For a few minutes there, the window opened and the vista it revealed was spectacular.
In the first 12 minutes of the second half Saturday night in Spokane, Washington, everything Saint Mary's-Gonzaga could have been was right up there on the screen. The Gaels had weathered star forward Jock Landale's first-half foul trouble, and they seemed to deal fairly well with the energized McCarthey Athletic Center crowd, considering how much of the first 20 minutes (all but six) the nation's most efficient offensive player had spent on the sideline. Now the Aussie center was back on the floor, not even remotely fatigued. And Landale's offensive repertoire was whirring back to life -- the methodical but powerful set of pivots and spins and jumpers he had employed so effectively in the Gaels' 15-1 start.
Landale scored four times in the first five minutes of the second half. He barely missed a few other chances. Either way, every play was running through him. The Zags were scrambling to dig and help, but there are no good answers for a big man this good who's surrounded by shooters. Landale's fourth bucket of the half cut Gonzaga's 12-point lead to just four. And there it was: A top-25 Saint Mary's team led by a bona fide All-American going back and forth with the fifth-ranked, undefeated, hated rival in a crazed environment. The window was fully ajar, and on the other side was everything the uninvested college basketball fan could have hoped for in the latest edition of the Saint Mary's-Gonzaga blood feud.
And then Gonzaga slammed that window shut.
Actually, that's an understatement. What the Zags did in the remainder of their 79-56 runaway victory over Saint Mary's -- which ended with a 21-4 run in the final 8 minutes, 20 seconds -- was more akin to slamming the window, dead-bolting the lock, boarding it over, covering it with bricks and mortar on both sides and spray-painting "FORGET WHAT YOU SAW" in ominous graffiti stencils where said window used to be.
In the process, Mark Few's team extended its best start in school history to 17-0, staying alive as the last unbeaten team in the country -- one with the potential to match 2013-14 Wichita State and 2014-15 Kentucky as modern teams with unbeaten pre-tourney records. The Zags laid out a forceful argument for No. 1 consideration in Monday's impending updated polls. Gonzaga also revealed its own best-case scenario: a team with enough depth and versatility and sheer talent to spontaneously overwhelm even the toughest competition it has faced all season.
It was fitting, perhaps, that the Zags were led by their three key transfers. Nigel Williams-Goss, Johnathan Williams and Jordan Mathews combined to score 49 of Gonzaga's 79 points, which is impressive enough before you learn that the trio combined to shoot 21-of-31 and that they missed just five of their 21 attempts from inside the arc all night. The precedent Few and his staff set with transfers in years past -- when guys such as Kelly Olynyk and Kyle Wiltjer went to Spokane, sat out for a season and re-emerged as Player of the Year candidates -- is a big part of the reason why Williams-Goss (Washington), Williams (Missouri) and Mathews (Cal, on a graduate waiver) all made their simultaneous Bulldogs debuts this season. Adding Williams-Goss and Mathews alongside Josh Perkins and Silas Melson -- both of whom struggled at times last season and are currently enjoying the best form of their careers -- has transformed an occasionally shaky backcourt into one of the nation's deepest and best.
Williams-Goss is perhaps the clearest inheritor of the Wiltjer/Olynyk breakout throne. In his final season at Washington, Williams-Goss shot 49 percent from inside the arc and 25.6 percent from beyond it. He's currently averaging 53.1 and 41.1 respectively for Gonzaga, and his offensive rating has leaped nearly 20 points (from 103.4 to 121.3). But Williams is a close second. Slotting his athletic, rangy, 6-foot-9 skill set next to 7-foot-1 center Przemek Karnowski has given Few better matchup options on both ends of the floor.
Frankly, Karnowski's presence itself is something of a bonus, too: The big man nearly committed to the NBA draft in the spring, and the status of his medical-redshirt-related eligibility was an open question throughout much of last year. Yet he's here, playing as well and as imposingly as ever.
The combination of Williams and Karnowski is one reason why the Zags were able to snuff out any and all back-and-forth potential Saturday. There are few centers big and strong enough to get any result at all against Landale in the post; Karnowski is one of them. And he's the only guy his size who can move well enough to make viable the strategy of putting Landale in constant ball-screen coverages on the defensive end.
If there was a precise end to Saint Mary's potentially epic run, it came at the 10:46 mark of the second half, when Landale picked up his fourth foul. His third had come less than a minute earlier. Both were silly mistakes on hedges 25 feet from the basket, when Landale was either (a) just plain uncomfortable; (b) mentally and physically exhausted from working so hard to get his buckets on the other end; or (c) a bit of both. Either way, the Zags wore him down to a nub, holding the central figure of the Gaels' offense to just 10 points on 11 shots -- the first time all season in which Landale's shot attempts outnumbered his output.
From there, the Zags came in waves, pushing the pace, riding the McCarthey energy and running a really good team off the floor. By the time they were finished, that glimpse of the tightly contested rivalry slugfest had disappeared down the memory hole forever. All that remained was a full view of just how good Few's reloaded and remarkably balanced team can be.