Many of the comments from the Gonzaga locker room after the 73-70 upset loss to BYU on Saturday night carried the same theme: Maybe this wasn’t such a bad thing.
After all, few outcomes can remind a team of its competitive fallibility like a defeat that puts an end to the nation’s longest homewinning streak at 41 games.
It dropped the Zags down to No. 7 in the national polls after standing at either No. 2 or No. 3 in the two main rankings last week.
Their 29-2 record heading into the West Coast Conference tournament this week means they’re still assured a berth in their 17th consecutive NCAA tournament. But the top seed in the West Regional is probably a long shot at this point.
It might even mean they get shipped out of the region, which would be a heavy tax on that slim loss to BYU.
But, as guard Eric McClellan said afterward, the team “needed this to wake us up.”
Near the end of regular seasons, teams tend to view enforced self-awareness as a jolt from an alarm clock.
For this edition of the Zags — perhaps as talented and deep as any of its predecessors — the clock has been ticking for a while, as they haven’t been as sharp in recent weeks as they were early in the season.
I’d argue that it’s another byproduct of having outgrown the West Coast Conference, in which a team or two provides serious challenges, but that’s too little to keep the more talented Zags fully engaged and competitively honed from late December through early March.
The story at the start of every season is how the league is better balanced, and will provide more challenges to GU’s dominance. But every season the Zags are at or very near the top.
They stack up a strong record against quality nonconference teams early, then play much of the rest of the season against teams that might not offer as much competition as their daily scrimmage periods in practice.
It seems as if the Zags sometimes get themselves into deficits to test their powers of escape, almost as if fighting boredom.
At Saint Mary’s on Feb. 21, the Zags fell behind by 17 points only to rally to a 10-point win. When a team does that enough times, it tends to believe it always will, and the competitive adrenaline becomes harder and harder to generate until later in games.
So it was Saturday against unranked BYU. The Zags already had the conference title in hand, along with the top seed in the conference tournament. And it was Senior Night.
In contrast, BYU, now 23-8, was looking for a big upset to enhance its NCAA chances.
GU coach Mark Few pointed to the obvious: BYU was the more aggressive team. This time of year especially, the most aggressive team wins, and it’s a reality the Zags have to acknowledge.
As hard as it is for a competitive team like Gonzaga to concede, the BYU Cougars won the game because they wanted it more.
“Anytime there was a 50-50 ball or a rebound to be had, they’d go get it,” Few told reporters afterward.
The Zags have extended their stunning streak of success, with an Elite Eight and five other Sweet 16 appearances in their 16 consecutive NCAA appearances. But they haven’t gotten past the field-of-32 round since 2009.
The impression seems to be that the Zags have played below their seeding in recent years, but they’ve only been eliminated by a lower seed once in the past five seasons, and that was to a vastly underseeded Wichita State in 2013. The No. 9-seeded Shockers went on to make it to the Final Four.
Other than that, since 2010 the Zags have lost to two No. 1s (Syracuse in ’10, Arizona in ’14), a No. 2 (Ohio State in ’12), and to No. 3 BYU in ’11.
This time, they have enough talented big men to face physical teams and the perimeter talent to attack from the outside when needed.
But nobody goes far this time of year without being full-tilt, 94-feet aggressive.
BYU gave the Zags a painful, but perhaps timely, reminder of that.