We've long passed the point where people are shocked to see the name Gonzaga attached to a top 20 ranking almost a month into the season, but in an ironic twist, the Bulldogs suddenly find themselves being accused by some of attaining their ranking based on name alone.
Gonzaga is 6-2 heading into Saturday's game against UCLA, but both their win over Connecticut and their narrow losses to Texas A&M and Arizona now appear less impressive than many would have guessed heading into the season. Comfortable wins over Washington and Washington State are nice, but they also don't do much when it comes to indicating the Zags' merits as a legitimate national title contender.
Then there was Tuesday night, when a Montana team that had already been handed defeats by Pepperdine, San Jose State and North Dakota State, came within a made shot or two of stunning the Bulldogs at home. Freshman guard Josh Perkins hit a free-throw and then a jumper with 38 seconds left to erase a 58-56 Grizzlies lead, and allow Gonzaga to escape with a 61-58 win that head coach Mark Few called "lucky" after the game.
The win over Montana has already been forgotten by most fans of college basketball, and it's more likely than not that the game will remain little more than a box score on Gonzaga's athletic site when all is said and done. The hope of some in Spokane, however, is that Tuesday is the night we all point back to four months from now as the moment when Perkins was hit with the confidence necessary to help carry the Bulldogs to a special 2015-16 run.
With all due respect to Kelly Olynyk and the current two-headed monster of Przemek Karnowski and Domantas Sabonis, one of Gonzaga's lone attachments to its former mid-major status is that it's still a program whose success has mostly been governed by its star guards. There was Dan Dickau and then Blake Stepp and then Adam Morrison and then Derek Raivio and then Jeremy Pargo and then Matt Bouldin and then Kevin Pangos and then ... well that's the question that currently looms the largest in Spokane.
It's a foreign situation for Mark Few: having the bigs necessary for success (even though Karnowski is currently out with back spasms), having the versatile forward who can score inside and outside, but being a reliable guard or two away from having the perfect formula for a deep run in the NCAA Tournament. Few has already tinkered with a number of different combinations, and while Silas Melson's outside shooting and Kyle Dranginis' senior leadership have each had their respective moments in the spotlight (and still figure to have a few more), it has become abundantly clear that it's the star of the freshman guard that needs to shine the brightest.
When Josh Perkins hit the game-winner for Gonzaga Tuesday night, it wasn't the culmination of a breakout performance or the cherry on top of yet another performance that had Bulldog fans drunk on the thought of future success. Instead, it was the final line of an all-too familiar story of unevenness. Against Montana, Perkins showed both the good (clutch shooting, 13 points, 6 rebounds and a pair of steals) and the bad (just one made 3-pointer, inconsistent on-ball defense and five turnovers) that has made the first month of his college basketball career a frustrating one for his head coach.
"I thought he was awful early, and then awful to start the half," Few said of Perkins. "And then, to his credit, he made some big plays. That's not easy to do in the world of sports, or in life, when you're struggling, struggling, struggling. So to step up and take that shot at the end and make it, I was proud of him there."
Few's postgame comments, and his demeanor while making them, should be familiar to any fan who's ever cheered for a talented player plagued at some point in their career by inconsistency. The spurts of brilliance make the periods of futility and error more difficult to understand, and can sometimes serve as a more frustrating viewing experience than watching a player who is just indubitably bad.
That label has never been used in reference to Perkins, a former recruit with the type of accolades -- 4 stars and a consensus top 100 ranking -- that Gonzaga fans are still adjusting to even after nearly two decades of uninterrupted success. Anyone who pegged the Zags as a Final Four contender before the start of this season did so with the belief that Perkins would be able to comfortably fit into the shoes left behind by Pangos, a four-year starter at point guard and the most recent West Coast Conference Player of the Year. Much of that belief stemmed from the first five games of 2014-15, when Perkins played well as Pangos' primary backup (20.0 mpg, 5.0 ppg and 3.4 apg) before breaking his jaw and taking a medical redshirt.
Perkins is a gifted athlete who has the ability to create his own shot more aptly than any other player on Gonzaga's roster. Unfortunately for him, those assets serve more as a bonus in a job where the primary requirements have always been to take care of the ball and knock down outside shots.
A season ago, when they finally broke through and crashed the Elite Eight for the first time since 1999 before falling to eventual national champion Duke, Gonzaga ranked eighth nationally in 3-point field goal percentage (40.0 percent) and 21st in turnovers per game (10.4). Bulldog fans so used to the rock-solid court managing and lethal outside shooting of Pangos have watched in horror at times this season as Perkins has turned the ball over 3.6 timer per game (and too often in critical situations) and misfired on 17 of his 27 attempts from beyond the arc. Not helping his cause is the fact that Perkins has hit just 12-of-23 from the free-throw line, good for 52.2 percent.
While Perkins isn't the first talented young guard to struggle with inconsistency during his first dance with the spotlight, patience isn't exactly a luxury that Gonzaga is going to have for too much longer.
After Saturday's game against UCLA, SMU is the only opponent left on Gonzaga's non-conference slate who provides an opportunity for Few's team to make a national splash. Also working against the Zags is the fact that the West Coast Conference appears to be much closer to a traditional mid-major conference than the one which has sent multiple teams to the NCAA Tournament in each of the last four years. BYU and Pepperdine have both been disappointments up to this point, and while Saint Mary's appears to be on the uptick, the Gaels are still a far cry from the at-large locks that Randy Bennett was fielding a few years ago. Take that and combine it with SMU's postseason ban, and there's a very real chance that Gonzaga won't play an NCAA Tournament team in 2016 until, well, the NCAA Tournament. That doesn't leave you with a whole lot of room for error when it comes to building a resume that warrants a top four or five seed.
Fairly or unfairly, the pressure is on Perkins to emerge as an always reliable and sometimes lethal point guard. Gonzaga can still be good without that revelation occurring, but good hasn't been the standard in Spokane for a long time.