Gonzaga is now, officially, ‘the hunted’

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Last week

Unless you were on an extended spelunking adventure or the doctor claims you’re deathly allergic to college basketball, you don’t have to guess what goes in this space.

Yes, the Zags knocked off mighty Duke 89-87 in a classic showdown to win the Maui Invitational — a thrilling tournament in which Gonzaga had enough issues to make all three wins bad for the blood pressure.

You know all this, but the Zags had to spend everything to dismiss dogged Illinois 84-78 in the opener, then trailed hot-shooting Arizona at the half before exploding to win 91-74.

And finally there was Duke, with its four incredible freshmen and serious talk of whether the Blue Devils would go undefeated, were the best college team of all time — and even speculation that they could beat the Cleveland Cavaliers.

That hype was put to rest by a Zags team that played nearly perfect basketball for about 33 minutes, endured a blistering Duke run, then closed the deal with a gorgeous high-low pass from Brandon Clarke for Rui Hachimura’s final hoop and a remarkable defensive stand in which all five Zags refused to let super-frosh RJ Barrett get to the hoop — with Rui and Clarke getting in blocks at the rim to end it.

Coach Mark Few gushed afterward about how much he loves Maui, and proved it by doing a back flip into the Pacific Ocean from a famous cliff called Black Rock.

“It was great college basketball,” Few had told everyone with or without a microphone, plus most of the 32 NBA scouts in attendance.

And Few’s right.

It really was great stuff.

This week

Once again, the Zags are playing on Monday night — this time at home against North Dakota State — so we can’t get the game result into this weekly package.

And by the way, this may not be a ho-hum week.

Now firmly in the national spotlight, the Zags should do as they please against North Dakota State — but on Saturday they’ll be in Omaha to face surprisingly scary Creighton, and a sellout crowd that you know will be howling for an upset.

Creighton was a preseason pick to finish ninth in the Big East, but Greg McDermott’s bunch has already made that prediction look ridiculous.

The Blue Jays are 5-1 at the moment (the loss was a thriller at Ohio State) and have won an ocean tournament of their own, stunning No. 16 Clemson 87-82 to capture the Cayman Islands Classic.

Soph guard Ty-Shon Alexander scored 36 points in that title game, and appears to be one of the country’s breakout stars.

Bottom line: The Zags face a brutal run against four teams in quick succession, none of which are going to roll over just because of the Duke result — and Creighton is the first test in a gauntlet that includes Washington, Tennessee and North Carolina.

Only the Huskies game will be in The Kennel.

Thrill-per-minute guard Zach Norvell Jr. announced after the Duke game: “We’re now really battle-tested.”

They’ll need to be.

The story

The Zags were the hunters.

They chased down a supposedly uncatchable prey and made the kill.

But now, after Duke ...

There’s no place to hide.

Gonzaga will be discussed as something close to a Final Four lock until proven otherwise.

Talk about having a target on your back — this is it.

Few already has taken to quoting his friend, Jay Wright, the coach who has guided Villanova to a pair of national championships in the past three years.

Wright’s club became No. 1 early last season and carried the ranking all the way to the net-cutting ceremony.

As Few tells it, Wright told his players to “stay away from the poison.”

Translation: Don’t believe all the hype and the compliments. It’ll take work, and sticking to the program, from start to finish.

“It’s really something, the way they did it,” Few said of ‘Nova’s title last season.

NOW THE Zags will be in something of a similar position, at least for a while.

There are plenty of other sluggers out there, teams like Kansas, Virginia, North Carolina and so on.

Yet plenty of hoops experts were wowed in Maui, and already have begun looking forward to a Gonzaga-Duke rematch at the Final Four in Minneapolis.

Although Few was quick with the “poison” story, he doesn’t seem to fear the confidence his players have displayed.

By this point, the story of Hachimura’s statement near the end of the Duke game (“We’re the best team in the country ...”) has made the rounds, and Few endorsed his star’s assessment.

Oh, Few is willing to step back and mention that his team won’t look so good in their tape sessions, there’s still hard work ahead, yada, yada ...

But when Rui added that he was the best player, as well, Few hollered, “Amen, brother.”

Few later amended that to say that Hachimura was only saying he was Gonzaga’s best player — not necessarily the best in the nation — but hey, the words are out there.

A lot of great players will want to face down this Japanese superstar.

So was Hachimura’s boast a bad thing?

Not necessarily.

THE ZAGS have to be careful that they stop short of arrogance, but in the brutal high echelons of college basketball, playground-style chest thumping can actually be a good thing.

At the level where the Zags compete, trash-talking is almost required — and the Gonzaga coaches have been begging the naturally quiet and humble Hachimura to understand that he’s good enough to put the team on his back, if necessary.

Few loved seeing Rui come out of his shell, as some of his teammates have done already.

“We want the world to know who we are,” point guard Josh Perkins announced, with the swagger of a guy who has played in the national championship game.

Perkins and his teammates (plus Gonzaga fans, as well) just bristle at the term “mid-major.”

Meanwhile, even a savvy player-turned-commentator like Jay Bilas has chimed in to the conversation, watching the Zags absorb Duke’s best punch and saying: “Gonzaga is unflappable.”

Bilas and others who truly understand the game are also quick to point out that the Zags are off to this powerhouse start despite the absence of do-everything big man Killian Tillie.

What everyone suspects is that Tillie, who is 6-10 but shot 48 percent from behind the 3-point line, will give Gonzaga the luxury of another big man on defense.

Remember, please, that Duke’s burst came when Clarke had to sit after picking up his fourth foul.

TILLIE ALSO should spread the floor on offense to the point that the Zags might become almost impossible to guard.

Before everyone begins going overboard, though, it’s easy to imagine some potential bumps in this yellow-brick road.

For one thing, Tillie’s return will change the team dynamic, and we could see some teething pains to go along with that.

Both rugged Corey Kispert and impressive freshman Filip Petrusev will have to make adjustments to their roles.

No doubt the coaches have a plan for this, but where will Tillie play?

Surely you don’t want to take Clarke out of the middle.

“(Tillie) is integral to what we do,” Few said, “so hopefully when he gets healthy, he’ll help us going forward.”


NORVELL was less reserved.

“He’s just going to add fuel to the fire,” Zach told broadcaster Andy Katz.

On another issue ...

The Zags won’t win anything important if they continue to shoot 64 percent from the free-throw line, as they did against Duke.

Clarke and Hachimura each missed a pair in the last minute that would have taken the terror out of those final few seconds.

“There’s plenty we have to clean up,” Few said.

Indeed, and there are plenty of sensational teams waiting to give the Zags their best shot.

From the hunter to the hunted.

Game on.

• • •

Steve Cameron is a columnist for The Press. He’s a former sports writer with the Denver Post and Kansas City Star and the author of 13 sports books. He’s hosted radio programs specifically on college basketball. Email: scameron@cdapress.com

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