Gonzaga enjoys view from the top

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LAST WEEK

Could it possibly get any better?

Senior Night.

The sellout crowd at the Kennel on Saturday evening as loud as anyone can remember.

A blowout 102-68 dismantling of BYU, a team that has spoiled Senior Night in the very recent past.

Dunks.

Hugs.

Gonzaga (27-2, 14-0 WCC) simply running riot on the way to reclaiming that No. 1 spot in the Associated Press poll with its 18th straight victory.

Seriously, could it GET any better?

Yes, it could.

Senior point guard Josh Perkins, who broke the school career record for assists in Thursday night’s 92-64 romp over Pepperdine, took the microphone after the BYU game to address 6,000 of his closest friends.

“This has been the best five years of my life,” Perkins said. “I got my brothers behind me.

“Let’s not make this the last time in the Kennel. Let’s go win this ‘natty’ and we’ll have a party afterward.”

The “natty” is a NCAA national championship, and the Zags have been saying for weeks they have the team to finally pull it off.

Rui Hachimura even admitted a few weeks ago that his teammates remind each other before every game now that they are the best team in the country, and to step out and play like it.

EVEN THE rest of the country is beginning to grasp how talented these Zags really are, despite playing without the truly gifted Killian Tillie — now on his second rehab of the season as he struggles to recover from plantar fasciitis.

It’s almost scary to think how good the Zags would be if Tillie had been involved in this party all season.

Gonzaga’s only possible weakness going forward might be depth up front, as 6-foot-11 freshman Filip Petrusev can score but continues to struggle with defensive assignments.

Imagine a healthy Tillie in that spot.

But that’s for another time.

At the moment, the Zags can celebrate an unblemished home record — and by the way, that one close game against Washington begins to look a bit different with the Huskies now ranked No. 25 in the AP poll and cruising to a Pac-12 regular-season championship.

They can toast Perkins, who passed Matt Santangelo with assist No. 670 on a lob to Brandon Clarke — what else? — against Pepperdine.

And they can finally escape the curse of BYU, who wrecked a potential unbeaten regular season on Senior Night two years ago.

The fact that the Cougars, and coach Dave Rose in particular, left the building furious at what they considered shoddy officiating, somehow made things even sweeter.

PERKINS KEPT coming back to the word “fun,” as the Zags showed no signs of pressure on them while scoring 51 points in each half.

Gonzaga now has scored 51 points in three consecutive halves, having also done it in the second half against Pepperdine.

In fact, Perkins finally opened up his own assault on the bucket, scoring 21 points to go with 7 assists.

That’s more good news, since both Perkins and sophomore wing Corey Kispert will have to show they can score if the Zags are, indeed, going to run deep into the NCAA tournament.

Perkins’ ability to take over and hit key shots when Gonzaga’s bigs are double-teamed has sometimes been questioned, and with some justification.

Yet Perkins almost made it look easy against BYU, and so did fellow guard Geno Crandall (8 points, 4 assists).

“That was big time,” Perkins said. “The atmosphere, playing against BYU, last game at the Kennel, fun is definitely the word.”

It was also rewarding that pretty much everyone got in on the act, with Zach Norvell Jr. adding 25 points, Hachimura 23 with 10 boards, and Clarke chipping in with 11 and 10 despite a slow start.

ONE OF the season’s most incredible stats, especially given the Zags’ rugged non-conference schedule, is that Hachimura and Clarke have both scored in double figures in all 29 games.

Think about that for a moment.

They have been a virtually unstoppable tandem from the first tip of the season, and it was the same on Senior Night.

BYU (15-10, 10-5) played tough and effectively behind stars TJ Haws and Yoeli Childs, but the Cougars simply couldn’t keep up with the Zags’ blistering offense — especially in the paint.

Gonzaga outscored BYU 46-30 in the paint and won the rebound battle (not always this team’s strength) by a healthy 40-31.

The Zags also committed just six turnovers despite the frantic pace of the game, and harried the Cougars into 15.

“We couldn’t have scripted it better,” coach Mark Few admitted. “We shared the ball and our offense was clicking.”

BYU was down just 11 midway through the second half when Gonzaga exploded on a 23-3 run that got the Senior Night festivities truly started.

Perkins’ address to the roaring crowd afterward was the perfect exclamation point.

THIS WEEK

It’s now obvious that Gonzaga can maintain its No. 1 ranking — and take a top-line seed into the NCAA tournament — by finishing its business in the WCC.

The Zags are also No. 1 in the NCAA’s new NET rankings, which have replaced the useful but flawed RPI in the tournament committee’s deliberations.

So needless to say, this is not a time to find that hidden banana peel.

The Zags have defeated every WCC opponent by double digits, home and away, and there’s clearly a talent gap behind Gonzaga and the field.

“They’re just doing a number on everyone in the conference,” BYU’s Rose conceded after taking this latest bashing.

The Zags wrap up the conference regular-season schedule this week with a Thursday night bout at Pacific, then the finale at Saint Mary’s on Saturday evening.

Gonzaga destroyed these same two teams by a combined 78 points in Spokane, but there’s always a chance of a road letdown after all the fun of Perkins’ assist record and the Senior Night blowout of BYU.

Pacific certainly doesn’t have the athletes to make it happen, but on Saturday night?

Saint Mary’s has become a proud program under Coach Randy Bennett, and losing 94-46 at the Kennel — a game which saw the Gaels manage just one assist after coming in ranked 12th nationally in offensive efficiency — may well inspire Saint Mary’s best performance of the season.

DESPITE THE whipping in Spokane, the Gaels have been competitive most of the year and, more or less under the radar, they’ve eased into second place in the WCC at 10-4 (19-10 overall with some close non-conference defeats).

You would suspect that we won’t see anything close to a repeat of that 48-point beatdown at the Kennel.

The Zags played almost a perfect game that night, and Saint Mary’s was awful.

The gap between the two teams isn’t nearly that immense.

The Gaels, in fact, have won four in a row since that visit to some black hole in Spokane — most recently a 66-46 victory at San Diego, a place where the Zags have struggled.

Gonzaga will be rightfully favored in Moraga, but winning in tiny McKeon Pavilion has never been easy and Bennett will have corrected many of the errors the Zags seized upon the first time around.

It sounds a bit far-fetched if you saw that 48-point massacre, but the visit to Saint Mary’s actually could be the Zags’ toughest chore in the drive to remain No. 1 heading into the NCAA tournament.

THE STORY

Is Gonzaga the best team in college basketball?

By many popular metrics and according to the Associated Press poll, the answer would seem to be yes.

There are some things to consider before celebrations across the Zags Nation get too far out of hand, however.

The first is the WCC itself.

Yes, the conference is better than perhaps it’s ever been. All but the two (maybe three) bottom feeders have some quality wins on their resumes.

San Francisco, which was upset last week by Santa Clara but still could finish in a three-way tie for second, nearly took down No. 21 Buffalo — a game staged in Northern Ireland — and the Dons gave Gonzaga its toughest WCC test.

That game on The Hilltop was tied 81-81 until Norvell Jr. and Crandall hit cold-blooded, back-to-back 3-balls to give Gonzaga some cushion.

The 96-83 final score said nothing about the game itself.

And yet …

Even though KenPom numbers list the WCC as the eighth-best conference in the country, there is still the perception that Gonzaga is allowed some breathers that teams in the ACC or Big Ten rarely enjoy.

Would the Zags survive home-and-away bouts with Duke, North Carolina and Virginia?

Or Louisville, Syracuse and Virginia Tech, for that matter?

MISSING TILLIE, you suspect this Gonzaga team might have more than two losses while playing in one of the tougher conferences.

It’s a different argument if you put a healthy Tillie in the lineup from the beginning, of course. That team might have been truly terrifying.

But we are where we are.

Tillie is unlikely to make any significant contribution the rest of the way — Few has asked for prayers — but if Gonzaga can finish its business going spotless in the WCC, that No. 1 seed is a given.

And in the NCAA tournament, you don’t have to play anyone home and away.

It’s simply survive and advance, and we know — because we saw it in Maui — that the Zags can beat any team in the country if they play near their best.

Right now, though, the task is avoiding a letdown, and getting through this week and the WCC tournament (March 11-12 in Las Vegas) without a dispiriting loss.

That would launch the Zags into the Big Dance with targets on their backs, but with a massive boost in confidence.

Hachimura insists that they’re the best team in the country.

The job from here on out is to prove it.

Just 10 more times.

• • •

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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