TOP 25 REWIND: No. 4 Gonzaga pushing through tough stretch

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By AARON BEARD

AP sports writer

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. (AP) — Gonzaga has spent the early part of the season traveling around the country to face high-profile nonconference opponents, and coach Mark Few has no regrets about that.

Even after the fourth-ranked Bulldogs fell at No. 12 North Carolina for their second straight loss.

“When you play games in December, I think college basketball gets noticed . instead of waiting until February to pay attention,” Few said after Saturday night’s 103-90 loss in Chapel Hill. “It’s the right time and the right game to play.

“With that said, I really loaded up on the schedule for this particular team. This has been a tough little run here. But I’d definitely do it again, especially with this group of guys.”

Gonzaga (9-2) has had a headline-grabbing opening month, for sure. The Bulldogs won the Maui Invitational by holding off Duke star freshmen RJ Barrett and Zion Williamson to beat the then-No. 1 Blue Devils.

That propelled Gonzaga to No. 1 in the AP Top 25. The Bullldogs then traveled to Creighton (103-92 win ) and edged Washington (81-79 win ) before losing to No. 3 Tennessee last weekend in Phoenix.

Then came Saturday’s visit to UNC, the start of a home-and-home series that will bring the Tar Heels to Spokane, Washington, next season.

“I’ve never had any of my teams play a schedule this tough,” Few said.

North Carolina’s offense turned in a huge performance by shooting 55 percent and making 13 of 25 3-pointers, while the Tar Heels dominated the boards (42-21) and finished with an almost unthinkable 27-0 edge in second-chance points.

It certainly highlighted what the Zags need to improve: defense and rebounding.

Gonzaga should get help with some of that when Killian Tillie is ready to go. The 6-foot-10 junior hasn’t played this year because of ankle surgery, though his projected eight-week recovery time could have him back in time for the start of West Coast Conference play next month.

Offense isn’t a problem. The Bulldogs rank first in KenPom’s adjusted offensive efficiency rankings at 122.1 points scored per 100 possessions.

“We’re good,” guard Josh Perkins said. “We’re right where we want to be. We’re still at the top, close to the top. We know we’ve got some things to fix, and they’re all internal things that we can fix. That’s good news. We still believe we’re the best, and we’re going to keep pushing to be the best.

“Mentally and physically, everybody is good in here. We’re ready to go.”

TAR HEELS’ RISE?

That same game offered the Tar Heels a glimpse of what can happen when they shoot the ball well and attack the glass.

The same team that looked flummoxed in a double-digit loss at No. 5 Michigan on Nov. 28 played with a confident edge. The Tar Heels shot 57 percent in the first half and led 53-39 and never let the Zags closer than eight after halftime.

The only real blemish was the season-high 23 turnovers that led to 29 points for Gonzaga, along with a few defensive breakdowns. Overall, though, it could give the Tar Heels a chance to climb back inside the top 10 when Monday’s poll is released.

“It was a great opportunity to prove something to ourselves,” said UNC’s Cameron Johnson, who scored 25 points. “We belong at the top and I think we’ve got a really good team. I’ve said all along that you’re going to see strides ... you’re going to see strides of the team just kind of finding their chemistry. I think we found a little bit of that tonight. And we could’ve played better so there’s definitely room to grow.”

KANSAS ON TOP

Kansas moved to No. 1 after Gonzaga’s loss to Tennessee. The Jayhawks are set to stay there after Saturday’s home win against No. 17 Villanova , the reigning national champion that beat the Jayhawks in last year’s Final Four. That’s a third marquee name on Kansas’ victory list, joining No. 9 Michigan State in the Champions Classic and an overtime win against the Volunteers in the NIT Season Tipoff.

STUMBLES

Villanova’s loss at Kansas wasn’t its only stumble of the week. The Wildcats lost to Penn earlier this week, snapping a city-record 25-game winning streak against Philadelphia “Big 5” rivals Temple, Saint Joseph’s, La Salle and Penn.

Then there was No. 25 Syracuse, which lost at home to Old Dominion on Saturday. The Orange had won five straight but shot just 33 percent and missed 12 free throws in this one. Syracuse is now shooting just 41 percent from the field and 69 percent from the foul line on the season.

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