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Zags look for real ... again

LAS VEGAS -- Oklahoma State coach designate Sean Sutton leaned back against the wall in a corridor of the Thomas & Mack Center. He praised his team after beating UNLV but cautioned that the Cowboys weren't good enough yet to beat Georgia Tech, North Carolina and Illinois.

If Eddie Sutton's son had made the remark three hours later, he might have added Gonzaga -- at least if it were on a neutral court.

The Cowboys and Bulldogs each have one home game before they meet in Oklahoma City on Dec. 28, but suddenly that game takes on a much larger meaning after Gonzaga's impressive 85-73 victory over No. 3 Georgia Tech late Saturday night.

Gonzaga coach Mark Few noted Saturday night that "we understand what kind of lion's den we're going into" in playing what's essentially a true road game against the Cowboys. But in pulling away from the Yellow Jackets late, the Zags sent a clear message to the entire country that their 17-point loss to Illinois in Indianapolis on Nov. 27 (it was a 38-point margin at one point) was merely a wake-up call, not a true read on the quality of this club.

"We learned our lesson against Illinois that we can't come out flat," said senior Ronny Turiaf, who scored 11 of his 17 points and grabbed nine of his 10 boards in the second half.

The Bulldogs have plenty of offensive talents like Turiaf, the Larry Bird-like Adam Morrison, who poured in 24 points in a season-high 39 minutes (the one minute Morrison, a diabetic, missed was spent gulping two juice drinks to stabilize his blood sugar level), and point guard Derek Raivio, who scored 21 despite looking like he might need his ID checked to see if he's old enough to play.

What the Zags lacked last month was defensive intensity, but they seemed to have discovered it after the Illinois debacle.

Morrison echoed Turiaf's assessment of the Zags' poor mindset against Illinois, especially defensively. Georgia Tech coach Paul Hewitt said that the Illini's scorching numbers (14 of 28 on 3s) were more of an indicator of how good the Illini were offensively, but clearly the poor perimeter defense had to play a role in that scoring output.

Still, that loss didn't hang over the Zags' heads too long. Remember, they did bounce back to humble Washington by 12 (albeit with the Huskies missing Brandon Roy) for their seventh straight win over their in-state rival. That win came after the Huskies had just beaten Oklahoma and Alabama on back-to-back nights to win the Great Alaska Shootout.

"This team has prolific scorers, guys who were always competing on the offensive end," Few said. "But now they're learning how to compete on the defensive end."

Few is reveling at how much this squad is improving. Morrison is getting into his offensive rhythm. Sean Mallon, whose droopy frame doesn't shout "player," still schools opponents around the offensive backboard and gets to the line (and made 7-of- 8 free throws against Tech).

The fresh-faced Raivio and the still-developing Pierre Marie Altidor-Cespedes (P-Mac for short) are improving at the point, with works-in-progress J.P. Batista inside and Erroll Knight on the wing. Knight didn't play against Illinois because of ligament damage in his thumb and his athleticism was sorely missed.

Gonzaga has had plenty of breakthrough wins since reaching the Elite Eight back in 1999. But this one certainly ranks high.

"This is a great win because that's a team that will compete for a national championship with those experienced guards," Few said.

So, why can't Gonzaga?

"We don't have the experience yet that they do," Few said of Jarrett Jack, Will Bynum, B.J. Elder and Isma'il Muhammad. "But the one thing I like about this team is that we're getting better and there is plenty of room for growth."

There is, everywhere around the country.

Hewitt talked about his team's subpar defensive effort, after defense had helped carry the Yellow Jackets through six wins by an average of 25.6 points.

Sutton wasn't thrilled with the Cowboys' inability to put away UNLV. The game could have easily been a 20-point spread but the Cowboys won by 12 and were pushed to nine late.

But Oklahoma State, with the inspired play of Stephen Graham and JamesOn Curry off the bench, continues to show that it doesn't miss Big 12 player of the year Tony Allen nearly as much as expected.

"We've got great chemistry and we're better than last year," Oklahoma State's Joey Graham said of the Final Four Cowboys. "We didn't think we would be as good as we were last year."

What about this year?

"Our motto is that 'the journey still continues,' since we didn't complete it," point guard John Lucas III said.

Prior to the game, Gonzaga and Oklahoma State coaching staffs checked with their compliance offices to see if they could scout each other's game since this wasn't a tournament but simply a doubleheader. They were told they could as long as each staff agreed. They did and now they've got a first-hand impression on the improvements each team has made to this point.

Oklahoma State continues to look like a potential champ. Gonzaga took one of the contenders down a peg Saturday night. That doesn't mean the Bulldogs are in the same category, but they might start to enter the discussion if they can keep this up over the next month. That won't be easy with the game in Oklahoma City, followed by a trip to Missouri and two straight WCC road games at Santa Clara and Saint Mary's.

"The schedule is going to be tough, but it's filled with plenty of opportunities," Few said.

Beating Georgia Tech was certainly one of them.

Andy Katz is a senior writer at ESPN.com.