For the second time in the past two weeks, and the third time this season, I was able to see this team play in person. The first two opportunities I had to see Gonzaga play, I saw two victories against the top two challengers in the WCC. So when my dad and I sat down to watch LMU host Gonzaga, I assumed that this would be an opportunity to admire the Zags on their way to another conference championship. When the Zags jumped out to a 19-10 lead, I figured that the game was over, and this would be the chance to get guys like Grant Gibbs and Kelly Olynyk some much needed playing time. However, as the game progressed, I started to get the sense that we could be in for a surprising night.
The first key to an upset victory is when the crowd is allowed to stay loud and passionate in the game. Gonzaga had the chance to make the crowd a complete non-factor by the end of the first half. Unfortunately, LMU stuck around long enough to get the crowd involved and pump up the team. The second key is when the underdog (LMU) begins to hit circus shots. When Ashley Hamilton banked in a free-throw line jumper with the shot clock expiring, I knew Gonzaga was in trouble. When Kevin Young caught an air-ball and flipped it over his head, all while being fouled by Matt Bouldin, I realized that the game was over. There was just too much upset karma in the air to prevent this shocker from happening.
The final key to the upset is when the favored team misses shots that it would normally make. Seeing Matt Bouldin shoot 3-12 was certainly surprising, but it was the looks that he missed that made it even more wild. Bouldin missed numerous wide-open looks, and he wasn't the only one. Steven Gray missed wide-open looks from the perimeter, Bol Kong had two excellent looks somehow not drop, and Rob Sacre couldn't find anyway to actually hit a shot. This Gonzaga team has a very small margin for error, and when guys like Bouldin and Gray struggle as much on the offensive end as they did, this team will find it increasingly difficult to win.After the San Diego game, I posted a quote from Steven Gray that I believed to be key for the long-term success of this team. The general idea of the quote was that this team needs to not allow the opposition to keep games close or come back from deficits. I have recently been reading The Book of Basketball by Bill Simmons, and I came along this quote that I think perfectly sums up what the difference between this team being good, and potentially being great.
"Truly great teams can smell blood and raise it a level; you see it happening, the fans recognize it, the announcers recognize it, the guys on the bench recognize it, and even the guys playing recognize it."
When I saw Matt Bouldin, Elias Harris, and the rest of the guys run St. Mary's out of the gym, I started to believe that this team had developed this ability to raise it up a notch. However, with the opportunity to put LMU away in the first half, the Zags didn't raise their game a level and kill the competition. I honestly don't know if it's just a mindset in the program, or how the coaching staff makes decisions, but at some point this program needs to develop a killer mentality that sees them go for the jugular when they have the chance to.
The main thing that I picked up from the game itself (actually, I have to credit my dad for noticing this), but whenever Meech, Gray, or Bouldin goes to the bench, the whole flow of the offense seems to disintegrate. I want to clarify that this isn't a knock on Manny, Bol, GJ, or Grant, but I just think that because of the minutes those three played at the start of the season, there is just a rhythm and chemistry that can't be replicated by the bench guys,
What makes this such a delicate situation is that I think Matt and Steven need lots of rest before March. Having seen these guys play three times in the past two months, I noticed that Matt and Steven were just moving a little slower and looking a little more strained on both ends of the court. However, as I pointed out in the previous paragraph, it's nearly impossible to put those guys on the bench because of how much the team struggles when they aren't on the court. I don't know if there is a right answer on how to balance the playing time, but somehow the coaching staff must figure out a way to get some rest for the starting unit.
I have openly stated that I felt the loss to USF was a good thing. I thought it allowed for the coaching staff to get this team focused and motivated again, while also having a teaching experience from how the team played. I still don't know how I feel about this loss to LMU. The optimist in me wants to believe that this loss will give the coaching staff even more to work on with this team, and also get the guys focused and give them a better understanding of how quickly this season can end with a bad performance in March. The pessimist in me wants to believe that perhaps this team just isn't as good as we all thought. I really don't know which side of the fence I am currently on, and there is no question that this will be most scrutinized final six games of a season that I can remember.
So what kind of performance do I think the Zags will deliver on Saturday. If I had to guess, the Zags will come out and dominate. However, the key will be how well they maintain their focus and continue to improve over the next three weeks. If the team is playing like this in March, we will all be done watching the NCAA Tournament on that first Thursday or Friday. If they can improve and find that spark that seemed so evident a couple of weeks ago, I think we could be in for a special March run.