Gonzaga’s quadrant quandary

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LAST WEEK

Just seven days ago, we said the West Coast Conference race could be all but over in two weeks.

Please, no cynics allowed who want to say it was over when Gonzaga decided not to move to the Mountain West.

Let’s stay on point here.

Before we get to the Zags’ lone performance of the week, note that St. Mary’s got turned over by Pepperdine in OT — and even more critically, San Francisco lost at San Diego.

That flurry of action means that the Zags, without a league loss so far, have a two-game lead on USF and three or more on everyone else.

Our two-week prediction is getting closer, in part because the Zags are beginning to look like an avalanche heading downhill and gaining speed.

That 98-39 beating inflicted on Santa Clara at the Leavey Center — Gonzaga’s record 27th consecutive road conference victory — was impressive, comprehensive, complete … pick an adjective.

Rui Hachimura said afterward the Zags make a point to remind each other just before every game that they’re going out to prove they’re the No. 1 team in the country — no matter the opposition that night.

Poor Santa Clara caught the brunt of that desire, and discovered it’s no fun running into a buzz saw.

If you were planning to watch on TV and arrived a little late, you missed whatever uncertainty might have existed.

The result was locked in early, as Gonzaga ran off to absurd leads like 14-0, 20-2 and 48-10.

AT THE first media timeout, the public address announcer could have said: “Thank you for coming, and drive safely on your way home.”

All five starters scored in double figures, and they were joined by sub Filip Petrusev, who potted 12 himself.

If you want to find a curiosity in this game (and maybe worry a little about it), Killian Tillie took just four shots, missed them all and finished with one point.

Just how completely Tillie has rehabbed from surgery could become a subject for discussion over the next month.

Sneer at the WCC if you must, but the Zags’ historic consecutive conference road record has some interesting historical precedent.

Three schools had won 26 straight before Gonzaga waltzed off to stand alone — Kansas (before there was even an NCAA), UNLV, and UCLA (twice).

All of those teams, even KU if you want to stretch the point, went on to win national championships.

Even in the WCC, 27 consecutive road wins is pretty amazing.

“Playing a complete game on the road, or being able to execute and finish a close game in front of hostile crowd, it’s not that easy,” said Gonzaga point guard Josh Perkins in something of an understatement.

To steal an old cliché, if it were easy, everyone would do it.

Again, there have been WCC laughers (like the worst loss in Santa Clara’s history last Thursday), but Zags also have had to gut out wins in situations like the back-and-forth thriller in San Francisco, that always-insane crowd in St. Mary’s cracker box gym and — the other side of the coin — prevailing in front of 20,000-plus at BYU.

As Perkins insisted, it’s not that easy.

It’s just that when the Zags play a complete game in every aspect (for instance, they had just two turnovers, a school record) as they did at Santa Clara, it just looks easy.

THIS WEEK

The good news is that Gonzaga can basically put a lock on the WCC regular season title very shortly.

The bad news is that the push starts Thursday night at BYU’s cavernous Marriott Center.

A loud and boisterous mob will be waiting in Provo.

After that, the Zags play three straight home games, starting with scrappy San Diego (the team that just upset USF) on Saturday.

But about BYU …

The Cougars and star Yoeli Childs have been a mystery this year — a statement that might apply to Coach Dave Rose’s team for two or three seasons.

The Cougs, who have almost always been pretty good during Rose’s tenure (remember the upset in Spokane that spoiled a perfect season two years ago), just can’t find any consistency — especially away from home.

They’re 13-9 overall and 5-2 in the conference, having lost two WCC road games by monstrous scores — but the Zags will be aware that BYU also just turned over St. Mary’s in Provo.

In fact, the Cougars are 10-1 at home and just 2-7 on the road.

That first number, along with the ear-splitting noise and dealing with a game at altitude, no doubt has allowed Coach Mark Few to hammer home the fact that Thursday night will not be a rerun of the Santa Clara scrimmage.

Among other things, BYU will be playing for its “season statement” on Thursday night.

BARRING A massive upset in the conference tournament, the Cougars will not be going back to the NCAA party, so this is the big one for players like Childs (22.3 points per game) and TJ Hawes (16 ppg) — and make no mistake, they play in a whole different zone at home.

For all of that, though …

The reality in the WCC is that the Zags have more talent than anyone else. Even up in Utah, they go in as a favorite — which they should.

But as Perkins was pointing out, that doesn’t mean there aren’t games that could be lost.

The Zags still have to play somewhere near their best, and the stakes are actually higher than simply winning the WCC regular season title.

Gonzaga almost certainly needs a perfect season inside the conference — regular season and tournament — to have a shot at the No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament.

So there’s a lot at stake, at BYU and even two nights later at home with San Diego in town.

Few will worry about a letdown if the Zags survive the trip to Provo.

As we said a week ago, the WCC basically can be won this week.

Or not.

THE STORY

Yes, let’s look ahead to March.

You’re doing that anyway, and don’t deny it.

Hey, we’re kidding ourselves by trying to get too nervous about events in the WCC, right?

Sure, the Zags could be upset.

Whether they are or not, though, this team’s goals will be decided on a national stage a little over a month from now.

As Hachimura keeps reminding his teammates, they are the No. 1 team in the country — so the target is the Final Four and, hopefully, Gonzaga’s first national championship.

By the way, it isn’t far-fetched to consider the Zags as No. 1.

The top-ranked team at the moment is Tennessee, which beat the depleted, exhausted Zags with a 3-pointer in the final minute on a neutral court.

You can easily make the argument that Gonzaga — with Geno Crandall and a fully rehabbed Killian Tillie available — probably would have beaten Tennessee, and can do it in March.

ESPN analyst Jay Bilas, one of the sport’s best minds, says that the national champ will be one of six teams he claims he can’t separate: Duke, Virginia, Tennessee, Michigan, Michigan State, and Gonzaga.

Note: Six teams, only four No. 1 seeds, folks.

THERE ARE several proposition bets available in Las Vegas where you can get even money on a four-team group, including Gonzaga, to produce the title winner.

Bilas saw the Zags beat Duke in person and marveled at their skills and execution, and that was before lack of bodies caused sheer fatigue cost them against Tennessee and North Carolina.

But here’s one little speed bump …

The Zags need to run the table to get a No. 1 seed at The Dance, and even then they could be bounced down a spot to the second line.

You would think that a team ranked in the top four by every major measuring system — from the new NET numbers to Ken Pomeroy to the old media voting poll — would be a lock No. 1 if they finish without another loss.

Hopefully, the NCAA tournament committee would look at the Zags’ schedule, the loss of Tillie during that critical month of non-conference challenges, and conclude that these guys must make up one of the country’s best four teams.

Unfortunately, the committee relies heavily (most people think TOO heavily) on something called the Quadrant System.

We can go into depth about this method on another day, but essentially teams are looking for Quadrant 1 victories, and you’re only credited with one at home if you beat a team ranked from 1-30.

So far, the closest the Zags have come was the win over Washington, which has reached No. 40 and continues to rise. The Huskies could help things considerably by staying hot and getting into the top 30.

Gonzaga does have Quadrant 1 wins over Duke (neutral court, 1-50 ranking) along with San Francisco and Creighton (away, 1-75 ranking).

The Zags can snag another meaningful away win at St. Mary’s.

BUT THE problem here is obvious: Teams in the ACC, SEC and Big Ten have so many, many chances to pile up Quadrant 1 victories.

Michigan State has 10 Quadrant 1 wins already, and Gonzaga is hoping for five for the year.

So, will the committee stick tightly to the Quadrant System or put a bit of faith in the members’ own eyes — along with some common sense?

If they just go by the numbers, Gonzaga can never get a No. 1 seed without perfection (or near-perfection, as we saw two years ago).

And by the way, it wouldn’t have been any different in the Mountain West.

There just aren’t enough power teams to give a MWC club the numbers to match up.

If would have been interesting if Nevada had run the table, but getting hammered at New Mexico essentially took the Wolf Pack out of the battle for a top seed.

Remember that the argument on Gonzaga presumes going undefeated the rest of the way — anything less and a No. 1 is simply not attainable.

On the other hand, Zags like Perkins and Hachimura are not just talking to sound brave.

They genuinely believe they are the best and can win it all.

The players likely would tell you their seeding won’t matter a lick.

Maybe not, but when you’re a school with an enrollment of 5,000 (Michigan State has 39,000), even minor things like a No. 1 seed are great for arguments.

So whine away, because that No. 2 seed is looming on the horizon.

• • •

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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