There’s nothing like the NCAA Tournament. The first round did not disappoint over the first two days in terms of shocking upsets, but the Gonzaga Bulldogs made sure to avoid the fate of Purdue, Virginia, and Arizona and took care of business on Friday evening in Denver:
- Julian Strawther resumed the heater he was on in February and looked like the best player on the floor for the entire game. 28 points, 10 rebounds, 2 blocks, and a steal in game 1 of the tournament was exceptional and the Zags needed every bit of it after a sluggish first half. MVP of the game and the best performance of any player in the Denver pod.
- Speaking of the sluggish first half, after an excellent opening 3 minutes the Bulldogs looked like a group coming off a 10-day layoff over the next 10 minutes. It was a bit jarring. The offense looked like it was stuck in first gear for much of the first half and required Anton Watson and Strawther to shoulder the load until the rest of the squad remembered how to run offensive sets. It looked like they shook out all the cobwebs in the second half, so here’s hoping that Sunday’s game is a much more complete performance.
- Gonzaga’s backcourt performance during the first half is not going to make it into the end-of-season highlight reel. Guard play rules in the tournament (just ask Purdue), and the teams that go deep are generally powered by strong backcourts. Gonzaga struggled in the first half because the guards struggled in the first half. They won’t be able to get away with prolonged periods where they are not impacting the game against better competition.
- The Zags were unlucky on the defensive end a couple of times in the first half, with the Antelopes hitting several shots (many of them tough looks) with an expiring shot clock after being stonewalled by Gonzaga’s defense for the preceding 29 seconds. Those can be such demoralizing backbreakers, particularly when a couple of them happen in such a short period of time. Nice job by the Zags not allowing themselves to spiral because of it.
- I have to say, Grand Canyon’s fans turned out for this game. There were lots of Gonzaga fans at the game, but I was surprised to see as many GCU fans as I did.
- The backcourt is going to need to be much stouter defending the point of attack and preventing penetration in Sunday’s game against TCU. The Grand Canyon guards got the best of them several times off the bounce, and TCU’s offense revolves almost entirely on Mike Miles Jr.’s dribble drive penetration.
- When the offense was struggling to get going in the first half, I would have liked to see them play through Timme more often in the high post. He and Anton can always play their two-man game and he generally draws so much of the opposing defense’s attention that opportunities for everyone else will materialize. I felt like he didn’t get enough of those touches from my vantage point.
- Watching Anton live is so much fun. He makes a million small hustle plays throughout the game and never seems flustered. His teammates feed off that.
- The closing minutes of Purdue’s collapse coincided with the big run Gonzaga put together in the second half. Even attending the game in person, it felt like large swaths of the arena were missing what was happening on the court since the Purdue game was being displayed on the jumbotron (thankfully) so all of a sudden the Zags had put the game away. It was a weird and interesting dynamic that you only get in this type of tournament.
- It is really freaking hard to win a game in this tournament. Just look at what happened over the last two days. The fact that Gonzaga hasn’t lost a first round game since 2008 when Steph Curry, one of the greatest basketball players of all time, went nuts on them is a testament to the extraordinary level of consistency that so many different groups of players have been able to maintain year to year. What Gonzaga has been able to do during this magical run should never be taken for granted.