For seven years, Gonzaga has crisscrossed the country playing the kind of marquee games mid-majors only dream of. It's to the point where you can't even consider the Bulldogs mid-major. They're a big boy playing in a mid-major league (the West Coast Conference). This year, however, Gonzaga seems to have run out of steam because coach Mark Few overdid it.
Gonzaga has made three trips East from Spokane, Wash., in the last month, losing at Georgia, to Duke in New York and getting spanked Wednesday, 108-87, at Virginia, which hit a school-record 18 three-pointers and had an eye-popping 60-26 lead at halftime. Keep in mind this was a Virginia team that was a seven-point win over Puerto Rico-Mayaquez away from going 0-3 in the San Juan Shootout before Christmas.
"That's as bad as we've been beaten in the eight years I've been head coach," said Few. "When they start banging in threes like that, you've got your hands full."
Once an annual lock for the NCAA Tournament, the Zags' margin for error is getting slim as they start conference play.
Already owning wins over North Carolina, Washington and Texas and the nation's third-toughest schedule, it's still a safe bet Gonzaga (10-6) will be an NCAA team unless it collapses in league play. Especially if it pulls out a win in its Feb. 17 non-conference game against Memphis. But don't look for the Bulldogs to be a high seed this year as they were in the days of Dan Dickau or Adam Morrison. With inconsistent frontcourt play and still spotty work from guard Derek Raivio, Gonzaga has been exploited.
The Zags overachieved early and the schedule has caught up to them. As for mid-majors, Butler, Drexel, Air Force and Nevada all have better postseason resumes than Gonzaga thus far.
A.J. Graves, the junior guard who has been the sparkplug for No. 13 Butler's amazing early-season run (it is 13-1 and beat Gonzaga), enters today's game against Wright State second in the nation in free-throw shooting at an amazing 75-for-76 clip. Graves, who is second in the Horizon League in scoring at 17.9 points, has made his last 47. Western Michigan freshman David Kool leads at 100 percent but is just 23 for 23.
He doesn't get tons of TV time but Nevada forward Nick Fazekas would be a first-team All-America if the voting was done today. The 6-foot-11 senior is averaging 20.9 points and 12.4 rebounds while putting together 10 double-doubles for a 12-1 team. The Wolf Pack cemented its Top 25 status with last Saturday's win over Gonzaga in Seattle and also owns road wins at Akron and Oregon State as well as a neutral-court triumph over Cal.
There was a lot of legitimate crabbing last year about Air Force's NCAA bid. There will be no argument this year. The Falcons are 13-1 heading into today's showdown with UNLV, losing only to Duke. They've already beaten Stanford, Texas Tech, Wake Forest (by 36!), George Washington and Santa Clara. Last year, their only quality wins were over Miami and an 11-17 Georgia Tech squad.
Drexel (Colonial) and Appalachian State (Southern) are both in the top 15 of the RPIs based on some quality road wins but could fall quickly with league losses.
Another team to watch is Winthrop (9-4), which lost on a last-second shot to Tennessee last year as a 15 seed. The Eagles fell by 20 Tuesday at Texas A&M but check out their other losses: at North Carolina by seven, at Maryland by 11 and at Wisconsin by three in overtime. They've already won at Mississippi State and Old Dominion.
Paul Harris is a major part of the Syracuse attack this season -- but as the sixth man. With senior Demetris Nichols and the frontcourt tandem of Terrence Roberts and Darryl Watkins getting most of the shots, the freshman from Niagara Falls has been forced to adjust to not being the focus of the offense for the first time in his career.
"I'm not a main part of the offense yet and I understand that," Harris said after Thursday's loss to Pittsburgh. "I'm still learning. I'm like the fourth or fifth option on the court. I'm still young."
"He's still trying to figure out what we're doing but he's helped us on the boards," said coach Jim Boeheim. "He's played well and he'll keep getting better."
Around the rim
*Bob Knight isn't saying how long he'll keep coaching at Texas Tech but it has to be tempting for him to shoot for 1,000 wins. He recently agreed to a contract extention through 2010-11 and might only need to go one more season past that to get to 1,000.
*For all the deserved chatter Turner-Carroll product Loren Stokes gets at Hofstra, teammate Chris Gadley paid big dividends for the Pride during last week's Holiday Festival. Gadley, the 6-9 sophomore from Amherst, had 16 points and 16 rebounds in two games. Hofstra beat St. John's in the final, 63-51, to become the first non-conference school to post four straight double-digit wins over the Red Storm since Saint Louis did it from 1958-1961. Gadley's season averages are 2.3 points and 3.2 boards.
*Defending America East champion Albany, which nearly upset UConn last March in the NCAAs as a No. 16 seed, looks dangerous again. The Great Danes won last weekend at Utah, 59-58, taking home their first victory ever against a big-conference opponent since turning Division I -- and a $45,000 guarantee for the trip west.
"I told the guys before the game, 'Hey, these guys are paying us a lot of money, and if I'm you, I'm insulted. They don't care that you were a good team last year,' " coach Will Brown said. "And our guys went out and played with a chip on their shoulder."