There is something I don’t understand about the Gonzaga basketball team. It has to do with the second number I keep seeing when the Bulldogs’ record is put in parentheses.
You know, like this: Gonzaga (28-7).
These guys have lost seven times? Seriously? How did that happen?
During the Zags’ 40-minute floor show Saturday in Denver, where they drove at will on Utah, dominated both ends of the boards and played defense with the kind of tenacity that drains an opponent’s energy before extinguishing its spirit, Gonzaga looked unbeatable.
Which brings me back to that goofy number — the “7” to the right of the “28” — insisting the Zags are not unbeatable. They lost to Texas A&M and BYU by a point, lost to Arizona and UCLA by five points, lost to SMU by nine, lost twice to Saint Mary’s.
That happened. The record isn’t a mirage.
As recently as two weeks ago, Gonzaga’s chances at qualifying for an 18th consecutive NCAA tournament berth appeared to be no better than marginal. It had to vanquish the regular-season defeat to BYU in the West Coast Conference semifinals, then get past Saint Mary’s for the guaranteed invitation.
Done and done, and the Zags keep doing. Sophomore forward Domantas Sabonis’ versatile shooting skills in the lane — he can go left or right, with either hand — are matched by a dexterity to grab a rebound with either hand.
Forward Kyle Wiltjer stands 6-foot-10 and can score from anywhere. Fellow senior Eric McClellan, a guard who transferred from Vanderbilt, is debunking any notion of the Zags’ supposed back-court vulnerability.
McClellan led all scorers Saturday with an effort remarkable for its efficiency: he took 12 shots and finished with 22 points.
But it’s defense that has vaulted Gonzaga into the Sweet 16. The Bulldogs allowed (encouraged?) Seton Hall guard Isaiah Whitehead — MVP of the Big East tournament — to attempt 24 shots in the first-round game. He went 4 for 24.
Utah’s 7-foot center Jakob Poeltl, the Pac 12 Player of the Year, was limited to five points on Saturday. Two fouls put him on the bench for the final six minutes of the first half, a misfortune that figured to be mitigated by the fresh legs Poeltl brought into the second half.
Uh, no. While the clock ticked down as the point differential expanded from 10 points to 20, Poeltl seemed to be sucking for air at mile-high altitude.
An obvious conclusion about Gonzaga’s 82-59 blowout is that the Zags, slotted at No. 11, were as under-seeded as the Utes, at No. 3, were over-seeded.
Another obvious conclusion is that the Pac-12’s ballyhooed revival as a legitimate power conference in basketball was a sham. The whole world is watching, and the next time anybody associated with the Pac-12 bemoans the conference’s history with East Coast Bias, the early elimination of six teams from the 2016 NCAA tournament will be introduced as Exhibit A evidence.
Not that the Zags care. They’re off to Chicago, where they’ll be thrust into a strange situation: A No. 11 seed seen as a favorite to advance to the Elite Eight.
Beyond that? Anything is possible. The team I saw Saturday played basketball with precision and ebullience and confidence.
These are potential national champions. As for those seven regular-season defeats, unfathomable and yet wholly documented, I’ve got only one explanation.
Somebody keeping score on the sideline table got the numbers wrong.