So much for all that No. 1 stuff.
And talk of going 40-0.
I mean, nobody REALLY thought the Zags could run the table in this day and age of college basketball.
Well, maybe with Killian Tillie and Geno Crandall on the floor instead of watching in casts...
You could dream, anyhow.
Both the No. 1 ranking and the spotless record disappeared Sunday in Phoenix, as well-rested No. 7 Tennessee erased a second-half deficit and rode the white-hot shooting of Admiral Schofield to a 76-73 victory.
This mild upset was probably coming, especially after the Zags played some truly dismal stretches the previous Wednesday at home against Washington — only for Rui Hachimura to hit a jumper with less than a second remaining to salvage an 81-79 victory.
Even more telling, though, was Coach Mark Few — the day before the Huskies game, a duel against an in-state rival — describing practice as “kind of flat.”
These are still kids, and they can only reach into their physical and emotional reserves so many times.
While Tennessee had worked out for an easy week before this showdown, the Zags faced an old foe (and Pac-12 contender) in midweek before heading to Phoenix.
It all caught up with them on Sunday, when the weary Hachimura and Josh Perkins botched a routine ball screen on defense (Rui was just too tired) and allowed Schofield all the time and space in the world to toss in the winning 3-ball.
Everyone in the building — hell, everyone from Phoenix to Antarctica — knew that Schofield (30 points, including the last 11) would take the shot, yet Hachimura and Perkins both followed point guard Jordan Bone on the screen move.
Game, set and match.
That wasn’t Gonzaga basketball, because they were too exhausted to do what they know, and trailed Bone like a couple of zombies.
The Zags insisted afterward that the No. 1 ranking and all that silly undefeated talk didn’t bother them.
Blowing such a winnable game, though?
Guard Zach Norvell Jr. put it this way: “It’s not so much the No. 1 or the undefeated season.
“It’s losing, period — a game like that, when you give the lead away and you make a couple of bonehead mistakes as a team.”
Norvell, who was as exhausted as everyone else after crisscrossing the country and playing endless minutes against top teams for nearly a month, still wouldn’t let himself or the Zags off the hook.
In the long run, we may remember that.
We really might.
Few provided some fireworks of his own after the Tennessee game, and did something that coaches almost never even consider.
He more or less called out a coming opponent for cheating.
First, the Zags boss blasted the NCAA (and insulted Commissioner Mark Emmert by name) for not following up on the FBI investigation into corruption in the sport — and the already proven violations committed by several major programs, many of which the FBI has made public.
Many of these sins are criminal charges, for heaven’s sake — not just players missing a class or two.
Few clearly was steamed by the notion that Emmert doesn’t really WANT to rush things, because some blue-blood schools and big-time coaches might feel the sword.
Meanwhile, Few is sitting in Spokane, playing fair while the deck is stacked against him, and he’s getting a little tired of fighting uphill.
He’s also tired of seeing college hoops getting such a black eye.
The FBI has passed along its findings — some of them, anyway — to the NCAA for its own investigation, and Few is among a group of coaches and administrators who want some action.
Now, with all that as background...
Here’s one of Few’s bombshells from, what for him, was a pretty irritated speech: “There’s two teams today who were competing, who do it right. I know that to be true.”
Note: Few is a close and trusted friend of Tennessee coach Rick Barnes, so that tallies.
“And there’s a lot of teams who do it right — the national champions two out of the last three years (Few is also close with Villanova coach Jay Wright). “There’s a lot of great things. This thing is worth saving.”
OK, let’s see, national champions two out of the past three years...that obviously would be ’Nova, the two-time winner.
Who’s missing from this picture?
Obviously, the screaming omission in Few’s assessment would be North Carolina, the school that sent players to a non-existent class for 20 years and was never punished for it.
There have been other violations at Carolina, too, some suggested and some proven.
Recall, this would be the same North Carolina that beat the Zags in the final minute of the national title game two years ago — in Glendale, Ariz., some 10 miles away from Sunday’s game at Talking Stick Resort Arena in Phoenix.
Where are the No. 4 Zags headed next?
Yep, they play No. 12 Carolina in Chapel Hill on Saturday night, the end of that 31-day death march they began in Maui.
The game will be on ESPN2 at 4 p.m., in case you want to watch close-ups of the handshakes and hugs — or lack of same — between Few and Tar Heel ringmaster Roy Williams.
Given what he’s said, you know Few would love to win in the Dean Dome.
His team already has its tongue hanging out by now, but at least this time there is almost a week to recover.
Still, it’s a really tough ask after another cross-country trip, but...
It could be interesting.
Because you KNOW Williams is steaming.
He’s always claimed heatedly that he and the Carolina program are pure as the driven snow.
I wonder if he’s worried about having to vacate that championship — and ship the trophy to Spokane.
Few made some warm and fuzzy comments about Carolina and Williams on Monday — perhaps at the request of Gonzaga itself — but he’ll still be walking into an angry fan base this weekend in Chapel Hill.
And for what it’s worth, I suspect Few was simply being politically correct. He knew what he was saying in Phoenix.
We don’t have to dig very far for plot lines this week.
You’ve just read them.
But on the issue of the Zags and their short, short playing rotation, there is every reason to believe that, had these difficult games been spread out differently, Gonzaga could have won them all.
But weariness is cumulative.
Think about that starting five and what’s been asked of them against Arizona, Duke, Creighton, Washington and now Tennessee.
It sounds like a punch line, but the starters rarely get to sit unless they’re in foul trouble.
To quote the legendary Vince Lombardi: “Fatigue makes cowards or us all.”
We’re not calling any of the Zags’ “Iron Five” cowards, obviously — but it was pretty clear this week that physically and emotionally, they’re just spent.
When Few put together a schedule that took the Zags from Maui to North Carolina in one hectic month — taking on pretty much all comers on the way — the idea was to test his talented team.
“I thought we’d have Killian and Geno when I made the schedule,” Few joked.
Instead, the Zags have had to rely on their starting five for long and brutal stretches.
The bench has done what it can, but...
Filip Petrusev has provided some nice minutes to help out the bigs, but the freshman from Serbia is a long way from Hachimura or Brandon Clarke (or Tillie, more to the point).
Jeremy Jones has provided some help as an all-purpose, energy guy who gets into the right places and at 6-7, is long and quick enough to offer some serious defensive work.
It could be a blessing down the road that Jones, the little-used senior, now has a clear role and the ability to influence games.
Without the injuries, he might not have had these minutes against quality teams.
The loss of Crandall might have been the killer, because one thing the Zags do not have is a back-up point guard.
Perkins often had to play 40 minutes in the tough games, and the toll was building.
Against Tennessee, Few saw that his leader was flagging and tossed Greg Foster Jr. out to run the show for a few minues.
Foster didn’t make any obvious mistakes — he’s a Division-I ballplayer, after all — but he didn’t try to impose himself offensively, either, choosing to get the offense started safely and let the stars take it from there.
That’s a far cry from Perkins’ artistry.
But anyone who saw Sunday’s game understands that Perkins is completely gassed.
“The Boss” failed to score (missing a layup with no one to bother him), and was too beat to direct Hachimura toward Schofield on that last, fatal ball screen.
After the North Carolina game, the Zags have some supposed cream-puffs coming to The Kennel before WCC play begins.
Everyone will be able to breathe a little more normally by then, and hopefully (there are NEVER guarantees) Tillie and Crandall will be back around early January.
Tillie, especially, will need to be cautious.
When “Mr. Sunshine” Bill Walton came to Spokane to babble about carousels, Spike the Bulldog and Woody Guthrie (“Roll on, Columbia”) as he does, Walton did halt his usual narrative to address Tillie’s situation.
“Don’t rush it, Killian,” he said during the broadcast.
Walton, for those too young to remember, had his Hall of Fame career ruined by foot problems — partly because of what he called inept medical care, but also because he wanted to play too soon.
Since the Zags are a lock for the NCAA tournament, a solid favorite to win the conference and at least a 50-50 shot for a No. 1 seed in March, I’d suggest that Tillie listen closely to Walton’s advice.
Don’t rush it.
The same goes for Crandall, since Foster and/or Joel Ayayi can spell Perkins for long stretches against the competition that’s coming after this sightseeing trip to Tobacco Road.
The Zags are no longer No. 1, but...
They’re still in a damn good spot.
• • •
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: email@example.com