KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- There's no question why most people are here tonight. With the exception of Marquette's smallish fan section and a smattering of early K-State fans, it took almost the entire first half for something resembling a full crowd to arrive at the Sprint Center for Tuesday night's third-place game between Marquette and Gonzaga.
The late arrivals didn't exactly miss a classic, but Gonzaga's 66-63 in over Marquette did have some nuggets worth chewing on. A quick rundown:
Gonzaga forward Elias Harris finally got it going. This was especially true in the first half, when Harris scored 15 points in 18 minutes on 6-of-9 shooting from the field. Harris has had a sluggish start to the season, including two stinkers in Gonzaga's two losses (five points in the loss to San Diego State, four in Monday night's loss to Kansas State). Steven Gray has taken over much of the Zags' scoring load, but with Harris doing the things that made him such a dangerous player last year -- grabbing offensive boards, stretching opponents' frontcourts by hitting outside shots -- Gonzaga is a much more dynamic offensive team. When Harris is off (as he was in the second half Tuesday night; he went 2-for-10 from the field) the Zags look downright plodding.
If Buzz Williams is concerned with his team finding an identity -- and most coaches seem to obsess over the i-word -- then Marquette already has a head start. The Golden Eagles are, quite frankly, resilient. They refused to back down to a far superior Duke team on Monday night, and when it looked like Gonzaga was primed to coast during the second half of Tuesday night's win, the Eagles again fought back. They cut the lead to three with 1:13 remaining (and got a great look at a three after Williams called timeout), and then cut it to two with 47 seconds left thanks to a quickfire Jimmy Butler three. With 2.5 seconds left, the Golden Eagles still had a chance to win the game, and with a better inbound play -- instead of the handoff pass back to Butler, the inbounder, that resulted in a 30-foot heave -- Marquette could very well have sent the game into overtime.
Butler is one of the more underrated players in the country. The versatile guard-forward combo presents matchup problems for almost any team that tries to guard him; no team has really held him in check yet this season. He's too quick to be guarded by a big, and too big and athletic for a guard to affect his shot. He contributes on the glass -- which Marquette, with its dearth of interior depth, desperately needs -- and even though he isn't a three-point threat, Butler still manages to find his shot with intelligent mid-range play. Just a really impressive player, and one to pay attention to as Marquette moves forward this winter.
Marquette is short in the frontcourt already, but it would be much worse off were it not for junior college transfer Jae Crowder. Crowder isn't going to tear up the Big East this season -- at 6-foot-6, he's pretty undersized for a Big East center -- but he has contributed solid rebounding and the occasional interior bucket thus far. It's something, at least. A team this small will take it.
It wasn't the prettiest win of Mark Few's career, nor was it the most exciting, but it was thoroughly necessary. Back-to-back losses to San Diego State and Kansas State (in a very non-neutral environment, no less) can be written off as early speed bumps, products of a tough non-conference schedule. Losing to Marquette in a deathly quiet gym would have been far more disconcerting. The Zags desperately needed a win to keep from being written off as overrated, and sure, it wasn't the prettiest win ever, but it counts. It came at a good time, too. Gonzaga gets a brief rest from truly brutal non-conference dates -- their next game is a Nov. 30 home date with Eastern Washington -- before resuming the murderer's row with a Dec. 4 game against Illinois, followed by trips to Washington State (Dec. 8) and Notre Dame (Dec. 11). A neutral-court loss to Marquette is the last thing the Zags needed at this point.