Gonzaga right where it belongs this time of year

Think of good problems to have. Too much work when others are being laid off. Warming a bench in the NBA while making the league minimum. Rock star with eight groupie dates for seven nights.

Gonzaga basketball at conference tournament time.

The first week of March arrives each year, and seven other West Coast Conference teams fight and scratch and sweat and bleed and live and die with each possession. Gonzaga does too, only with a calmer state of mind.

Others play for survival; the Zags play for NCAA Tournament seeding.

It’s an earned benefit of dominating a league for what is getting closer and closer to seeming like forever. Gonzaga to the WCC remains the coyote to the lost house pet.

When it plays like this, fast and focused and with a fierce edge and tremendous balance, things get a bit silly and Gonzaga hammers an overmatched Santa Clara 94-59 while advancing to a league-record 15th WCC Tournament final.

It lines up and exposes mismatches with each steal and run-out score, having by halftime left the only question unanswered to any of the 7,845 at the Orleans Arena if it really is possible Santa Clara coach Kerry Keating whines more to officials than Jim Boylen of Utah.

(Answer: Yes. Amazingly, it’s not close. Keating lifts his arms over calls so often, you assume he’s practicing his touchdown signal while auditioning to become a football official).

The uncertainty about Gonzaga — as much as you can discover with a 25-5 team that was perfect in league play — is like with any side capable of still breathing on Final Four weekend.

Greatness can be as fleeting as a teenage crush. How the Zags performed Sunday could have no relevance to how they compete against Saint Mary’s in tonight’s final, which means they are in one way much like everyone.

"It’s why I have been real hesitant to make any broad generalizations about this group," Gonzaga coach Mark Few said. "When we’re playing like this and making shots … we can beat anybody in the country. But it’s still a game-by-game thing."

Few annually schedules a tougher nonconference schedule than other Top 25 teams might over several years. It’s a necessary approach for a major program in a mid-major conference and allows the Gonzaga staff to identify warts that could be especially harmful in mid-March.

Take a 68-50 loss to Memphis on Feb. 7.

It was more perfect storm for the Zags in Spokane Arena than anything George Clooney fought on the big screen, what with Memphis playing terrific and Gonzaga coming off emotional wins against Saint Mary’s and San Diego and a Portland team that at the time trailed in the standings by a game and had advertised the home matchup as its biggest in 30 years, which pretty much puts the Pilots’ level of tradition in perspective.

But it wasn’t losing to Memphis that stood out about Gonzaga. It was how the Zags lost. The last thing in the world a coach wants questioned about his team is effort, and others harshly and correctly judged that of Gonzaga afterward.

"I think they learned from that," said former UCLA coach and ESPN analyst Steve Lavin, here calling the WCC Tournament. "I think being taken to the woodshed by Memphis was a springboard to playing with a harder edge and a more physical approach. Gonzaga had its manhood challenged with that thumping.

"That’s good coaching, to take a setback like that and use it as a report card on what you need to improve. They’re capable of making the Final Four. I think they’ll be between a 4-6 (NCAA seed) and be as dangerous as anyone in the country going in."

Lavin is unique in that he can fill a notebook without taking a breath while actually offering insightful thoughts. He talks about things like report cards and chemistry and dentists and cavities and somehow relates it all to how a team has performed and what potential it owns.

He spoke about Gonzaga’s ability to earn, stretch and maintain its huge lead Sunday, about its size and strength and skill, about one major challenge the Zags could face a few weeks from now is a team just as quick but one that plays a slow, methodical, grind-it-out game.

He spoke about a team that if it plays as it did in eliminating Santa Clara, will advance to the NCAA’s second week for the first time since 2005-06.

It’s a good problem to have, being Gonzaga this time of year. The only thing stronger around here this week might be Keating’s arms.

Ed Graney can be reached at 702-383-4618 or egraney@reviewjournal.com

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