Guessing that Gonzaga partisans haven’t found a lot to quibble over in their team’s walkover victories against Texas Southern and Howard. The Zags have defended well, run offense with some fluidity, substituted profitably and shown themselves to be more than a flimsy imitation of their landmark, Final Four club of 2016-17. This wouldn’t be the first team I’ve seen that, in the face of significant attrition, puts together a big season, seemingly in part because that’s the residue of a winning program. There’s an expectation to perform, if not excel.
Let’s not get carried away with wins over Texas Southern and Howard. But I think an initial inclination I had about this team is going to be faulty. I thought there were striking similarities between the current team and the GU outfit of two years ago. Recall, that was the one that was coming off an Elite Eight run in 2015, that had lost the graybeard backcourt of Kevin Pangos and Gary Bell Jr. It had two formidable talents up front -- Kyle Wiltjer and Domas Sabonis -- whom you might judge to be roughly comparable in production to Johnathan Williams III and Killian Tillie.
But while that team struggled to break in new guards in Eric McClellan and Josh Perkins, this one has veterans in Perkins and Silas Melson, and the combined wing help from Corey Kispert and Zach Norvell -- albeit freshmen -- appears likely to trump the steadiness of Kyle Dranginis. It also has a true center in Jacob Larsen, and the outfit two years ago went almost the entire year without Przemek Karnowski.
I’m sticking to one story, however. The player most pivotal to Gonzaga’s future this year will be Perkins, by a bunch. And not only because he’s the only real option at the point-guard position, at least until freshman Jesse Wade is capable of extensive time.
Perkins’ ride at Gonzaga has been eventful, to say the least. His description as a fourth-year junior seems more youthful than his varied experiences.
So much about Perkins has been sharp contrasts. He was going to play as a true freshman, and then he lost that 2014-15 season to a broken jaw suffered in November.
His play in ’15-16 was fretful. Mark Few, the head coach, was deeply worried about guard play early that season, for good reason. Perkins seemed hitched to the no-look pass as much as he was the quiet, routine play that worked. In one miserable stretch against Arizona, Montana and UCLA, he went 1 of 13 on threes with 10 turnovers in the first two. Then it gradually got better, the guards settled down and the Zags went to a surprise Sweet 16, but the final, unkind cut was Perkins’ runner to try to upend Syracuse that was swatted away by Tyler Lydon.
If Perkins was going to blossom, it might have been a year ago, but in October, he was charged with physical control of a vehicle while under the influence. When he got on the floor, here came Nigel Williams-Goss as main man, taking twice as many shots as Perkins, leading Gonzaga to a Final Four. Indeed, where Perkins had taken the third-most shots on the team as a redshirt freshman in ’15-16, he took 61 less in ’16-17. His assist turnover numbers, 119-75 last year, were actually poorer than they were the year before.
You never quite knew what you were going to get from Perkins. In the first two games of the WCC tournament last March, he didn’t make a field goal. In the breakthrough victory over West Virginia, he didn’t attempt one. Yet he had a crucial blocked shot in the final minute that was a desperately needed prelude to Jordan Mathews’ huge trey seconds later.
And then against Xavier, in an uh-oh moment for Gonzaga fans, it was Perkins’ lazy pass that led to a Xavier runout to start the game, something that he didn’t dwell on. He came back with three treys in seven attempts, part of Gonzaga’s deep-range fusillade that won it going away.
So it’s obvious what Gonzaga needs from an old hand wielding the joystick this year: Consistency. Few, who puts a premium on shooting from his point guards, wants Perkins firing with abandon, calling him an “elite” shooter.” Last year, with Williams-Goss unleashing 453 attempts, Perkins took only 6.1 shots a game. You figure Gonzaga coaches are fine with him bumping that number to at least 10.
Nothing that’s happened over two games disputes any of that. Playing with the look of freedom, Perkins has already launched 17 threes, hitting nine. If he can fulfill the upside there, fine-tune his decision-making and contribute leadership, he’ll be approaching the player Few spent so much time personally recruiting a few years ago.
So I made a call to the University of Washington ticket office awhile back to buy a couple of tickets for the basketball game with Gonzaga Dec. 10, and it turned into more of a production than I would have guessed.
Several weeks ago, I was told single-game tickets wouldn’t be available until mid-October. Calling back then, I was told single-game seats would go on sale Oct. 24.
Except for one game: Gonzaga. That one wouldn’t be available until Nov. 7.
In the meantime, the UW was touting the Husky-Zag game as part of its five- and eight-game partial season packages. Both of those include Gonzaga, so I guess you could say the Huskies are willing to capitalize on Gonzaga’s success.
Anyway, a call to the ticket office Tuesday (Nov. 7) got this response: There still aren’t any such tickets available on a single-game basis, except to UW season-ticket holders. When I asked if there would be at some point, the ticket agent told me, “That’s definitely a possibility.”
I doubt anybody at Washington would concede this, but a side effect of curbing availability of single-game tickets is to limit the number of Gonzaga partisans in the stands. Nothing nefarious about that, but it’s perhaps another indicator of how the programs have diverged sharply in recent years. While the Huskies bottomed out with a 2-16 Pac-12 record and the firing of Lorenzo Romar in 2017, Gonzaga was appearing in its first Final Four.
Mike Roth, the Gonzaga athletic director, is taking a thoroughly benign view of the proceedings.
“There’s no conspiracy theory, at least in my mind,” he said. “This is not an uncommon practice in college athletics. It’s the University of Washington maximizing their schedule for the outcome they want. Nobody can blame them for that.
“If the roles were reversed, I think we would do the same thing.”
I was told tickets would be in the $65-99 range, if and when they’re available. If you take the secondary-market route -- that’s what I did -- be prepared to pay $100 at the low end.
This will be the first Gonzaga-UW game at Hec Ed since 2005, the most sizzling game in the series since the Zags began dominating it in the late 1990s. That was the one in which Adam Morrison rifled in 43 points but missed a late perimeter shot that probably would have won it. Instead, Washington prevailed, 99-95, in a screamer of a game with premier players all over the floor, including Brandon Roy.
That’s the Huskies’ only victory in the last 11 games in the series. Nine of the 10 Gonzaga wins have been by double figures, and a rivalry once marked by prickly words, cold shoulders and eventually, a nine-year hiatus (2006-2015), seems to have given way to a sense of resignation among a lot of UW fans. It will be worth watching to see whether first-year coach Mike Hopkins makes it a priority publicly to narrow that gap.
Tommy Lloyd’s evening’s work was done at the SAP Center in San Jose. Gonzaga had outslugged West Virginia, and in the nightcap of the 2017 NCAA West Regional the Gonzaga assistant coach was scouting, Arizona had a seemingly comfortable lead over Xavier.
So Lloyd scooped up his papers and headed for the exits, per his custom, at the final TV timeout. With just under four minutes left, Arizona’s Parker Jackson-Cartwright made two free throws for a 69-61 Wildcat lead, and now it was going to be what had seemed pre-ordained, a matchup of No. 1-seeded Gonzaga against No. 2 Arizona.
“We’d been on a collision course since December,” Lloyd said, referring to Arizona. “They’d literally watched every one of our games.”
So Lloyd made his way out of the arena. He likes to beat the crowd, hustle back to the hotel and settle in for a long night of preparation. But in the car, the play-by-play on the radio was saying different about a Gonzaga-Arizona game. Here came Xavier, the 11th seed, winning 73-71 with a stirring run down the stretch, flipping Lloyd’s mindset.
It would be a different challenge, but one for which Lloyd staunchly believed the Zags were ready. He had recently watched games involving heavyweights -- “Kansas and Duke,” he recalled. “I’m saying, ‘We’re better than they are.’ I knew we had the horses.”
As surprised as he was about Arizona, then, Lloyd was saying to himself, “Good for Xavier. But they’re gonna get their ass kicked in two days.”
That came to pass on a late-March Saturday, as the Zags crashed their first Final Four, 83-59. As he remembered Thursday night at a Gonzaga tip-off preview in Seattle that day and the week that followed, Lloyd briefly got emotional. I’d never seen him like that.
“You do things a certain way, you put your life’s work into something, you do it the right way,” Lloyd postulated. “You come up short a few times, and you wonder, ‘Is it not meant to be?’ “
But it was, and Thursday night in Phoenix, there was the gala Gonzaga put together, bringing back former players and coaches.
“Those guys would have wanted to do it themselves (make the Final Four), but they were so happy,” said Lloyd. “It was truly, truly special.”
There was the confluence of events that prolonged Przemek Karnowski’s college career -- the back injury of December, 2015 that forced a redshirt season -- without which Gonzaga probably comes up short of the Final Four a year later.
“That back injury was a blessing in disguise,” Lloyd said. “I thank him for coming back for a fifth year.”
Now, the year after that is fraught with both promise and uncertainty. Already, it’s different. For the first time since the 2000-01 season, Gonzaga isn’t the pick of WCC coaches to win the league title. Saint Mary’s is.
For any Zag willing to accommodate a chip on his shoulder, that intel will be drilled home.
“Bring it on,” said Lloyd, emphasizing each word.
It will be a thinner, but more athletic roster at Gonzaga. There will be a premium on staying healthy, so it’s not good news that freshman guard Jesse Wade has been out with shoulder injuries related to a nerve issue.
Elsewhere, Lloyd credited Johnathan Williams III with an “amazing off-season” and said, “He’s ready to be a star.”
Guard Josh Perkins “is ready for his moment in the sun,” and backcourt mate Silas Melson “has done everything we’ve asked,” and is poised to “show what he’s capable of.” Forward Killian Tillie can be “the next great Gonzaga player.”
Gonzaga’s use of Williams and Tillie in a lot of offensive sets will remind fans of how GU deployed Elias Harris and Kelly Olynyk.
Nobody is more intriguing than forward Rui Hachimura, but it was just a year ago that Hachimura came from Japan speaking -- and understanding -- only sporadic English.
“I don’t think you guys have any idea how talented he is,” said Lloyd, speaking raw skills. “He’s probably, physically, the most talented guy we’ve ever had.”
Lloyd recalled a moment at Gonzaga’s “Kraziness in the Kennel” event when Hachimura launched himself 6-8 inches inside the free throw line off his right foot and dunked with his left hand. When you’re right-handed, the left foot is dominant.
“There’s probably not 10 guys in the world that can do that,” Lloyd said.
Maybe the X factor will be Corey Kispert, the 6-6 freshman from little King’s High in Seattle. The Zag coaches are clearly taken by him. “That kid was born to be a Zag,” Lloyd said. “A stud.”
Zach Norvell is a shooter who can go off and has shown cleverness off ball screens. Unsung Jeremy Jones reminds Lloyd of Mike Hart and David Pendergraft, “a tough, hustle guy.” The caveat on Jacob Larsen is that he’s coming off tendinitis and a knee injury, but he’s a legit seven-footer with a capable right- and left-hand jump hook and mobility.
Logically, if it can stay healthy, this will be a team playing best toward the end of the season. The bad news is, the games against teams like Villanova, Florida (potentially), Creighton and San Diego State are early.
“It’s going to be an adventure,” Lloyd said. “But it’s going to be a fun adventure. We did lose a lot. It might not be a smooth ride to get there, but we’ll be ready.”
Whimsically, Lloyd said he awoke from a dream that morning. Domas Sabonis, off to a roaring start in his second year in the NBA, was back at Gonzaga for his senior year. Nigel Williams-Goss, playing now in Serbia, had also opted for a final season at GU. Zach Collins was a GU sophomore, not a rookie with the Trail Blazers.
“We’re No. 1 in the country,” Lloyd said in that apocryphal world. “We’ll take it.”
In reality, the Zags are No. 19, and that’s only a sketchy guess of what might lie ahead. But what last season proved is that there’s no glass ceiling at Gonzaga. For seasons to come, the process there was validated.
“We’re not delusional, expecting Final Fours every year,” Lloyd said. “But when you’ve done it once, why not do it again?”
It’s mere weeks now -- less than 30 days -- until Gonzaga opens its 2017-18 men’s basketball season. The one after the big breakthrough.
I caught up with head coach Mark Few Wednesday to talk about life after the Final Four, after making the ’17 national-title game, after losing a nail-biter to North Carolina in Glendale, Ariz.
Does it feel different now, after the long-running narrative that Gonzaga, for all its cuddly underdog-ness over the years, hadn’t made a Final Four?
“Yeah, it feels different,” he said. “Obviously there was a lot of vindication in some people’s mind. It wasn’t really in my mind, but certainly in some. We were able to do something we had never done. (But) it’s also one of those deals, once you’ve done it, you’ve got to (get ready to) do it again. The world doesn’t stop. It does feel different, but I’m also kind of a realist, especially when you’re in any profession in sports. Give it a year, and the knock’ll be: ‘They haven’t won a national championship.’ ‘’
The Zags lost Nigel Williams-Goss, Przemek Karnowski, Zach Collins and Jordan Mathews, so it’s a recast -- if extremely talented -- team this year. I asked Few if the message is: That’s in the past, and you start anew.
“I don’t think you forget about it,” he said of the ’17 season, marked by a school-record 37 wins. “You try to draw on all the great experiences last year, but also figure out why we were so successful. There was a reason our defense was No. 1 in the country (in KenPom’s adjusted ratings), and that we were deadly efficient on the offensive end.
“We communicated fantastically out there on the floor. A lot of that was Nigel commanding it. We protected the rim great, we took care of the ball. We’re kind of going through that process of relearning why we were so good. A lot of that was personnel.
“One guy that probably never gets enough credit is Karnowski. He was just unbelievable. When he was healthy, he got us three or four minutes from a Final Four one year (in 2015) and to one last year.”
So in his heart of hearts, when he reflected back on 2017, did he recall the wonders of doing something magical, or is he nagged by the thought that inside the two-minute mark, the Zags had a one-point lead to win a national championship?
“Ninety percent the former,” he said, “10 percent the other. When you coach, that’s the game. Sometimes there’s a little breaks-of-the-game, luck, fortune. (But) it’s 90 percent, unbelievable what we’ve been able to do. We’ve been telling everybody we could win a national championship here, and we can. Standing on the sidelines, if we played a best-of-seven series (with North Carolina), it would go seven. It was two very evenly matched squads.”
Nearing completion at Gonzaga is the Volkar Center, to include a practice floor, academic center, strength and conditioning facility and hall-of-fame component. Describing what he called “massive facilities changes,” Few also cited improvements to the current locker room including the addition of hot and cold tubs, a kitchen area and changes to the shower room.
“To kind of keep that up to industry standards,” he said, adding, “I think we’ve always done a really good job of not getting carried away. We don’t need to be the fanciest house on the block.”
As he begins his 19th season as head coach at Gonzaga, some Few observations on personnel:
-- Johnathan Williams III, who entered his name in the NBA draft before opting out: “He’s somebody we’re going to have to run a lot of our stuff through. He’s kind of primed for a big year.”
-- Josh Perkins: “We’re trying to get him to look to score a little more. I think, for whatever reason, he’s undervalued just how well he shoots it and has always kind of fancied himself more of a playmaker and distributor. For a point guard, I think he shoots it at an elite level. The playmaking (for Perkins) needs to be kind of secondary.”
-- Jacob Larsen, the Dane coming off a redshirt season due to a knee injury: “He’s a work in progress, kind of ‘project-y.’ He had knee tendinitis when he was back home (before entering Gonzaga). He was one of those seven-foot kids that was a work in progress before all that.”
-- Rui Hachimura: “He’s great in the open court, great in space and just a physical specimen. But he’s got some ways to go to be able to function in the half-court and use all this God-given athleticism.”
-- Jeremy Jones: “He can really help us in that undersized small-forward role, getting him flying around. Defensively, he’s a real talent. We’re thinking we can put him 1 through 4 (defensively) and be pretty darned good.”
-- Zach Norvell: “He’s a streaky kind of kid. He does a nice job making plays with the basketball, but he’s still got some areas defensively to work on.”
-- Corey Kispert: “He’s going to be really good. He’s tough, athletic and has great size.”
This will be a different Gonzaga team, not as deep, not as imposing up front, and very likely, not as good. But the seasons change, all a little different from the last, and so it goes.
“We’re smaller, leaner, not nearly as much depth,” Few said. “Practices, we’re trying to be real cognizant of those (to stay healthy). We don’t have the bodies, the numbers we had last year. But we’re really athletic, especially on that front line.”
College basketball’s crisis moment -- unmasked this week by the FBI, no less -- elicits a swirl of reaction. So let’s get to it.
When I authored “Glory Hounds,” the 2016 look at the stories behind Gonzaga basketball, I made mention of an annual study conducted by an assistant professor of finance at Indiana University-Purdue University Columbus (trust me, that’s the correct institution; I looked it up).
The professor assesses the valuation of college basketball programs, much as Forbes Magazine does in its annual list of pro sports franchises. Probably largely due to a rabid local fan base that creates off-the-charts TV ratings, Louisville was No. 1 in 2016, worth $301.3 million.
I described professor Ryan Brewer’s work as determining what college hoops programs “would be worth if they could be bought and sold like pro franchises.”
Who knew, until this week, that Louisville was already running a pro franchise?
-- I can’t imagine how the NCAA enforcement staff is going to be able to stay atop what just mushroomed into an incredible workload. The FBI named or implicated about seven programs this week, and hinted that more would be coming. Now think back to how long some NCAA investigations have taken -- Miami, USC (Reggie Bush), North Carolina. How’s this possibly going to work without a massive increase in staff at the NCAA?
-- In the twilight of their respective careers, Joe Paterno and Rick Pitino were regarded as masters of their profession. As if we needed another reason that sports figures shouldn’t be deified, we have another one.
-- Among the four programs whose assistants were arrested, the head coach whose name, by association, surprised me the most was Sean Miller. Just sayin’.
-- Imagine trying to recruit cleanly against the force of a six-figure payout to a prospect -- and, apart from the FBI finding, I wouldn't risk any judgment on who might be clean and who isn’t.
-- Gee, that show-cause penalty incurred by Bruce Pearl at Tennessee really turned him around, didn’t it?
-- I don’t see how paying players would prevent such abuses. All it would do is bump up the black market.
-- It’s debatable what role the one-and-done rule has in this, if any. Perhaps it’s too easy to hammer the NBA and its reluctance to deal with that restriction (and it is the NBA, not the NCAA). But if you had a baseball-style, sign-or-stay-for-three-years (or two) rule in place, at least there might not be such a wanton eagerness to compensate prospects illicitly -- the return on the investment would take a while, as opposed to the seven-month blow-by that one-and-done players fulfill in college.
-- Among Pac-12 schools, USC, if it’s convicted of a major NCAA violation, would take the lead all-time in the conference in that category. It’s currently tied with UCLA with six. Cheat On, uh, Fight On.
-- Maybe it’s just a conditioned reflex, but I don’t see Louisville getting the death penalty over this, although it surely appears to check the boxes. That Southern Methodist shutdown in the mid-‘80s stands as the only time the guillotine has been wielded, and it came after a long history of the football Mustangs flouting the rules. On the other hand, if the NCAA wants to make a statement . . .
-- For a long run of tawdry, oily college athletics sleaze, has anybody done it lately quite like Louisville?
Jud Heathcote died in his sleep Monday morning, and it might be the only time in his life he went quietly. Wherever he’s headed now, they better have a reply at the ready, because Jud is coming at them with a rapier wit that could slice Kevlar.
He was 90 years old, and he packed a lot into 90 years. He was schooled on the Olympic peninsula, coached high school hoops in Spokane, sat next to Marv Harshman on a distinguished bench at Washington State, brought respect to Montana and won a national championship at Michigan State.
In his golden years, he was a godfather of sorts around the Gonzaga program, a season-ticket holder and an occasional lunch companion/critic with Zags coach Mark Few at Jack and Dan’s. “Tuesdays with Jud,” Few called it with a verbal eye-roll, but I’ll bet Few would tell you he gleaned something valuable through Heathcote’s barrage of digs.
My first glimpse of Heathcote came as an undergrad at Washington State in the late 1960s, when he and Harshman were working up 18- and 19-win teams that finished second in the Pac-8 to John Wooden’s dynasty at UCLA.
This was my recollection of Heathcote: At a wayward official’s call, or a misstep by a Cougar, he would go airborne off the bench, landing with both feet simultaneously in a thump that resounded throughout Bohler Gym. He was often far more demonstrative than Harshman.
His persona was as blunt as his humor was nuanced. I was at the Seattle Post-Intelligencer in 1989 when the Final Four came to Seattle. The day after the title game, a little bleary-eyed after a hard month, I needed to write a follow-up story on how the city had done in the host role.
I happened by the Sheraton Hotel, headquarters for the National Assn. of Basketball Coaches meetings. I ran into Heathcote, an NABC president, and given his ties to the Northwest, figured him for some deferential quotes on Seattle’s performance.
Jud didn’t do deferential. To my surprise, he lobbed some grenades at the organizing committee for things like buses that didn’t run on time. And he wasn’t kidding.
Frequently, he was. At the old Kennel at Gonzaga one night, I bumped into him at halftime and we chatted. Then John Blanchette, the longtime columnist for the Spokane Spokesman-Review, walked by.
“No, no, sorry, no interviews tonight,” Heathcote admonished Blanchette, who wasn’t looking for one. “I’m talking to a big-time sportswriter.”
That was Jud, capable of zinging two sportswriters with one stone.
Of course, his surpassing achievement was winning the 1979 national championship with Magic Johnson at Michigan State. That title game, against Larry Bird’s Indiana State, remains the most-watched NCAA basketball game in history and is often cited as the ignition point to the game’s most passionate era.
Some years after his retirement in 1995, a push began to get Heathcote inducted into the Naismith Hall of Fame, led by Jerry Krause, then the Zags’ basketball operations guy who is also a prolific author and a noted overseer of the game.
Heathcote had the national title, and if not an innovator, he was at least the most prominent practitioner of the matchup zone defense, which, with people like Magic and Greg Kelser, was nigh-impenetrable.
Selectors were no doubt chilled by some of Michigan State’s fallow years. Indeed, in the 10 seasons after the ’79 run to the championship, Heathcote’s teams went 76-104 in the Big Ten. He knew some extremes.
On the other hand, the man couldn’t catch a break. There was the 1986 Sweet 16 game against No. 1-seeded Kansas at Kemper Arena in Kansas City, when a late clock stoppage of about 15 seconds -- while play was ongoing -- enabled the Jayhawks to take a game into overtime that Michigan State was leading. And in the 1990 Southeast Regional final, officials allowed Kenny Anderson’s late jumper to stand, even as replays showed it failed to beat the buzzer in regulation and Georgia Tech, not the Spartans, advanced in another overtime heartbreaker.
Give Heathcote another Final Four, and maybe he’s in the Naismith Hall of Fame. As it is, he was named to the College Basketball Hall of Fame.
This piece comes a little later than I had planned; Tuesday, a scant few paragraphs from the finish, I managed to spill coffee across the keyboard, rendering the touchpad useless and necessitating a trip to the Microsoft store for a replacement.
I can almost hear Jud cackling about it.
Two minutes, that’s all it was. Actually, it was less than two minutes. With 1:52 remaining, Nigel Williams-Goss backed down Theo Pinson smartly, banked in a 12-footer and Gonzaga had a 65-63 lead.
In college basketball’s national-championship game.
Zag fans would like to freeze that moment in time, forever embrace it. They’d like to replay those last 112 seconds and beseech the gods to give them any kind of nod, any sort of break -- an unlikely three, a mishandled pass by North Carolina, any of those silly, random things that occur all the time in a basketball game -- to get Gonzaga its first national championship.
I caught up the other day with Zags assistant Tommy Lloyd, Mark Few’s right-hand man. And there’s no doubt that the what-might-have-been questions are rattling around in the minds of not only fans, but coaches.
Lloyd has major say on substitutions. He rehashes how Gonzaga might have better handled a night when all its bigs were battling foul trouble. (Zach Collins played 14 minutes. My contention is, if Collins, the newly minted Portland draftee, had been able to stay on the floor for 19-20 minutes, Gonzaga wins).
If Zag fans would like to stop the game at the 1:52 mark, Lloyd wouldn’t mind doing that, either.
“Is there a way, when Nigel hit one of those shots to put us up, could we have called a timeout?” he muses.
In other words, call a Ben Howland timeout -- one immediately after you score -- just to make sure your defensive strategy is perfectly understood.
“There’s no guarantee things would be any different,” Lloyd concedes. “They very well could have scored.”
And the Tar Heels did. Pinson hit Justin Jackson, guarded by Williams-Goss, at the 1:40 mark for a three-point play underneath and Carolina led for good, 66-65.
At 1:25, Williams-Goss got tangled up with Pinson and rolled his ankle, which may have had its own killing effect on Gonzaga.
Off a high ball screen, Williams-Goss missed a 16-footer at the 1:17 mark. Then those gods frowned again on the Zags, as Kennedy Meeks, in a scrum with 49 seconds left, had his hand on the end line with the ball in the other, an official didn’t see it, and Isaiah Hicks made a difficult, driving shot on Johnathan Williams III for a 68-65 UNC lead at the 25-second mark.
At the other end, Williams-Goss, off another high ball screen, lost his footing ever so briefly at the top of the key, put up a shot that Meeks rejected -- your Sports Illustrated cover -- and the resulting runout sealed Carolina’s 71-65 victory.
Few took criticism for keeping the ball in Williams-Goss’ hands when he was apparently gimpy. Counters Lloyd, “He’d been the guy that’d delivered all year, and he’d made two big shots on the two previous possessions. He was kind of having a magical season. We didn’t necessarily say, ‘Shoot.’ We put the ball in his hands and trusted he’d make a good decision. Defensively, they made a great play (at 68-65).”
That was the intrigue of Williams-Goss in his only season in Gonzaga blue. Wherever the precise location of the line between go-to guy and he’s-trying-to-do-too-much, Williams-Goss occasionally would dance on that fine demarcation. In those waning moments against Carolina, he took at least four straight shots. But it was a night when Przemek Karnowski couldn’t get the ball to go down, and on the shot Meeks blocked, the videotape doesn’t seem to show any other real option available to Williams-Goss.
Another takeaway by Lloyd: The Carolina defense Gonzaga faced in the championship game was better than the Carolina defense it defeated two days earlier -- at least on this night.
“I liked our game plan going in, how we guarded them,” Lloyd said. “I thought that was pretty effective. Their pressure, I felt bothered us more than even South Carolina’s. They had us running our offense farther out, had us on our heels.”
Predictably, a 37-2 season that ultimately ends in defeat left him -- and no doubt, most of the Zags -- with conflicted feelings.
“Obviously, you’re disappointed,” he said, remembering the immediate aftermath. “But you’re quickly able to put it into perspective. It’s (the Final Four) such an awesome moment, where you appreciate everything that’s happened. The other side is, man, what could we have done a little differently? I think you understand if you win, it’s one of those forever deals. Also, you understand how hard it is to get there. That next opportunity, there’s no guarantee.”
Indeed, there is not. In March, the line is sometimes exceedingly fine. If Jordan Mathews doesn’t hit a late three against West Virginia in the Sweet 16, the Zags probably don’t win and spend the off-season labeled as tournament underachievers.
For Gonzaga partisans, the good news is, it was a sensational, breakthrough season, and for Lloyd, an affirmation. It doesn’t have to be a one-off.
“Being on the inside kind of reminded me: Our process and our culture were right,” Lloyd says. “We don’t have to sacrifice our ideals to achieve things at the highest level. Some people called it (the season) magical. I don’t think it was. I think we were just good enough, it wasn’t an anomaly, or that something magical had to happen.
“No, we are that good.”
In the extravagant tradition of Nike itself, the PK80-Phil Knight Invitational in Portland over Thanksgiving weekend is taking shape, such as a 16-team, two-arena, college hoops mega-monstrous gala takes place.
Gonzaga is a part of it, and all it is, is the biggest college basketball tournament in history outside the annual NCAA tournament (apologies to the NIT of bygone days). This pretty much makes the Maui Invitational or your basic Battle for Atlantis look like a CYO tournament (without the balmy weather, of course).
They came out with pairings Wednesday, and they’re suitably appealing. The event will celebrate Nike founder Phil Knight’s 80th birthday (next February), and it brings together many of the shoe baron’s affiliated schools -- among them Duke, North Carolina, Michigan State, Florida, Connecticut, etc., etc. By my count, 10 of the 16 schools in the thing have won NCAA championships, and with Carolina, Oregon and Gonzaga, it has three of 2017’s Final Four.
Nobody will be questioning any of these teams' strength of schedule, in other words, at least until the new year.
Games will be played in the Moda Center (the old Rose Garden) and nearby Veterans Memorial Coliseum, which is kind of cool. The old “Glass Palace” is still standing and still in use (and in fact, I confess to having attended the 1965 Final Four there). Everybody will play at least one game in each facility, with the breakdown dependent upon whether they win or lose progressively.
The Zags open play Thanksgiving night -- time to be determined -- at the older arena against Ohio State. The matchup opposite them is Florida-Stanford, the winners meeting Friday night, while the heavyweight looming on the top side of GU’s eight-team bracket is Duke. Each team will play three games, so two champions will be crowned, one in the “Motion” bracket and the other in the “Victory.”
Thursday and Friday offer full schedules, and after a day off Saturday, everybody’s back at it Sunday (Nov. 26), including the finals that night.
I reached out to a spokesman Wednesday, and he said single-session tickets -- at a price yet to be announced -- will go on sale June 9. (Those would get you a doubleheader).
The Zags have played Ohio State only once -- a 73-66 Buckeye win in 2012 in Pittsburgh. That was when OSU was seeded No. 2, and Gonzaga No. 7. After GU dispatched West Virginia in the first round, it drew the Buckeyes.
Jared Sullinger and Deshaun Thomas had 18 points each for Ohio State that day, matched by then-freshman Gary Bell Jr., who had one of the best games of his four years. He also had five assists and a single turnover, and led GU back from a 10-point second-half deficit to a late tie. But Sullinger muscled in a couple of baskets against Robert Sacre, and the Buckeyes advanced, eventually getting to the Final Four.
The real difference that day was Aaron Craft, the clever OSU point guard, who had 17 points on 7-of-9 shooting, 10 assists and two turnovers, and held his opposite number, freshman Kevin Pangos, to 10 points on 3-of-13 shooting.
A look at next year’s prospective Buckeyes and the next two possible Gonzaga opponents:
Ohio State -- The Bucks just went 17-15, 7-11 in the Big Ten, and appear to be in some disarray with potentially no more than nine scholarship players on the roster for next season. Since the season ended, one player, Trevor Thompson, forsook his senior year to try for the pros, a backup big man transferred out -- and then there was the weird case of guard JaQuan Lyle, a sophomore who had averaged 11.4 points and 4.6 assists.
Lyle was arrested on three charges, including public intoxication, in his hometown of Evansville, Ind., in May. Only then did it come to light that he had quit the Buckeyes in April, so 6-4 forward Jae’Sean Tate (14.3 points), the team’s scoring leader last season, is the only returnee among the top four scorers. Right now, there’s nobody bigger than 6-9 on the roster.
Coach Thad Matta will be on the griddle next season, after four other players transferred out after the 2016 season. He guided OSU to four straight Sweet 16s from 2010-13, but next year would be a third straight season out of the NCAA tournament, a first since he took over in 2004.
Florida -- The Zags would have faced the Gators in the national semis April 1 if Florida had hung onto a slim second-half lead against South Carolina.
Gonzaga scrambled back from an 11-point first-half deficit to beat the Gators, 77-72, in the semis of the AdvoCare Invitational last November. And of course, one of GU’s most memorable victories ever came in the Sweet 16 of its breakthrough 1999 run, when Casey Calvary slapped in Quentin Hall’s miss to beat the Gators.
Florida, a defensive-minded outfit getting early top-10 mention for 2017-18, would be the most formidable of the three possible early-round opponents for GU. Its backcourt of Chris Chiozza and KeVaughn Allen will be one of the nation’s best; it was Chiozza’s mad dash downcourt for a finishing three, accompanied by the buzzer, that beat Wisconsin by one in the Sweet 16 in March.
Stanford -- The Cardinal went 14-17 and 6-12 last season under Jerod Haase. They’re widely figured to be middle of the Pac-12 pack in 2017-18, and a matchup with GU would bring some familiar faces to the Zags.
They recruited Stanford forward Reid Travis hard but came up short, and Travis led the Cardinal with 17.3 points and 8.6 rebounds last season. Gonzaga also made a run at Seattle Garfield combo guard Daejon Davis, but Davis, after decommitting from Washington, chose Stanford.
With Travis, Stanford looms as formidable up front, but its guard play remains a questionmark.
Johnathan Williams III dispersed some hope around an anxious Zag Nation Wednesday, announcing he’s going to return to Gonzaga for his senior year after submitting his name into the NBA draft.
Some Zag fans had sensed the wheels wobbling on the program that forged a Monday-night date in April for the national championship. For them, not much of the news has been good since about the 38-minute mark of that game with North Carolina, and they were panting for a respite.
It’s not so much that Zach Collins left early for the draft, because surely, GU backers had to know he might heed mid-first-round projections. And it’s not so much that Nigel Williams-Goss also departed a year early. Anybody who knew a little about Williams-Goss, or witnessed how he made this Zag edition his team, might have known he could bolt. (My belief, written weeks ago, was that Williams-Goss would be gone, and that Collins was a 50-50 proposition.)
No, it wasn’t those early entries, not that they aren’t hugely significant. For some, it’s that the Zag brain trust seemed to miss an opportunity to capitalize on the 37-win, Final Four breakthrough and land some reinforcements.
To which I would say: It ain’t that easy.
Wing Elijah Brown, the grad transfer from New Mexico, visited GU but opted for Oregon. After that, Chase Jeter, a conventional transfer who never made it work at Duke, chose Arizona as his second home.
So, did the GU coaches repair to a Baja beach for six weeks after the loss to North Carolina?
Fact is, sporting history is littered with tons of examples of on-field successes failing to yield anything immediately significant with recruits. Rarely is a brief burst of winning something that equates to a big signature from a prospect. A lot of other things are more important to recruits -- proximity to home, weather, conference affiliation, or whether a girlfriend happens to be going to school somewhere close.
Back in 1988, covering college football for the Seattle P-I, I explored a story about what was going on that season in the state of Washington. While the Huskies were lurching through a six-win season, and looking very much like the Don James regime might have run its course, Dennis Erickson was leading WSU to a 9-3 record, including a win in the Apple Cup.
It was one of the more dramatic, simultaneous turns of fortune by the two programs, and I asked some top football recruits in the state about whether they might be more inclined to pick the Cougars. I can’t remember what they said, just that they didn’t. Old loyalties, old perceptions die hard.
Three years later, of course, Washington won a national co-championship. And, you can look it up, it had a small, undistinguished recruiting class in February of 1992, certainly nothing befitting a program that had just won a ring.
In writing “Glory Hounds,” I recall Gonzaga coach Mark Few telling me he was surprised that the 1999-2001 breakthrough by the program -- going to an Elite Eight and two Sweet 16s -- didn’t translate more quickly to recruiting success.
It’s a long, long slog before such trends develop. No question, an appearance in a title game can’t hurt, but recruits have natural predilections -- a coach, a geographic area, a conference -- and it’s often difficult to move them off that position.
I can’t vouch for the particulars on either Brown or Jeter, or whether a passing car might have splashed mud on either of them while they walked down Hamilton in Spokane. But it’s worth remembering that Brown also picked a Final Four participant in Oregon, and Jeter, well, it’s not as if he opted for Texas-Rio Grande Valley.
So to those bemoaning what’s happened since early April, chill. Williams’ return is indeed worth a toast for GU fans. If he had left, Gonzaga would have lost its top five scorers from ’16-17 (Williams was No. 4 at 10.2).
His decision surely seems wise, in that he’s still a little rough around the edges. With improvement, and with a cast up front (Killian Tillie, Jacob Larsen, Rui Hachimura) that will be less dominant but still formidable next season, Williams certainly could blossom into a draftable player. His perimeter shooting can improve, as can his team-leading rebounding figure of 6.4. Moreover, his length and quickness could help him become a high-level defensive player.
In “Glory Hounds,” Williams told me, “I want to be a beast that averages a double-double.” He was talking about his junior year. But that wouldn’t be a bad outcome next season, either.
Last week, I tossed out for debate a provocative topic, completely subjective and indefinable: Who belongs on Gonzaga’s men’s basketball Mount Rushmore?
Judging by message-board reaction, there are a whole bunch of different lenses through which this is viewed, and thus, a wide range of opinion.
So, to restate, and clarify, my criteria: A chosen one could be a player, coach, administrator or any figure who has made a significant imprint on the program. If it’s a player, his impact is measured by what he did at Gonzaga, not in the NBA -- unless he has had some added role with GU.
Here’s the trickier part: Assessing a player’s individual contribution and weighing it in the context of what the team did during his time at Gonzaga. I give great weight to team accomplishment, especially in the post-season, but this exercise requires trying to judge a player’s part in that, as well as taking stock of what kind of supporting cast he had.
Onward . . .
Mark Few. I’d be surprised if anybody doing this didn’t have him No. 1.
Tommy Lloyd. Beyond Few, the candidates are varied and debatable, but I'm certain Lloyd ought to be in this final four. He’s been at Gonzaga since 2000, or virtually the whole of the 19-year NCAA-tournament streak, he’s the longest-tenured GU assistant in history; he established and nurtured the Zags’ formidable overseas recruiting connection; and he has a significant role in strategic input.
Adam Morrison. Here’s where it really gets interesting. Morrison’s three seasons produced modest NCAA-tournament outcomes -- two crushing second-round losses in 2004-05 and the killer Sweet 16 defeat to UCLA. But Morrison’s ’06 season was so dominating, so incandescent, that for me it trumps the post-season underachievement. Remember, he shared a couple of national co-player-of-the-year awards, and his hell-bent, swashbuckling style -- all of it as a diabetic -- captured the attention of the nation. His NBA career was forgettable, but he did enough in college to warrant the No. 3 overall pick in the '06 draft.
Uh, err . . . Przemek Karnowski. I found this to be the toughest call of all. For my money, there has to be a recognition of Gonzaga’s achievement of its first Final Four in 2017. That initially led me to Nigel Williams-Goss, who, after all, was a first-team All-America and led GU in scoring, free-throw shooting, assists and steals.
But then you start splitting hairs. Did any individual lead Gonzaga to the Final Four? In the Zags’ first three NCAA-tournament games, recall, NWG shot 12 for 42 from the field. Even in the gateway Elite Eight win against Xavier when he scored 23 points, he was only 7 of 19 from the floor (albeit with four of seven on threes).
This was really Williams-Goss’ team; he took 115 more shots than anybody else. But as was noted repeatedly throughout the 37-2 season, it was a balanced team with a wealth of scoring options, nothing like the Morrison-dominated club of 2006. Karnowski averaged 12.2 points, second to Williams-Goss’ 16.8.
Karnowski’s career ended on a sour offensive night against North Carolina in the title game. But think about what he was a part of at Gonzaga: He played on both of its teams to attain a No. 1 ranking, in 2013 and 2017. He became the NCAA’s all-time winningest player at 137, and while a lot of those came in the tepid West Coast Conference, it’s still something nobody else can say. He was a key part of the 2015 Elite Eight team and the ’17 Final Four outfit, and if you go by post-season achievement, those are no worse than two of the most decorated three teams in school history.
-- I was surprised those on message boards didn’t voice a greater support for Dan Monson, Few’s predecessor. It was Monson who essentially hired Few, who engineered the 1999 Elite Eight run, and who acted as shield between volatile head coach Dan Fitzgerald and Few and fellow assistant Billy Grier, allowing them to grow and recruit.
-- Limiting this to a Gonzaga-achievement discussion takes John Stockton out of it in my mind. Stockton’s NBA cred is immense and indisputable, but he played on Gonzaga teams that combined to go 27-25 in WCC play in 1981-84 (even as he won league player-of-the-year honors in ’84). Stockton has been an understated presence around the program since he retired from the NBA, but I don’t see it as enough to lift him here, given we’re not counting NBA profile.
-- A figure whom I neglected to mention last week as a candidate -- should have -- is Frank Burgess, the late former U.S. District Court judge. Burgess was the nation’s leading scorer in 1961 at 32.4 points a game (and was No. 5 in ’60, when the No. 1 man was Oscar Robertson). This was an era just after Gonzaga had become NCAA Division I and the Zags played as an independent, with no post-season play.
-- Casey Calvary could make a convincing case to be among the top four. He was part of seven NCAA victories from 1999-2001 and his tip-in against Florida in ’99 is still front-and-center in the discussion as the most famous shot in Zag history.
-- Those who put Courtney Vandersloot on this Rushmore would have a point if I hadn't specified this to be a discussion of the men’s program only. But since we’re entertaining it here, if you opened it up to both men and women, wouldn’t you have to give serious consideration to Kelly Graves over Vandersloot?
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