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John Blanchette: Gonzaga dodges first speed bump of season, overcoming slow start in win over Utah State

UPDATED: Sat., Nov. 18, 2017, 11:46 p.m.

Ah. The you-really-should-listen-to-me game.

Mark Few is not a sandbagger in the Lou Holtz vein, where every Gonzaga opponent is the second coming of the Dream Team and land mines lurk beneath every dribble. But there’s a healthy respect for every opponent – in relative doses, of course – and a healthier respect for cautionary tales.

Hey, sometimes they need to be courted for educational purposes.

So a few of times every Gonzaga basketball season, Few’s post-mortem of a victory everyone but nearly everyone else had penciled in as a 30-point interment veers toward a reminder that A) he’d warned that the competition would ramp up and his team would have to elevate its game accordingly, and B) see A).

Also: the opponent is only half of it.

Actually, Utah State was the better half for large swatches of Saturday night’s date at the McCarthey Athletic Center, and wound up falling 79-66 only when the Bulldogs decided to match the Aggies’ resolve and attention to detail.

Which naturally set off some alarms among the faithful what with the Zags headed to Portland on Thanksgiving for the PK80 – better known as the Greatest College Basketball Tournament in the History of Man Even with Those Portland Schools in There. A really steep ramp, in other words.

No alarms among the Zags, however. They woke to the realities long ago.

“We’re not concerned about this team not rising to the challenge this year,” said assistant coach Tommy Lloyd. “But we know it’s not going to be a smooth ride every day.”

Quite possibly this message was lost on the players in the outings of the previous week, the romps over Texas Southern and Howard that were all loose and frisky and easily edited into highlights packages. Not exactly ratball with a game plan, but you get the idea.

Anyway, for a team with just two players who have more than two years in the program – and in search of a handle the public can grab onto in the wake of the last team rewriting school history – those games were the best and worst things that could have happened.

“They just get duped into a lot of stuff,” is how Few put it.

“Those games were free-flowing. Not a lot of offensive execution, very little defensive physicality. Not much toughness and organization. No depth to it to really make you explore options 2, 3, 4.”

Or guard the other guys’ options 2, 3, 4.

“You have to be alert to it all,” he said, “and that’s still hard for some of these guys.”

Which is how the Bulldogs found themselves down by as many as eight points late in the first half and watching the Aggies’ shooters fling in open 3 upon open 3 – eight in all during the first 20 minutes, when the Zags had planned on holding them to seven or fewer for the entire game.

The Aggies were so organized, they made the home team look like the Zags of anarchy.

When the Bulldogs needed to go over the top of a screen, they went under. When they did close out on a shooter, two of them chose the same guy, leaving another wide open. When the Aggies missed, they outfought the Zags for the rebound and the breakdown left someone else free.

Every USU shot seemed in rhythm. The 30-second clock was never a factor.

Making this even more startling was the fact that the Aggies were without their point guard and best player, Koby McEwen, who missed the game with a bum ankle. Given their facility with adjustment, a few more injuries could put them in the bubble discussion come March.

The good news is that Zags finally made some, too. Freshman Corey Kispert’s grit started rubbing off. Silas Melson, his game sometimes too subtle to be appreciated, dropped in a big 3 and a putback. He and Josh Perkins came up with demoralizing steals after a USU timeout. The Zags threw in the curveball of a not-at-all passive 2-3 zone and Jacob Larsen came off the bench to camp in the middle of it and block three shots in four trips down the floor.

Crisis averted. For now.

“This team is not quite mature enough or old enough or veteran enough – all three of those things depending on who we’re talking about – to take a scouting report like he did and execute it,” said Few.

At which point he tapped a photo of Nigel Williams-Goss mounted on the wall nearby.

But they still have the same aspirations – and belief. Come Thursday, they can take them for a real test drive.

“The talent there is high level,” Melson said, “but we know we belong and we’re one of the best.”

They know, too, there be dragons ahead – all season long.

“And our response,” Lloyd said, “is going to determine how good our team will get.”

Let’s give a listen.

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