LOS ANGELES — For anyone who thinks Gonzaga hasn't been fired up enough for its recent conference road trips, Matt Bouldin's twitter account provides unassailable evidence that you're wrong.
As for the basketball portion of these road trips, yes, generating enthusiam for that has been more of a struggle. In its last three conference road games, a sluggish, unfocused Gonzaga team has failed to match the hustle and energy of a hungrier opponent, resulting in a narrow comeback victory over woeful Santa Clara and stunning upset losses at middling San Francisco and Loyola Marymount.
"I think there's pretty good talent in this league," Gonzaga coach Mark Few said. "If we're not playing at our highest level, we're as susceptible as anyone to getting beat, especially if they're out-hustling us and beating us to balls. I don't care how good you are. If you're consistently getting beat to balls, you're in jeopardy of losing a game."
Gonzaga (21-5, 9-2) shouldn't have to go undefeated in league every year just because it's not in a power conference, yet the inevitable response to the Zags' recent losses is to question whether they're as good as we first thought. After all, before the emergence of star freshman Elias Harris, this was supposed to be a rebuilding year for a program that lost four starters from last year's Sweet 16 team including standouts Josh Heytvelt, Austin Daye and Jeremy Pargo.
"When we're playing hard, I think we might be a little ahead of past years because this team is really clicking," guard Steven Gray said. "It's just a matter of playing hard. When we don't, we look awful."
There's no denying that the talent level on this Gonzaga team hasn't dropped off much despite the players the program lost. Bouldin and Gray may be the West's two best wings, Harris is a future NBA forward and several of the seven other freshman have shown flashes of promise.
But unlike other years when Gonzaga was loaded with savvy veterans, this year's team makes too many youthful mistakes to survive a night like Thursday's LMU loss when Bouldin and Gray shoot 7-for-26 and nobody showed much urgency defensively. Harris rushed the few shots he had in the lane, freshman Bol Kong passed up a wide-open late 3-pointer in favor of a contested runner and even Gray let his man get free for a crucial bucket off an inbound pass with one on the shot clock.
"I don't know if we overlooked (LMU), but we definitely have to have the same mindset for every game," Bouldin said. "We didn't have the focus that we've had in some of our wins."
It's crucial that Gonzaga doesn't have another slip-up the rest of the regular season or in the conference tournament because the Zags have more to play for than in past years at this point. If Gonzaga can earn a top-four seed, it will almost certainly play its first- and second-round games at Spokane Arena in front of a crowd that will surely be heavily in the Zags' favor.
For a program that has been to the Sweet 16 four times since its initial Elite Eight run in 1999 but hasn't advanced any further, two virtual home games represent a huge opportunity.
"It would be nice, but either way we're going to have to come out and play," Gray said. "If we come out and don't play hard the way we did (against LMU), it doesn't matter if we're in Spokane or in the Kennel. There's a good chance we're going to get beat."