This was Gonzaga-UCLA, the build-up: Hype, expectation, the sense of something special, since it was the 43rd No. 1 vs. No. 2 matchup in history but the first ever between two teams from the Pacific time zone. A heavyweight bout worthy of its Las Vegas setting.
And then, unfortunately for the Bruins, the game started.
RANKINGS: Here’s the latest men’s AP poll
By the time it was over, with an 83-63 Gonzaga romp, a new question had emerged for this early season. No. 1 vs. No. 2 was settled quickly — might it now be the No. 1 Zags vs. everyone else? Could be a tad early to say that. They looked pretty unstoppable last season, and then Baylor happened. They’re quickly back on center stage with Duke Friday and let’s see how that goes. But here are seven things to really, really like about Gonzaga after Tuesday night.
- The Bulldogs have had major top-5 tests already against Texas and UCLA. They led one game by 22, the other by 24, and the latest deficit they faced in either game was 3-2. If we’re still saying that after they face Duke . . .
- The Gonzaga numbers after a 6-0 start are 91.5 points a game, 55.6 percent shooting, 12.7 rebounding advantage and a 31.3-point average margin of victory. In Tuesday’s supposed showdown, the Zags began by hitting 13 of their first 18 shots for a 33-10 lead. The last time these two teams met in Indianapolis in April, there was overtime, 19 lead changes and a half-court winning shot. “We’re not a good defensive team, and we got exposed tonight by a great team,” UCLA coach Mick Cronin said post-carnage.
- See Chet Holmgren block shots. See him dribble behind his back and then blow through the Bruins for a dunk. See him pull up and bury a 3-pointer. Never mind he’s a 7-footer. Never mind he’s so thin, he looks as if he was just rescued from six months on a deserted island. They said he was a unique freshman, and Tuesday night was his own nationally televised highlight reel, leading the Gonzaga transition game that UCLA seemed helpless to stop in the first half. The gap in fast break points at halftime was 14-0, and Cronin described the message to his team at intermission as simple and direct: “Stop giving up layups. It’s embarrassing.”
Meanwhile, Mark Few sought to put all the applause for his new star in perspective. “Everyone needs to understand he’s a work in progress.” Come Friday, the work in progress will be on the court with Duke’s Paolo Banchero in a freshman phenom display.
- Holmgren drew many of the oohs and ahhs but wasn’t even the main pain in the Bruins’ necks. That would be guard Andrew Nembhard with his 24 points and 9-for-13 shooting and five rebounds and six assists and three steals. This is the weapon of mass destruction UCLA was facing Tuesday night: The national player of the year favorite — Drew Timme — scored 18 points with eight rebounds, and got third billing on his own team.
- Nembhard is shooting 52.3 percent this season. That’s pretty good. That’s also the worst percentage for Gonzaga’s top six players. Timme is at 64.2 and Holmgren 71.4.
- The largest deficit the Zags have faced in six games is three points. Out of 240 minutes, they have trailed only 3:15. Their largest leads in the six games have been 34, 22, 35, 47, 55 and 24.
- Did we mention Gonzaga is doing this after losing three of its top four scorers — all now in the NBA — from last season?
And so ended 36 telling hours in college basketball — with No. 1 vs. No. 2 on the women’s side Monday and then the men on Tuesday. That hadn’t happened in nearly four decades. Plus, there was the tearful return of Dick Vitale to ESPN Tuesday night, back from his cancer fight. There might not be a more heartfelt minute this season than when he first took the microphone. “I didn’t want to cry,” he said on the air, but absolutely everyone understood.
By the end, there was no doubt about what teams belonged at the top of the rankings. The games looked like tight duels on paper, but the South Carolina women won by 16 points and the Gonzaga men by 20. The vanquished No. 2s were left to ponder what must happen now. There’ll certainly be a South Carolina-Connecticut rematch (they play in January), and maybe another in March or April. Gonzaga and UCLA might see one another in the spring, too.
Connecticut’s Geno Auriemma had to wonder about how his offense faded, getting outscored 16-3 in the fourth quarter, missing nine of 10 shots with seven turnovers. “The next four months, the team you saw today could be a completely different team. That’s every coach’s hope and prayer,” he said. “This team’s got some work to do if that’s going to happen.”
RANKINGS: Here’s the latest women’s AP poll
Cronin yearns for UCLA to fix its defense, the Bruins now having seen what happens if an opponent can’t slow down the Zags’ considerable transition skills “I’ve got news for you. As good as Gonzaga is, if they come out, dribble really fast down the court and lay it in seven times, I don’t like our chances,” he said. “They weren’t the Lakers. It wasn’t Kareem (Abdul-Jabbar) to Magic (Johnson) to Byron (Scott) to (James) Worthy for the dunk. It was the guy with the ball dribbled all the way the length of the court and laid it in. We didn’t offer much in the way of resistance.”
Tuesday showed what happens when resistance is not adequate against Gonzaga, which is why the rest of the Zags’ week is intriguing. First, Thanksgiving in Las Vegas. And then Duke.