Commentary: Gonzaga men hit ceiling in loss to Purdue — and it was about 7 feet, 4 inches high


DETROIT — This Gonzaga season was not short on doubt.

A couple of months ago, the Bulldogs' consecutive NCAA Tournament-appearance streak — which dates back to 1999 — looked like it might be in jeopardy.

The Zags rallied, though, winning 19 of their next 21 games and shoving themselves into the Sweet 16 once again.

On Friday, however, there was no doubt. Gonzaga got beat by a superior team that looked as if it would sweep a best-of-seven series.

Purdue's 80-68 victory at Little Caesars Arena sent the fifth-seeded Bulldogs home while sending a message to the remaining tournament field. That Sweet 16 performance, much like the top-seeded Boilermakers' 39-point win over Utah State one round earlier, was the byproduct of a team whose battery is at 100%.

Yes, they have the country's best player in Zach Edey — the 7-foot-4 center who had 27 points and 14 rebounds while going 10 of 15 from the field. But when you've got a supporting cast that hit 45% of its 3-point attempts, and when you have point guard Braden Smith dropping 15 assists to go along with his 14 points and eight rebounds — you're not going to fall to any team outside of the nation's elite.

Gonzaga isn't in that tier. This was a good team operating as a part of the country's most consistent program. But these Zags had a ceiling — and it looked to be about 7 feet, 4 inches high.

"He is an entity all to himself," Gonzaga coach Mark Few said of Edey, the front-runner to win his second straight Wooden Award as the country's top hooper. "But when the guards shoot it like that, it's pick your poison."

Smith said something similar during Purdue's postgame news conference, stating that his team was either going to "hit shots or give to Zach." And for most of the first half, it was the former.

Gonzaga (27-8) actually did a decent job of containing the big fella through the first 17 minutes or so, when Edey had just six points. But the Boilermakers knocked down seven of their 13 shots from beyond the arc to take a four-point lead into halftime.

Didn't hurt that they got three points in the final 10 seconds when Gonzaga's Ben Gregg hacked Edey on a successful and-one, which forced Few to have to sit the foul-troubled Gregg at the start of the second half. Doubtful it would have mattered, though. Purdue established a 51-42 lead three and a half minutes into the second, and though the Zags did cut the deficit to two shortly thereafter, the reality of the situation quickly set in. Gonzaga was overmatched by a well-rounded squad anchored by a one-of-one center.

The only way the Bulldogs might have stood a chance is if they could force Purdue to turn the ball over. The Boilermakers (32-4) are 26-0 when committing fewer than 13 turnovers, but carelessness has cost them a few times. Not Friday, when they had just nine giveaways. They took care of the ball, and once they got locked in defensively, took care of business.

Purdue led 53-51 with 12:34 left in the game. It led 67-53 less than four minutes later, after Cameron Heide connected on a 3-pointer assisted by Smith. That's when Smith laid the side of his head against his hands as if to say "good night." Some not-safe-for-work words ensued.

But he and his team had earned trash-talking privileges. And it didn't get any better for Gonzaga. Purdue went up 80-62 with just over two minutes to go. The six unanswered points for the Bulldogs to end the game were irrelevant.

Sure, they still got quality performances from the usual contributors. Graham Ike had 18 points and 10 rebounds, Seattle native Nolan Hickman had 16 points, Ryan Nembhard had 14 points and seven assists, and Anton Watson had 14 points of his own. But nobody had a night like Edey or Smith.

Few commended his team after the game, saying how he was "very proud of how these guys battled and fought through the stuff this season brought." He added that "the majority of teams would have folded it up there in January based on the expectations of the program ... these guys showed their real character."

It is pretty amazing. This year marked nine straight Sweet 16s for the Zags — the longest active streak in the country (Houston is next with five). And mixed in there were two runs to the national championship game.

It just wasn't going to happen this year. The Zags' hot streak and 21-point thumping of Kansas in the second round created a lot of buzz. Just doesn't mean much when you hit a buzzsaw.