No. 5 Gonzaga rolls along, knocking off Pepperdine, 82-56


SPOKANE — They were musing on a local sports-talk show earlier this week about the ho-hum ambience around Gonzaga hoops. Here are the Zags, ranked sixth in the nation, and where’s the buzz, the fervor, the hoopla?

True, suspense is only sporadic these days around the Zags, who dispatched Pepperdine here Thursday night 82-56 to win their 22nd game in 24 starts, the most victories in the country.

They forced 15 first-half turnovers by the Waves (10-13), held them to .273 shooting before the break, and, as happens on many nights, no doubt had their faithful daydreaming of what’s ahead.

If there are dog days in the college basketball season, just like in baseball, these might be those. The season is about three months old now, and yet, conference tournaments are a month away.

Zag fans, if not spoiled, are at least cognizant that there appear to be two, possibly three, games of riveting interest before the West Coast Conference tournament. Gonzaga plays at Saint Mary’s next Thursday and at Brigham Young Feb. 28. Two days after Saint Mary’s is a date at San Francisco, a place where all manner of voodoo has befallen GU in three consecutive defeats.

Forgive Zag zealots if they’re lulled by success. Gonzaga has been ranked higher — second in 2004 — so it’s probably not a big deal that it likely climbs to No. 5 next week, passing Kansas. Besides, nothing is quite as disposable as rankings in college basketball.

Right now, it’s really about three things, none exclusive of the other — winning, working toward those testy WCC games later in February, and getting this team ready for March.

Now there are seven games left in the regular season, possibly two in the WCC tournament and at least one in the NCAA, so the program is positioned to have its first 30-victory season.

That’s not an insignificant benchmark. It has been accomplished in only one season in Division 1 state history — the 32-5 record by Seattle University in 1950-51, the sophomore year of the O’Brien twins.

This week, the idea was floated in various quarters that Gonzaga could be in the argument for a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament come mid-March. To do that, the Zags would need to run the table, possibly winning another three or four against Saint Mary’s and BYU combined, or at minimum, losing one.

Worst case, seemingly, is a top-four seed, which would keep the Zags close to home, either at Salt Lake City or San Jose for the NCAA early rounds.

Their resume is pretty clean — No. 10 in the RPI computer, 5-2 against the RPI top 50, 8-2 vs. top 100.

Not that there aren’t things that get Gonzaga coach Mark Few to fretting. Starting with Saint Mary’s Jan. 10, the Zags have been out-rebounded four times.

The small-forward spot seems in a perpetual state of flux. Against the Waves, Few gave a first start to 6-6 Memphis transfer Drew Barham, who was shooting 48 percent on threes. If the Zags can survive his defense, they become an absolute killer to guard, offensive options all over the floor.

They began this night on a 10-0 run and eight minutes, 15 seconds in, Few had played nine guys on the way to a 35-20 halftime lead. They share the ball, helping them nail 11 threes in the first 32 minutes, and it’s apparent this GU edition plays better defense than some previous ones; it’s 44th nationally, not overwhelming, but respectable, in Ken Pomeroy’s adjusted ratings.

Gary Bell Jr. has shaken his offensive malaise with three straight aggressive games. He even shot a free throw for the first time in 33 days.

So on a night in early February, it all looked bullish. Of course, it was Pepperdine. The sophisticates in town know there are bigger prey out there.