ugly stretch of basketball. The Zags were complacent and got beat by an absolutely inferior San Francisco team. I was hesitant for quite some time to label this loss anything other than an embarrasment but after last night's easy win, I've finally come around to saying it is the best thing that could have happened.
Last night's win was different than we have come to expect from our 2009-10 Zags. Instead of letting a team like San Diego hang around all game, the Bulldogs came out and punched the Toreros in the mouth. Behind a hot Steven Gray, the Zags got out to a 19-0 lead and you had the feeling like this one could get ugly in a hurry. The lead got up to 27-4 when San Diego's Brandon Johnson decided he wouldn't let his team get run out of Spokane. The banged up senior guard sparked a big run for the Toreros with som incredible finishes and outside shots. Johnson and the Toreros got the lead down to 10 points but that was about as close as they'd ever get.
Bolstered by their star backcourt pairing, the Zags were able to keep San Diego at a distance throughout and send them back to Southern California with a 82-65 loss.When San Diego announced their starting lineup last night, you had to get the feeling it would be a long night for Billy Grier's ball club. The fact that so many freshmen were starting and notable vets like Brandon Johnson and De' Jon Jackson were battling injuries made this a game where winning may have just not been in the realm of possibility. It started out just the way it should have. San Diego came out with wide eyes and never looked comfortable. Demetri Goodson and Steven Gray set the tone on defense and created a bevy of bad passes and turnovers. The Toreros turned the ball over 17 times and some of their passes looked like they were playing junior varsity basketball. After they got up 19-0, it was obvious that the Zags shut it down a bit. That was, of course, until Mangisto Arop made his mark.
The ever-energized Gonzaga wing plays at a level I haven't seen since Ronny Turiaf graduated. Manny finished with 13 points and nine rebounds and he looked totally comfortable in the flow of the game all night. It's pretty crazy that Manny has flirted with so many double-doubles already this season in such limited offensive exposure. He's not out there to force his offensive skill set on opposing teams but he is getting his whenever he wants because he's such a great rebounder. Offensively, I really do believe we have merely scratched the surface of his abilities. He's got a pretty shot from the mid-range and can knock down the three. I look forward to seeing him in the future because I really think he can blossom into a 15-20 point per game player. He's bound to pick up 6-8 points a game just off hustle and that opens everything else up to creating his own shot.
Matt Bouldin and Steven Gray did exactly what they needed to. Gray really just single-handidly kept San Diego on the mat early with some tough threes and Bouldin is in such an offensive groove right now it's scary. Matt shot 7-10 while Gray was 5-7. Steven attempted and converted all six of his free throw attempts and had that stroke from three that we all fell in love with his freshman year. Both are really getting better and better looks as they season goes on because Elias demands so much attention now. Instead of focusing on Matt, teams think they just need to shut down Elias to shut down Gonzaga. Needless to say, if Matt and Steven can continue playing this efficient, the Zags are going to be an insanely tough out in March.
Some other notes from the game include Demetri Goodson and Robert Sacre both looking good. Meech did a lot of little things; scored when he had to, rebounded, and had a couple of assists. Rob actually got in passing lanes a few times, blocked three shots, and connected on seven of his twelve free throws. He really has an impressive stat line for only playing 29 minutes. It was good to see Mark Few give G.J. Vilarino a little more playing time tonight. I wish he would have responded more with some quality minutes. He missed his only shot and only had an assist and a rebound in 12 minutes. He looks confident out there when he plays but I'm not sure he'll even surpass Goodson as a starter and I can't imagine those two on the court together.
As we look ahead to the rest of the season, it's hard to locate anywhere else for Gonzaga to slip up. Mark Few will take his team down into California for a road stretch against Pepperdine and Loyola Marymount this week. Then Santa Clara and USF will grace the Kennel before a senior night date with Cal State-Bakersfield. All four of these WCC teams caught the "sleeping" Zags early this season and I imagine the Bulldogs will want to make more of a statement against them this time around. Hopefully we can continue to develop the rotatoin and get Bol, Manny, and Kelly more confident playing serious minutes as March approaches. I still feel as though those three bring the most off the bench along with senior Will Foster. Toss in Grant Gibbs for a ten man rotation and you've got a very versatile and deep Gonzaga team.
As hard as it is to get really amped for the last four WCC games and Cal State, you have to be pumped that we no longer have to worry about Omar and the Gaels or Raivio and the Pilots. Gonzaga is two games clear of Saint Mary's, meaning that it would take a small catastrophe for the Zags to miss out on another WCC regular season title.