Although it might have been fair to rethink the matter at times at KeyArena on Friday night, Gonzaga has Elite Eight talent and need only play near its potential to advance that far in the NCAA tournament.
But that’s the trick, being as good as they can be, hefting the burden of potential so evident as far back as this past fall.
As Gonzaga coach Mark Few pointed out after Friday’s 86-76 win over North Dakota State, all wins this time of year are to be celebrated. But that win over the 15th-seeded Bisons also should be taken as a reminder of vulnerability.
Oral Roberts recently beat NDSU more handily (74-58) than the Zags did in the roll-out of their 17th consecutive NCAA tourney appearance, so it’s hardly confetti and noisemaker time.
Only a couple teams get to this tournament like the Zags. Kansas (26 consecutive years), Duke (20), and Michigan State (18) are impressive company, even if Gonzaga is coming out of the softer West Coast Conference. Each of those other clubs have national titles to go along with its string of consistency.
But what now?
Many Zags watchers claim that this is the best and most tournament-ready team it has ever had. The big men are ready. The skilled guys are ready. And the depth is really there.
In preparation for their 4:10 p.m. game with Gonzaga on Sunday, Iowa coach Fran McCaffrey cited the Zags’ size, versatility, talent at every position, and the rareness of their mistakes.
It seems, too, there’s a resiliency to this club. It’s less vulnerable than previous editions to a star having an off-game, or a valuable big man getting in foul trouble.
So much was evident in the 66-63 overtime loss at Arizona on Dec. 6, which had the look of an NCAA tournament regional final game. The Zags team that night could play with anybody in the country.
How did the Zags respond to that loss? By winning 22 straight games.
The next loss was to BYU at home on Feb. 28, when a tournament-desperate Cougars team battled to a 73-70 upset on the Zags’ home floor.
How did Gonzaga respond? By spanking BYU, 91-75, in the West Coast Conference tournament title game 10 days later.
On Friday, the Zags were good enough when they needed to be; guys stepped up when required.
NDSU coach Dave Richman singled out Gonzaga point guard Kevin Pangos, who had 15 of his 18 points in the second half, including 12 in the final six minutes of the game.
“To me, he’s the engine that makes them go,” Richman said of Pangos. “He just lays in the weeds, takes care of the ball, makes the right pass, and then when he needs to make a big shot, he makes a big shot. He’s the ultimate team guy.”
Iowa manhandled North Dakota State on Nov. 17, winning by 31 points.
The Hawkeyes play like the Zags, and they can rebound and defend. They will challenge Gonzaga in ways North Dakota State never could.
Coach Few said Saturday that Iowa is the biggest team they’ve faced. “We’re going to have to play great to win,” Few said. “This Iowa team is on a roll.”
And maybe that’s the best thing for the Zags, a challenge to help motivate them, to drive them toward the limits of their potential.
If they get past the Hawkeyes, the challenge would be UCLA. The Bruins are a different team than they were in December, but the Zags dealt them an 87-74 whipping in Los Angeles.
So many coaches talk about elevating their game when they get to March.
Gonzaga will be fine if they play the way they did back in December.