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Jones: After a wobbly start, Zags rounding into form

Published January 29, 2014 12:05 am

Win over BYU shows they're once again WCC's team to beat this season.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2014, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

The murmuring started in November when Gonzaga lost to Dayton in the annual Maui Classic.

The noise got louder on Jan. 9, when the Bulldogs walked into Portland and walked out with a loss.

In between, some started to think Gonzaga may not be Gonzaga. Maybe Mark Few's team was vulnerable within the West Coast Conference. Maybe this was the year BYU and St. Mary's finally caught and passed the Bulldogs. Maybe the run of NCAA Tournaments was unceremoniously coming to an end.

Wrong.

A little more than halfway though the season, Gonzaga is still Gonzaga. The Bulldogs are 18-3, solidly on top of the WCC and looking more daunting by the game. The Cougars found that out on Saturday, leaving Spokane with an 84-69 defeat, one in which Gonzaga looked pretty typical. The Zags were a machine offensively, stingy on defense and pulled away with an impressive second-half display.

With that 40-minute display against the Cougars, the Bulldogs proved they will once again be a factor when March and the NCAA Tournament rolls around. Will Few's team be a No. 1 seed like last season? No, they aren't that good. But they will draw anywhere between a 7-10 seed and be a headache for anybody in the third round.

Just like always.

"We have a good team and we don't panic," Bulldogs forward Sam Dower said. "We have a lot of veterans who have been in a lot of situations and it helps a lot."

Why did Gonzaga look vulnerable early on? Injuries had a big impact. Dower missed time. Shooting guard Gary Bell missed time. That created pressure on Kevin Pangos to carry a heavy burden, and he hasn't always been able to do that.

But Dower is now healthy, and he gives Gonzaga the best low post scorer in the WCC. Bell is back, and he's the best individual defender in the league.

Kelly Olynyk is playing for the Boston Celtics, and his absence has created a learning curve as the teammates.

They had to learn to play without him. It's taken time, but here at the end of January, the Bulldogs are finally meshing.

"It's been nice to get some guys back into the mix," Few said. "Getting Gary back has helped. It's nice to get another body out there defensively."

The added depth is bad news for the rest of the league. BYU absolutely has to beat Gonzaga at home on Feb. 20 to have any chance at an at-large NCAA Tournament bid. I'm not sure it will happen. St. Mary's started the season 9-0, including a road win over Boise State. The Gaels have done a nosedive since.

As a result, the West Coast Conference is a one-bid league, unless someone can find a way to beat the Bulldogs in the conference tournament. Don't bet on that happening. The question now lies in whether Few's team can advance when it counts. Last season Wichita State defeated GU in a second-round classic at EnergySolutions Arena.

But Gonzaga may be better off come March if it looks a little vulnerable. The NCAA Tournament is a better place when the Zags are an underdog.

Then we'll get to see if Gonzaga can once again slay some giants. The West

No. 1Arizona (20-0)

Utah gave the Wildcats a good shot

No. 2San Diego State (18-1)

Utah State gave SDSU an even better shot

No. 3Gonzaga (18-3)

Playing as well as it has all season

No. 4UCLA (16-4)

Kyle Anderson = Pac-12 POY?

No. 5New Mexico (15-4)

The Aztecs' primary MW challenger

No. 6California (14-6)

Swept in LA. Bad week for the Bears

No. 7Washington (13-8)

Time to give Huskies some props

No. 8Stanford (13-6)

Needed overtime to beat USC

No. 9Arizona State (15-5)

Carson starred in wins over Utah and CU

No. 10St. Mary's (16-5)

Gonzaga's nearest, but distant challenger

No. 11Colorado (15-6)

Still talented without Dinwiddie

No. 12Boise State (14-6)

Win over Utah earns this spot