Season over ... but don’t stop believin’

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  • Gonzaga forward Rui Hachimura talks to the media after the team's loss to Texas Tech during the West Regional final in the NCAA men's college basketball tournament Saturday, March 30, 2019, in Anaheim, Calif. Texas Tech won 75-69. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)

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    AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez Texas Tech forward Tariq Owens blocks a shot by Gonzaga guard Zach Norvell Jr. during the second half of the Red Raiders’ 75-69 win Saturday in Anaheim, Calif.

  • Gonzaga forward Rui Hachimura talks to the media after the team's loss to Texas Tech during the West Regional final in the NCAA men's college basketball tournament Saturday, March 30, 2019, in Anaheim, Calif. Texas Tech won 75-69. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)

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    AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez Texas Tech forward Tariq Owens blocks a shot by Gonzaga guard Zach Norvell Jr. during the second half of the Red Raiders’ 75-69 win Saturday in Anaheim, Calif.

LAST WEEK

What else can you say?

It hurt.

Terribly.

Watching the Zags leave the court in tears after that 75-69 Elite Eight loss to Texas Tech, my mind flashed back to the early days of this 33-win season.

After the Zags beat Duke to win the Maui Invitational, Hall of Fame Coach Mike Krzyzewski made an astonishing statement.

Speaking of Gonzaga, he said: “They are most confident team I’ve ever coached against.”

Think about that for a second.

And now rewinding the season, you have to say that Coach K nailed it.

That’s what made the loss to Tech so gut-wrenching.

The Zags didn’t believe it was coming.

They thought, right down to the last guy on the bench, that they were good enough and cool enough in tough spots to win a national championship.

Sure, they respected Texas Tech’s annoying (and sometimes barely legal) defense, but this group of Zags believed they could find an answer for anything.

Even when it was over, and his tears finally began to dry, Rui Hachimura said: “Maybe we lost the game, but I still believe we’re the best team in the country.”

Brandon Clarke was equally succinct.

“We expected to win it all,” he said.

That belief, transmitted from the team to all its fans around the world, made the upset even more painful.

THE BEST bloggers covering the Gonzaga program write for a web site called The Slipper Still Fits, and the site’s Peter Woodburn — himself a Zag alum of several years back — did a wonderful job of explaining emotions throughout the Zag Nation in a piece titled “The Morning After.”

Woodburn wrote: “There is one thing I learned how to do successfully after Gonzaga loses.

“Log off.

“I close down Twitter. I close down my computer. I close down everything and I just try and process what happened.

“Then I go to bed, and I wake up the following morning. Because, ultimately, when grieving, one of the hardest things to work around is how the world continues to turn despite you wanting it to stop.

“And we can toss about ideas like grief, because for some of us, that is what we are actively doing.

“We are grieving the loss. We are grieving the end of the season. We are grieving the Gonzaga careers of Josh Perkins, Jeremy Jones, Geno Crandall, and potentially the careers of Rui Hachimura, Brandon Clarke, and Killian Tillie.”

While wrapping up his opinion column, Woodburn wrote this …

“Which brings us back to the worst part about grief. As the world keeps turning, the years of college basketball keep turning as well.

“It is important to find the time to sit within that discomfort and remember everything that transpired.

“For me, that means remembering that the past five months have been the most entertaining Gonzaga team I’ve ever seen take the court.”

Woodburn is absolutely right, in his thoughts about processing the pain of loss, but also in letting it sink in that we’ve just watched the most exciting team that the Zags have ever put on the court.

AND AS Rui insists, the best.

That is truly saying something, which you consider that two years ago, Gonzaga led North Carolina in the national championship game with exactly 100 seconds remaining.

I’m really glad I read Peter Woodburn’s piece, because it explained to Zags fans how to appreciate what they watched this year, and still feel stunned and hurt by stumbling one game short of the Final Four.

Upsets happen.

And yes, this was an upset.

I would bet a month’s salary that Gonzaga would win a rematch if the Zags could face Texas Tech in the Final Four — especially if Coach Mark Few had the best part of a week to watch game tape and see just how last Saturday’s shocker came about.

That is not to take anything away from Tech, either.

Chris Beard has installed a high-energy culture in that program, the type of mindset that allows a team to succeed at the highest level without recruiting players you see going to Duke or Carolina.

Or Gonzaga, for that matter.

But Texas Tech plays relentlessly, and if you do not drive a stake through that team’s heart, they will come back and make you pay.

GONZAGA HAD a chance to take control of that game in the first half, when the pace suited them and Tech was forced into going faster than they liked — or that their lack of depth would allow.

Unfortunately, the Zags missed several wide-open 3-balls during that run, and made uncharacteristic mistakes when the court was spread out in transition.

They left something like 10 to 12 points on the table, and against a team like Tech that isn’t really built to rally from a double-digit deficit, it made all the difference in the world.

All the national pundits have been carrying on about Texas Tech’s tremendous second-half defense, but all that was set up by the fact that both teams had to settle for careful possessions in such a close game.

If the Zags had been, say, up 11 at the half as they were against Florida State, I’ll never believe they’d have been caught.

But all those missed open shots and bad decisions in the first half kept Tech in the game, and playing at a pace that was ideal.

Just a normal first half from Gonzaga would have done the job, but it didn’t happen and at the end, Zags fans were left to grieve with the players.

Players and fans were crying about a loss, of course, and about the end of a wild and amazing season.

But this one hurt more, I think, because the Zags truly believe the better team lost.

THIS WEEK

It’s hard to imagine things going from bad to worse right now for the Zag Nation, but …

Yep, it’s coming.

It’s possible that almost this entire team could be gone by the first tip-off next season.

There are a couple of “maybes,” but it’s a lock that seniors Josh Perkins, Geno Crandall and Jeremy Jones are done.

It would also be an incredible shock if Rui and Clarke don’t wind up as first-round picks in the NBA draft.

Both have talked often about how much they love the atmosphere at Gonzaga, and Rui in particular is almost wedded to the place.

But he has a goal, to be the first Japanese player to be chosen in the NBA draft and then succeed in that league.

Rui also wants to represent Japan in the 2020 Olympics, which will be held in Tokyo.

A year of improvement in the NBA will give him the best chance to shine on that stage.

Clarke doesn’t really have a position in the pro game, and he’s not a solid shooter when pushed away from the basket.

So a year ago, NBA scouts would have had serious questions about whether Clarke had a game that might transition to the next level.

But now?

After a season of spectacular domination around the basket and vast improvement in his offensive skills …

Clarke conceivably could be chosen ahead of Hachimura.

The NBA loves athletes.

THEN THERE is the question of Killian Tillie.

Injuries this year basically wiped out his season, which makes him a question mark for NBA execs.

Zag fans no doubt are hoping that Tillie will come back, have a great year and push himself up the NBA draft board.

That’s not impossible, but …

Two things could draw the Frenchman away.

First, NBA teams don’t necessarily draft while expecting immediate success. They’ll wait if they can see a reward down the road.

And a strong 6-foot-10 forward who can step out and drill endless 3-poiters could easily entice a team to draft Tillie and give him a year to rediscover his game.

There’s also the possibility of Tillie simply going home and playing pro ball in Europe.

If he’s going to take a year or two auditioning for the NBA, why not go back to France and get paid to play?

Oh, and by the way, you have to assume Zach Norvell Jr. might test the NBA waters without hiring an agent, just to gauge interest.

Zach comes from a family that places huge importance on education and even a degree, though, so you might see him moving to point guard in the Kennel next year.

At least the Zags have potentially their best-ever recruiting class lined up for the 2019-20 season.

The program is alive and well, even with some superstar departures.

Hey, welcome to college hoops at the elite level.

• • •

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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