SALT LAKE CITY — Once this upset was in the bag, members of the crowd at EnergySource Arena began the predictable “over-rated” chant.
Gonzaga is probably fortunate that “vastly over-rated” was too tricky for a large group to master in harmony.
The No. 1 team in the nation, and the top-seeded team in the West Region, is not expected to lose in its second tournament game to a ninth seed, no matter that Wichita State played exceptionally well in a 76-70 win.
A number of Zags said Saturday night that this upset loss “stings.”
That might not be the best term. Stings go away in short order.
This may be more lasting, like a scar, as it supports the logic of those who enjoy detracting from the Zags’ high rankings.
Yes, they’ve been to 15 consecutive NCAAs, but they rack up tons of wins against weak conference opponents. And maybe they’re not physical enough, or tough enough, or they don’t have what it takes to go deep in the tournament.
Well, the Zags opened the door to an avalanche of such criticism by eking out a win over 16th-seeded Southern University on Thursday, and then following that with an awful opening half against Wichita State.
They rallied in the second half, matching the Shockers’ intensity and taking the lead. But a No. 1 team is not supposed to relinquish the lead once they take it; it’s not supposed to make turnovers and be outshot down the stretch.
Coach Mark Few stated the obvious, that it was a “tough, tough, tough way to end a fabulous season.” It was the best season in GU history, ending with a 32-3 record.
A lot of that is going to be overlooked in the high-profile shortcomings of this week.
Some issues that became painfully clear Saturday.
• The Zags play below the rim. Power forward Elias Harris again could not elevate through contact. He finished 4-for-18 on field-goal attempts in the Zags’ two tournament games.
Yes, he can average 15 points and 7.5 rebounds during the season, but he ended up getting swatted at the rim in the tournament.
Even 7-foot center Kelly Olynyk faced rejection at the rim this week. Although he had two strong games, adding 26 points and nine rebounds Saturday, the Shockers forced him into uncharacteristic misses near the hoop.
During the season, Olynyk was one of the nation’s best shooters (64.7 percent). Saturday, he was 8-for-22 (36 percent).
• The depth that served the Zags so well during the season didn’t show up Saturday as the Wichita State bench outscored GU’s subs by a massive 34-7 count.
• The Zags held opponents to 32 percent from 3-point range during the season, but against Southern and Wichita State, they were torn apart for 24 3-pointers in 51 attempts.
Guard Gary Bell Jr. missed most of the second half against Wichita because of a foot injury, which had to hurt their perimeter defense, but it was a problem before Bell was sidelined.
• Wichita State gave fair warning in Friday’s press conferences when several Shockers gave the identical advisory: “We play angry and we play physical.”
And that’s what it takes to win in the tournament. This was a game that had a flagrant foul and twice the court had to have blood mopped up.
In the first half, the Shockers dominated with their aggressive play. After intermission, the Zags matched their intensity, particularly as Olynyk drove through a lane gauntlet and made a basket even while one shoe was flying off.
That’s when Gonzaga was at its best. That’s when the Zags played like an elite team.
Olynyk has deservedly received much of the credit for the Zags’ success this season. But Saturday the best example the Zags had of somebody with the heart of a winner was senior wing Mike Hart, who pulled in 14 rebounds – seven of them offensive.
Without Hart’s rebounding and defense, this would have been a bigger defeat for the Zags.
Few congratulated Wichita State, which has knocked off Pittsburgh and GU.
“Wichita State is a hot team right now,” Few said. “They are shooting the ball at a high level that their numbers don’t reflect the whole year.”
The Zags’ strengths all season, he said, was playing together as a team and playing hard and efficiently. “We’re not overly athletic,” he mentioned in the context of that quote.
That was the case this week in Salt Lake City. This was an impressive season by a very good team.
But it would be hard to support any claim that the Zags played anywhere near what is expected of a top-seed team.Dave Boling: 253-597-8440 dave.boling@ thenewstribune.com