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Zags, '18-19: Cue the hoopla

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So, yeah, cue the trumpets. Fire up the fanfare. The hyperbole around the next edition of the Gonzaga men’s basketball team is going to be substantial. And if you’re a Zags basketball fan, exhilarating.

Maybe only Shohei Ohtani has had a better week than the Zags. First, they got a thumbs-up from Rui Hachimura on a return for his junior season. That one, in my mind, satisfied the biggest questionmark of the off-season.

On the heels of that announcement came word that Killian Tillie, a classmate of Hachimura, is also on board for 2018-19. Tillie’s 2018 NCAA tournament was a downer, after a dazzling MVP tour in the WCC tournament. In the big show, he went 3 for 12 for nine points, didn’t hit a three over two games, and his hip injury just prior to Florida State was a precursor to GU’s lousy night and an exit from the Sweet 16.

Gonzaga’s front line could be ridiculously flush, with Hachimura, Tillie, all-Mountain West expat Brandon Clarke, great Dane Jacob Larsen and newcomer Filip Petrusev.

All that remains is assurance that point guard Josh Perkins is back for a fifth year -- and there’s no real reason to guess otherwise -- and the buzz around the Zags will be immense.

And unprecedented. By my reckoning, Gonzaga has been ranked in the AP preseason top 10 four times -- 10th in 2003-04 (Stepp, Turiaf, Violette, Morrison); 8th in 2005-06 (Morrison, Batista, Raivio); 10th in 2008-09 (Heytvelt, Downs, Bouldin) and 9th in 2015-16 (Wiltjer, Sabonis).

Assuming all the pieces stay in place from April to November, this will be the highest-ranked GU team in history entering a season, likely top five. If a national championship is ever going to happen, this might be the year.

The promise guarantees nothing, of course, and who better to remind the faithful than Mark Few, a guy who could pooh-pooh Secretariat on the final turn at Belmont?

Injuries can happen, complacency can happen, chemistry can go awry, leadership can dry up. For one, it’s not unreasonable to ask: Are there enough balls to go around on a team that figures to retain eight of its top 10 scorers?

Blessedly for Zag fans, there’s little history of GU being outflanked by expectation over a full season. You could cite 2015-16, the year Gonzaga had to win the WCC to get to the NCAA tournament, but a lot of that had to do with Przemek Karnowski’s December back injury that scuttled his season. (An aside: If it’s true that Tillie’s hip injury would have rendered him less than full speed for pre-NBA workouts, and he might otherwise have jumped, there’s the possibility of the same silver lining GU experienced with Karnowski’s return in ’16-17.)

Meanwhile, the Zags continue to recruit, plumbing the grad-transfer market as well as the living room of one Brandon Williams, the point guard from Encino, Calif. who pulled out of a commitment to Arizona and is considering GU, Arizona State and Oregon, among others.

In a piece in 247Sports.com on the visit by GU coaches, Williams’ father, Chris Wright, said of Few, “He said the one thing they’re missing is a dynamic guy that can get into the paint and make plays.”

Think of it. A guard who can penetrate and create. When has Gonzaga had one of those?

Stories on recruiting sites tend to explode with puffery, but it was evident from Wright’s comments that Gonzaga had surprised him and his son. Wright was quoted, “When I got back from walking them out of the house, he looked and me and shook his head and said he was so confused about what to do now.”

That rang a bell. Nigel Williams-Goss told me the same thing about his home visit when he was culling possible destinations after leaving Washington.

Borrowing from “Glory Hounds:” “They completely elevated in my mind,” Williams-Goss said. “Again, it was going back to the preparation, the workouts . . . like the amount of film they watch, just the preparation that goes into being successful.”

In the 247Sports.com story, Wright was also quoted as saying his son likely would be in college only two years, and that a major priority is “him having the ball from day one.”

So this would be the second time (Williams-Goss having been the first) Josh Perkins and a newcomer would have to be persuaded they can flourish together.

If there was any presumptuousness in Wright’s observations, Few probably has come to grips with them. Besides, he needs to get used to it. His own fan base is going to be presuming a lot about the ’18-19 Zags.
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For Gonzaga, it's a pregnant post-postseason

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So Gonzaga’s “season after” its big breakthrough of 2017 is done, as are the seasons of 346 other college basketball teams (I don’t count anybody still playing in the NIT, CBI or CollegeInsider.com events. There’s only one tournament.)

Safe to say that GU’s off-season is fraught with more possibility than it used to be around Gonzaga, even 8-10 years ago. But the price of running with the thoroughbreds is the uncertainty that accompanies their high achievement.

If Rui Hachimura, Killian Tillie and every other eligible player on the Gonzaga roster returns next season, you’ve got a national-championship contender. But what if Hachimura and Tillie depart after sophomore seasons? And what if Josh Perkins, who will have been a GU student for four years, somehow concludes he’s had enough? At that end of the continuum you might have a team struggling to sustain the 20-year streak of NCAA tournaments.

Meanwhile, other things to chew on:

-- Here’s the damage in that 20-year run: One Final Four, two Elite Eights and six Sweet 16s. If you can find underachievement in that, you’re delusional.

-- You may have read in this space recently that Gonzaga’s average seed in those 20 tournaments was 6.4, yet it went 17-3 in first-round games. For comparative purposes, how have No. 6 seeds fared against 11s in the last five NCAA tournaments? They’re 10-10.

-- I’m puzzled at what happened to redshirt freshman Jacob Larsen, whom I saw score 10 points with five rebounds against Villanova Dec. 5. When I talked to Zag assistant Tommy Lloyd in mid-February, he cited Larsen’s hitting a freshman wall, the fact he was largely idle for two straight seasons, and the rigors of coming off a knee injury. The hope was, they could work him back into the rotation down the stretch. But after the first game of the calendar year, Larsen was in long enough to score exactly 11 points the rest of the way.

-- How to assess the Zags’ NCAA performance? The Greensboro game had upset written all over it until Perkins and Zach Norvell rescued it in the last minute. Ohio State was, by and large, a boffo performance. Nothing seemed right against Florida State, starting with Tillie’s absence.

-- I don’t have any knowledge of Tillie’s disposition about turning pro, but nothing he did in the tournament will help that status. He shot 3 for 12, missed all four threes (after an other-worldly WCC-tournament performance), had eight rebounds, four steals, four turnovers and nine points, before missing the Florida State game.

-- Gonzaga had three 80-percent-plus free throw shooters entering the tournament. Combined, they missed 19 free throws in the three games.

-- The idea of a “bracket opening up” -- upsets taking hold in a particular region -- is something of a myth. A bracket opens up because some team, perhaps underseeded, is now playing really well. Ask Kansas State about its bracket opening up.

-- Remember how, when George Mason made its run to the Final Four in 2006, it was thought to be the most incredible, unrepeatable, indescribable feat?

-- I never really thought this Gonzaga team was capable of going all the way. Going further, certainly, but not all the way.

-- At the 2014 sub-regional in San Diego, before a second-round game against Arizona (blowout win for the Wildcats), Zags coach Mark Few caught some grief for saying it was a matchup of the two top programs in the West that had been recently alternating that title. It’s a highly fluid distinction, but right now, Gonzaga is the top program in the West.

-- Revenue, mostly TV revenue, will drive Gonzaga’s decision regarding whether to remain in the WCC or bolt to the Mountain West. (Personally, I think the Big East would be fabulous, creating a national conference of like-minded schools. But there’s that geography.) And here’s a stray thought: If you go to the Mountain West, you throw in with a collection of schools that will forever be second banana to the Pac-12. If you stay in the WCC, yes, it’s a league inferior to the Pac-12, but you’re still sort of a distinct free agent in a league of convenience because of the religious affiliations. In other words, you gain money going to the Mountain West, but do you sacrifice your brand? Just sayin’.
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An old Zag mega-scorer riffs on ... the next one?

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This might come as a surprise to followers of Gonzaga basketball who twisted and squirmed through last weekend’s Boise sub-regional, but Zach Norvell Jr. went a long time this season without leading the Zags in scoring in a game.

In fact, as mid-March approached, he hadn’t led his team since before Christmas -- when he scored 22 in a Gonzaga loss at San Diego State Dec. 21.

That didn’t affect him materially in his first college games in the NCAA tournament, where he rescued the Zags with a clutch three-pointer to beat North Carolina-Greensboro, and then seemed to make every big shot with a career-high, 28-point game in a nervy Gonzaga win over Ohio State.

Call it recency bias, then, because it seems like Norvell has been gunning in baskets by the bushel all season, kind of like a certain prolific scorer at GU a little more than a decade ago.

“I’m just impressed with his overall mentality,” said Adam Morrison.

I caught up Tuesday with Morrison, now doing radio analysis for Gonzaga, to pick his brain on Norvell. If Gonzaga’s last great scorer wasn’t Kyle Wiltjer (2015-16), certainly it was Morrison, who averaged 28.1 points a game with his for-the-ages season in 2005-06, one that won him a couple of player-of-the-year awards.

Of course, it’s far too early to put Norvell in that category, but there are encouraging signs, starting with an apparently implacable mindset.

When the season began, most of us expected that the newbie wing to make a major splash would be Corey Kispert. He started at the outset, but an ankle sprain late in November thrust Norvell into the starting lineup.

Immediately, he responded. He rattled off 21 points against Creighton, 22 in New York against Villanova, 21 against Washington.

None of that happened without Norvell managing his mindframe through the early games, Morrison says, noting that the reserve role -- yet one carrying expectations of point production -- can be difficult for a young player.

“He was kind of thinking, his-shot-first,” Morrison says. “Now it’s more of a flow. He’s starting to understand when’s a good shot and when’s not. You could tell, from my perspective as a former player, when it’s, ‘I’m gonna shoot it (pre-determining, in other words), instead of trusting that it’s gonna come back.

“I think he kind of pressed a little bit early. That’s a tough role to come into. He wasn’t taking horrible shots, but some of them, that’s got to be a ball-swing and trust it’s going to come back to you.

“You’ve got to give him credit for being ready for the opportunity. A lot of kids will get frustrated.”

So there Norvell was last week in Boise, struggling to score against UNCG. But he nailed the killer three-pointer that separated Gonzaga from the No. 13 seed.

And against Ohio State, it seemed like every big basket was Norvell’s. After the Buckeyes had scrambled back to take their biggest lead at 67-62, Norvell quickly bombed a three that again turned it into a coin-flip game. And after GU nosed ahead, but tenuously, 73-69, Norvell rained in another trey with 2:21 left from that familiar right wing that allowed the Zags breathing room to the finish.

The question, then: Does Morrison see some of himself in Norvell?

“Yeah, some of the stuff, I really do, the unconscious stuff,” Morrison said. “If you want to score in bunches, you’ve got to forget the last shot. It’s so cliché, but it’s hard for guys to do it.”

Norvell, who redshirted last year after a preseason knee injury, averages 12.7 points a game, third among five scorers in double figures, shooting .466 overall, .368 from the three-point arc and .821 on free throws. As a freshman in 2003-04, Morrison was GU’s fourth-leading scorer at 11.4 -- behind Ronny Turiaf, Blake Stepp and Cory Violette -- shooting .531, .304 and .726 in those metrics.

My memory isn’t failsafe, but I don’t recall Morrison immediately announcing himself as a college scoring phenom in the making (though he had certainly been prolific at Mead High). It was in his sophomore year that he averaged 19 a game before exploding his junior year, which included bursts of 43 points against Michigan State and Washington.

Through many of the succeeding years, when Gonzaga burnished its national profile, it didn’t necessarily have a go-to scorer, rather relying on offensive balance. In fact, since Morrison left, five times GU’s scoring leader averaged less than 15 points.

Very soon, that may change. Morrison hopes to sit down with Norvell after the season and brainstorm ways the Chicago product can elevate his game.

“The next step is, he’s got to get a little more ‘shake’ to his game,” Morrison said. “He’ll be more of a focal point next year. He’s got to get to the line, he’s got to cut better. Every once in a while, you’ve got to back-cut a guy, cut with your hands and show the ref you’re getting fouled, and guys will back off you.”

Norvell jab-stepped a UNCG defender to launch his decisive shot last week, and that’s the foundation of another building block, Morrison says.

“Being a lefthander is such an advantage, because you’re not used to guarding it,” Morrison says. “But I’d like to see him become a better jab-stepper. One of his next steps is being able to jab with both legs. The toughest guys I’ve ever been around offensively were really good jab-steppers with both legs.”

Morrison has no qualms that Norvell would take the pointers and run with them.

“I’ve been so impressed with his development throughout the whole season,” Morrison says. “It’s fun to see a kid go from being a little down on himself, or just not in the role he wanted to be, and when he gets the opportunity, make the most of it.

“He’s a good kid, fun to be around.”

In Boise, the kid’s teammates no doubt agreed.
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The show-stoppingest of all Zag stats

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If you knew only some of the story of the Gonzaga-North Carolina Greensboro game Thursday, you’d be absolutely convinced the Zags would right about now be boarding a charter flight from Boise to Spokane and pondering a first-round exit from the NCAA tournament.

Against UNC-C, the Zags:

-- Made five threes on 23 attempts.

-- Shot 42.4 percent overall.

-- Made 13 of 25 free throws.

-- Were outrebounded, 44-39.

Here’s how long it’s been since any of those things happened: Not since the opener of the WCC tournament against Loyola Marymount has GU shot more poorly from the foul line. Not since Feb. 8 against Pacific have the Zags shot more poorly from the field. Not since the first Saint Mary’s game Jan. 18 has Gonzaga been outrebounded.

And I don’t know how long it’s been since GU was as abysmal from three-point range. I went back through every game this season, and concluded it goes back more than a year.

But guess what? Ultimately, none of that mattered, because Gonzaga survived, 68-64, and therein lies a continuing story.

In Gonzaga’s golden 20-year run of consecutive NCAA-tournament appearances, the Zags are now 17-3 in first-round games, which in itself is a stunning percentage (85 percent). But what really drives the point home is GU’s average seed in those 20 tournaments:

Amazingly, it’s 6.45, an emphatic counterpart to an old narrative of Gonzaga as tournament underachiever.

You just don’t go 17-3 for 20 years as a six seed, actually a little poorer, in this tournament. If you’re Duke or North Carolina or Kansas and you’re getting a one, two or three seed every year, it’s manageable, but not as a six.

In the 20 years, Gonzaga has been a one or two seed a total of four times. But it’s been a double-digit seed six times.

And -- plug for research in “Glory Hounds” here -- a 10th straight victory in the opening round of the tournament pushes Gonzaga to a tie for No. 7 all-time in that metric, with Duke (which has done it twice) and Stanford.

The 10 straight is the second-longest ongoing streak to that of 12 by Kansas, which bumped its string with a first-round win over Penn.
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Lotta teams have a bone to pick in the Zag regional

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Call it the Retribution Regional. At least, that’s the potential for -- and to -- Gonzaga, as it begins its stab at March Madness, 2018.

The Zags drew a No. 4 seed and face 13th-seeded North Carolina-Greensboro in the West Region first round Thursday. If they advance, and fifth-seeded Ohio State does as well against South Dakota State, Gonzaga and the Buckeyes would meet in a second-game Saturday, and that would be a rematch of their first-round PK80 tournament game Thanksgiving night, won by GU, 86-59. ESPN analyst Dan Dakich: “If Gonzaga beats Ohio State, I think Gonzaga goes to the Final Four.”

If I were the Zags, I’d pretty much hate a game with the Ohio State under those circumstances, but the selection rules don’t protect against second-round rematches. Seems to me the psychological edge would be with the Buckeyes, although (a) the game would be in Boise, vastly favorable to Gonzaga, and (b) it’s not like Ohio State would be especially appealing to the non-Zags in attendance. Ohio State, enrollment 66,000, football colossus, would be a difficult embrace as cuddly underdog.

Of course, there’s also the potential for Gonzaga to meet No. 2 seed North Carolina -- which denied the Zags a national title last April -- and the Zags could eventually face, for the right to go to the Final Four, Xavier, precisely the two who met for the same Holy Grail last March when GU advanced convincingly.

More random thoughts on the bracket and the Zags:

-- Let me be the 73rd millionth person to say I hated TBS’ revised Selection Sunday format. Consider: We went from an elongated format in which CBS revealed a quarter of the bracket, then kept everybody on edge while it had to discuss that quartile. What it was doing was withholding the news. So now we’re shuffling out the participant field -- in a very anticlimactic, yawning fashion. What would be wrong with striking a balance -- reveal each quartile briskly (get the news out of the way) and then go back and analyze it in depth?

-- Oklahoma’s inclusion drew the heaviest derision, based on its sagging finish. Which surely dulls the shine on the Sooners, but the selection rules explicitly say the finish means nothing (the last 10 used to be a factor). For what it’s worth, Oklahoma went 6-9 against other teams in the field and jilted Oklahoma State went a comparable 8-11.

-- Stop with the conspiracy theories, that the system is rigged, yadda, yadda, yadda. There’s too much money at stake and too much integrity on the committee -- not always perspicacity, but integrity -- to put that enterprise at risk.

-- Zags coach Mark Few just extended his NCAA record to 19 consecutive appearances in the tournament to start a head-coaching career.

-- The night of Feb. 10 in Moraga, Calif., Gonzaga stole something from Saint Mary’s, and the Gaels never got it back.

-- You’d think that repeated brushes with the bubble would drive the point home to SMC coach Randy Bennett, but it doesn’t. It has to upgrade the schedule, even if it means going on the road with no return game.

-- Texas Southern started 0-13 and didn’t win a game until New Year’s Day. And it’s in the NCAA tournament. What a country.

-- TSU’s win in the Southwestern Conference tournament means Gonzaga beat four teams in its non-league schedule -- TSU, Ohio State, Texas and Creighton -- that made the NCAAs. As noted previously in this space, the average for GU in its 20-year golden run is 2.47 such wins.

-- Over and over, we hear pleas for more reliance on the eyeball test as an undervalued tool for the committee, but I’ve never bought in. For one, anybody knowledgeable will tell you matchups are critical, and you might be seeing a team against an opponent that’s a bad matchup. Or you might be catching a team on a night when it simply mails it in. Seems to me, it’s dangerous to have a subjective element that can’t be backed with facts.

-- On that mail-it-in subject: I saw Washington beat Kansas early in December, and haven’t been able to shake the recollection that the Jayhawks looked like the most disinterested outfit imaginable. I know they’re a No. 1 seed that’s had a very nice season: Go ahead and pick them.

-- One coach who has something to prove: Purdue’s Matt Painter. Three years ago, the Boilermakers lost a seven-point lead and dropped their NCAA opener to Cincinnati. Two years ago, they led Arkansas-Little Rock by 14 with 4:06 left and lost in double overtime. Last year, they made the Sweet 16 and then got smoked by 32 by Kansas.

-- It turned out that those RPI-awful matchups with Howard (No. 339) and Incarnate Word (347) didn’t cost Gonzaga. But the Zags need to take more pains in scheduling those guarantee games, so they’re lining up more 200-range opponents rather than the game’s derelicts.

-- The West Coast Conference brass has to be sporting long faces these days. Not only does the exclusion of Saint Mary’s cost the WCC more than $1.5 million over six years (plus that amount each time the Gaels might have won a game), one of the league’s up-and-coming programs, San Diego, just offed its promising coach, Lamont Smith, after an alleged domestic-violence incident.

-- Last time Gonzaga was a No. 4 seed? It was 2009, when the Zags beat Akron and Western Kentucky to reach the Sweet 16. And in 20 years of basketball prominence, Gonzaga still has never been a 5 seed.
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Which Zag streak does it for you?

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So the train rolls on. Gonzaga blisters Brigham Young, after walloping San Francisco, after muddling past Loyola Marymount, and the Zags await Selection Sunday with the luxury of being able to exhale for a few days. (Come to think of it, when was the last time Gonzaga had to sweat that day, other than the particulars of where and whom?)

We come at you then, with a question: Which streak is most impressive by Gonzaga?

-- No. 1: the run of 20 NCAA-tournament appearances in a row.

-- No. 2: the streak of nine consecutive victories in opening-round games.

-- No. 3: the darkhorse, the Zags’ string of 21 straight appearances in the West Coast Conference tournament final.

Some background on each before I muddy the debate with my choice:

With that 20th straight appearance in the NCAA tournament, the Zags will rise Sunday to undisputed sixth on the all-time list of such streaks. Inclusive of Sunday, it will look like this: Kansas 29, North Carolina 27, Arizona 25, Duke 23, Michigan State 21 and Gonzaga 20. The streaks by North Carolina (1975-2001) and Arizona (1985-2009) are not ongoing, so GU is No. 4 on the current list, and its co-holder for lo these many years, Wisconsin, will see its streak end.

When I researched “Glory Hounds” a couple of years ago, I computed that GU had forged a tie for No. 10 on the all-time list of consecutive years having won at least a game in the tournament. And when the Zags dispatched South Dakota State last year in the first round on the way to the Final Four, their streak of nine straight years of NCAA wins gave them sole possession of No. 10 on the list. (North Carolina, with 18 from 1981-98, is the king.)

But, of such ongoing streaks, only Kansas, at 11, has a better one than Gonzaga’s nine. A victory this year in the tournament would move GU to a tie for No. 7 all-time with Duke (which has done 10 twice) and Stanford (of all teams, from 1995-2004).

Then there’s the streak of appearances in the WCC final, which has reached 21. A couple of notes on that: The last time the Zags didn’t play in the conference final was 1997, when Saint Mary’s beat USF for the title. The tournament MVP? Seven-foot-three behemoth Brad Millard of Seattle. Coach of that Gaels team? Why, Ernie Kent. (For the record, the Zags, fifth-seeded, bowed to San Diego in the first round.)

Which is most impressive? I’d give a slight lean to the second one -- consecutive years winning games in the Big Dance.

First, let me be clear: Getting to the tournament 20 straight years is a sensational number. If you had proposed to a buddy back in 1999 or 2000 that this would be possible, he would have had you committed.

And it’s obvious that without the sustenance of streak No. 1, there is no streak No. 2. But, to defend my choice against No. 1, it’s true that in a handful of cases, the Zags wouldn’t have made the NCAA tournament without a conference-tournament championship, and that wouldn’t be possible if the league weren’t forgiving.

To my contention: In the recent past, the Zags’ national profile has blossomed, and it’s been getting high seeds -- No. 1 in 2013, No. 2 in 2015, No. 1 again in 2017 and probably a 4 seed this year. So it’s easy to forget that among these nine straight opening conquests in the tournament were some coin-flip type games -- and especially against teams with a daunting portfolio.

-- In 2010, Gonzaga faced Florida State, which had the nation’s No. 1 field-goal percentage defense.

-- In 2011, the Zags drew St. John’s, 21-11 and 12-6 in the Big East (albeit without injured swingman D.J. Kennedy).

-- In 2012, GU got paired with West Virginia, whose forward, Kevin Jones, was averaging a double-double, and the game was 75 miles from the WVU campus in Pittsburgh.

-- In 2014, Oklahoma State was the Zag challenge, a Marcus Smart-led team that had beaten Kansas and taken the Jayhawks to overtime in a Big 12 that was the rage of the nation.

-- In 2016, Gonzaga faced Seton Hall, which was 25-8, 12-6 in the Big East and had just won the Big East tournament.

The FSU and Oklahoma State games paired 8-9 seeds. The Zags were an 11 seed against St. John’s and Seton Hall. They were a 7 against West Virginia’s 10.

The point is, those were tossup games -- at best -- for Gonzaga, and it won each one. NCAA-tournament victories are like gold, and nobody knows it like Zag fans, who have in the past absorbed all sorts of shrapnel from the program’s naysayers.

Indeed, the WCC-finals streak is mind-bending, even as, from 2003-2013, the league afforded double byes, which pushed the top two teams into the semifinals. So about half the time in those 21 tournaments, it’s been necessary to win two games to get to the final, never having an off-night, never suffering the killer upset.

You could argue that the streak of NCAA-tournament appearances is about body of work, rather than single games. Fair point. At the same time, the win-or-else nature of the NCAA victories tilts me to that streak.

You?
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The Zags and college hoops' nervous days

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What an ominous, edgy, crazy time for college basketball. And one pregnant with implication for dozens of programs.

That includes Gonzaga. In fact, maybe especially Gonzaga. More on that notion later.

Who’s eligible? Who isn’t? Will Sean Miller coach another game, or will they just detain him in a public square in Tucson, put him in the stocks and let the suntanned locals jeer and throw rotten tomatoes at him?

Speculation is cheap, and in some cases, disposable. One national analyst stated flatly Saturday that Deandre Ayton wouldn’t play for Arizona Saturday night, and of course, he did. But when he did, and Miller didn’t coach, it made for a head-scratcher.

ESPN analyst Seth Greenberg says the FBI will continue to dribble out the information for maximum effect. Somebody else noted that a judge is calling parties to the bench to quell the early leaks. Which will it be?

It seems fair to say there will be more revelations, at least eventually, because those to date have reflected the misadventures surrounding only one rogue agent, Andy Miller, and an underling, Christian Dawkins.

Among the intriguing aspects is how many programs have quickly decided that players named in the Yahoo!Sports story will remain on the floor. Did they really have enough time to explore the question fully? Or could they possibly be concluding that the agent/player issue is so pervasive that the NCAA can't penalize scores of programs?

What to do, big picture? I fall in with those who would be fine with reform in allowing player-agent financial relationships. Twenty-five years ago, when Washington was busted by the NCAA/Pac-10, what got them to sniffing around was the revelation that quarterback Billy Joe Hobert had received a $50,000 loan based on future earnings. Ultimately, what’s so nefarious about that, other than the NCAA long ago decreed you can’t do it?

Granted, the change would take some getting used to. One analyst posited it might mean the local car dealer pays your top player five grand to use him to promote, while the 12th man gets nothing. Fine. But what does the fifth or sixth man -- a lesser player, but still essential -- get? If it’s nothing, what does that do to the workings of the team?

Or, if a shoe company reaches a couple-of-million-dollars agreement with an NBA-bound college player, and the player develops a sore knee, who decides when he’s coming back, the shoe company or the coach?

Whatever. Those obstacles are mere collateral damage for righting a system that’s, well, not right.

Meanwhile, if somebody could tell me a way universities could pay athletes, I might be more amenable. But that’s a dilemma not so easily solved.

College athletics is often described as a business, which, in its size, it is. The NCAA tournament reaps billions.

But whatever your favorite school, the men’s soccer program and women’s field hockey don’t make money. If this were a business, they wouldn’t exist because they’re subsidized by money-making programs. Point is, most colleges aren’t making money, and some are severely in debt (true, in part because some spend cash like a kid who just got his allowance).

The NBA could solve some of the current problems by doing away with its insane 19-and-under rule, the one that props up the one-and-done phenomenon of college basketball. Follow the baseball model and allow kids to go to the NBA out of high school, or restrict them from the draft for two or three years.

But that's only one element. Implementing a baseball-style model might serve only to keep the NCAA’s plastic president, Mark Emmert, preaching a horse-and-buggy amateurism model.

But about Gonzaga: As a gilded run that began in 1999 continues, it seems to me that a pillar underpinning one of the game’s best stories is that it’s a program that “does it right.” Or so we think, until told otherwise. If there were serious impropriety, it would certainly put a dent in that notion.

If I were a Zag fan, I’d feel good about this: That Mark Few is a preacher’s kid -- Norm Few did that for 54 years -- and if you’re going to stay at Gonzaga and turn down multiple offers of salaries paying double, you might just be the kind of guy inclined to believe you can make it happen by the book.

And I can tell you this: Words I’ve heard from Zag coaches in private and public conversations would reflect that they believe the program is clean.

There’s no doubt that’s the mandate from athletic director Mike Roth, who is fastidious about the rule book, and a compliance office headed by Shannon Strahl. More than once, I’ve vetted questions through them, and they don’t operate on the margins.

Of course, if you were tempted to stray from the mandate, you wouldn’t be running your hypotheticals through the compliance office. It would be foolish for me, or anybody, to blithely declare that any program can pass the white-glove treatment.

And so we wait, while a fascinating, unseemly and unprecedented drama plays out in college basketball.
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Huskies, Cougars and the Zag schedule

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Washington is 18-9 and seated squarely on the NCAA-tournament bubble. Washington State is mucking through a 10-16 season and the only real motivation of consequence is to unhinge itself from Cal, its fellow Pac-12 cellar-dweller.

What, if anything, do the respective seasons at Washington and Washington State say about how Gonzaga ought to schedule in the near future?

Plenty, in my mind.

Some backdrop first: In Glory Hounds, Zags coach Mark Few made it plain to me he was done with the Cougars, and inclined to be done with the Huskies. I don’t think it’s mischaracterizing his thoughts to say he believes his program is past all that.

So, what do we take from the 2017-18 seasons of the Zags’ in-state brothers?

First, WSU: Somehow, after taking down Saint Mary’s on Thanksgiving weekend, and then San Diego State, the Cougars have turned a 6-0 start into mush with a lot of bad basketball. They’ve done nothing to discourage the Zag view of playing the Cougars every other year in Pullman as a trip -- albeit a short one -- akin to going to Loyola Marymount or Santa Clara, with absolutely nothing to gain and everything to lose, in front of a largely hostile crowd.

I agree with Few on this one.

Think about some numbers here: Last spring, Gonzaga very nearly won six NCAA-tournament games in 18 days. The Cougars have won six NCAA-tournament games in their history.

If you take away the three years of Tony Bennett (2007-09), and go back two decades to the 1997-98 season, WSU is, in Pac-10/12 play, 162 games under .500.

The Cougars haven’t so much as won a game in the Pac-12 tournament since Bennett’s last year of 2009. Since then, Gonzaga has won 15 games in the NCAA tournament.

I get the argument from the traditionalists (hey, I’m one too; the Christmas tree not only has to be live, but big). You’re neighbors, and neighbors should play through thick and thin, and this was a series started 110 years ago. Indeed, that’s a valid argument.

But times change. Needs change. Gonzaga gets nothing out of playing Washington State, except risk, and don’t counter with the notion that the Cougars always used to accommodate Gonzaga in different times. Only in the early ‘80s, when WSU teams under George Raveling won NCAA at-large berths and were playing Gonzaga, was there real risk involved. By the time the Cougars next made the tournament (1994), Kelvin Sampson had shut down the series with the Zags.

With a mere couple of exceptions, then, over the decades the only thing the Cougars risked was a loss of face. You know, big school loses to little school.

If there were a shred of commonality between the two programs -- if, say, WSU had a computer rating of 115 instead of near 200 -- I might be persuaded otherwise. The Zag-Cougar collisions during the Bennett years were truly seismic. But until WSU rises to mid-Pac-12 level, I wouldn’t schedule the game, either.

Meanwhile, I’ll take the same tack on the Huskies as I took in the book: You play them.

True, Gonzaga has dominated Washington mercilessly during its glory run, including a 97-70 beatdown in December at Hec Ed. But here are the Huskies, threatening to make the NCAA tournament in Mike Hopkins’ first year.

(A couple of observations on that: As marvelous as have the Huskies performed, and Hopkins debuted, in some measure it’s flattered by the fact that Washington massively underachieved last year, going 9-22. Second, in coaching the zone defense, Hopkins has discovered something stunning and confounding: Many offenses are evincing no clue what to do when they get the ball to the high post, with options. Who knew?)

Few’s contention a couple of years ago was that Gonzaga needs high-profile pelts for its post-season resume, and the Huskies, under Lorenzo Romar, began falling short of that standard. True, but many years in the recent past, Washington has been at least within shouting distance of NCAA-tournament level. And they were a tournament regular in Romar’s early years.

Too, the prospect that Hopkins’ regime continues on a positive arc, combined with the rich Seattle prep talent pool and the likelihood that Washington continues to prosper from it, argues for keeping that series intact. It seems to be a fan favorite (especially Gonzaga fans).

Even if Gonzaga stays dominant, it can’t hurt the Zags to showcase that superiority to the west side.

For Few, this could be the sticky part: If he should choose to curtail relations with the Huskies, he might well be seen exactly as Washington was when it announced a stoppage in the series in 2006. The Huskies were roundly criticized for it, and I think the outcry took Washington aback.

You’d like to think Hopkins, a likable figure who seemed to give Gonzaga great respect in December, has shown enough chops in his first year for the Zags to want to make that an arrangement into the future. Especially if the separation with the Cougars is a lasting one.
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Zags decided: Make theirs a double

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Just about every sentence rehashing Gonzaga’s latest joust with Saint Mary’s has included the term “double-teams,” to which Tommy Lloyd finds himself saying, “What’s the big deal?”

After all, Gonzaga, with Mark Few as head coach and Lloyd as assistant, have now faced Saint Mary’s, with Randy Bennett as head man, a staggering 45 times. That’s Dean Smith-Mike Krzyzewski repetition, with seemingly every conceivable move and counter.

But the big deal was this: In a spot when it seemed that Saint Mary’s might be wresting West Coast Conference supremacy from the Zags -- when it seemed the Gaels might be at the program’s all-time apex -- Gonzaga delivered a searing, 78-65 welt to Saint Mary’s Saturday night that was more emphatic than the score suggests.

On Feb. 1, a story in Bay Area papers made a credible case that this is Saint Mary’s best team in history. Another account quoted Bennett on opponents’ supreme dilemma of trying to neutralize big man Jock Landale or his supporting cast, which have combined to lead the nation in field-goal percentage.

Gonzaga’s answer was to clinicize -- my word, not Webster’s -- the Gaels. Consider that that once GU had broken from the gate to an 11-4 lead, the game would never again feature less than a three-possession
margin. Or that when Corey Kispert’s attempted three from the corner swirled out, it deprived Gonzaga of a 20-point lead less than eight minutes into the game.

“The program has a lot of pride,” Lloyd said Monday. “Our backs were against the wall.”

Not that Saint Mary’s doesn’t have a lot of pride as well. And not that there won’t be ample occasions to prove it, probably starting with a seemingly inevitable third meeting in March in the WCC tournament.

But this was jarring stuff, at the same level in my mind as the 82-59 blowout of Utah in the NCAA tournament two years ago, when Gonzaga was a No. 11 seed and Utah was a 3.

It was keyed, of course, by the Zags’ aggressive double-team of Landale in the post, and make no mistake, that’s a tape that’s going to be worn out by opponents seeking to pick the lock on Saint Mary’s black box in March.

Lloyd expresses some surprise at the post-game emphasis placed on the double teams. But that’s what happens when a stratagem holds Landale to just four shots.

As he explains it, Gonzaga has had that tool in the box. But against past Saint Mary’s centers Omar Samhan and Brad Waldow, the Zags had sufficiently imposing posts in Robert Sacre and Kelly Olynyk to mostly stay away from the double.

Too, because Landale abused the Zags for 26 points in Saint Mary’s 74-71 victory last month in Spokane, there’s a tendency to recollect that he was incessantly backing Johnathan Williams down for baskets. A lot of his damage came on pick-and-roll action and thus wasn’t very applicable to double-teams.

However it happened then, as Lloyd says, “He kicked our ass.”

When the Zags did double in the first meeting, it looked either (a) late, or (b) half-hearted.

“I felt we needed to get our double there quicker,” Lloyd told me Monday. “And we needed something way more aggressive.”

When Landale caught the ball on the block in this latest rendition of Zags-Gaels, with Williams or Rui Hachimura pushing him away as much as allowed, he was rushed by a second defender. Here’s how the first half-dozen double-teams unfolded:

-- Zach Norvell, joining Williams.

-- Killian Tillie, with Williams.

-- Williams, in concert with Hachimura.

-- Tillie, with Hachimura.

-- Kispert, with Hachimura.

-- Silas Melson, converging with Williams.

“It wasn’t like we invented a new defense,” said Lloyd. “When someone is better than you (in the first meeting), you have to come out and be more aggressive and try something with conviction, not hope. Our guys started feeling it was working and started believing in it.”

It seemed to fluster Landale, so they kept doing it.

It was suggested in some quarters that it was merely the failure of Saint Mary’s perimeter shooters -- five of 20 on threes -- that made it all look good. Well, only to a point. Most of those threes were contested with quick rotations. Often, the double teams on Landale resulted in him passing to the same side as his field of vision, which resulted in another perimeter pass to the next man, and the methodical response by Saint Mary’s helped the quicker Zags recover defensively.

When two programs have met 45 times, some things have to remain house secrets. When I asked Lloyd about preparation for the double-teams approach, he said, “We’ve worked on it a few times the past few weeks.”

You can probably infer that 10 minutes of prepping for Pepperdine may have gone by the boards in favor of banking some time for a random opponent with a dangerous big guy.

By Monday, everything looked different, although Gonzaga’s path to a WCC regular-season title is still tougher than Saint Mary’s, with trips to BYU and San Diego. But suddenly, the Zags could be hunting a preferred seed in the NCAA tournament, which would probably mean a favorable site in Boise (the other Western sub-regional is in San Diego).

First things first. As Lloyd insists, there’s a good bit of territory before a possible third game with Saint Mary’s.

“If we do play ‘em again,” he said, “I’m sure they’re going to have something up their sleeve, and they’ll make adjustments.”

Count on it. Because this last one left a mark.
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Zags decided: Make theirs a double

thread
Just about every sentence rehashing Gonzaga’s latest joust with Saint Mary’s has included the term “double-teams,” to which Tommy Lloyd finds himself saying, “What’s the big deal?”

After all, Gonzaga, with Mark Few as head coach and Lloyd as assistant, have now faced Saint Mary’s, with Randy Bennett as head man, a staggering 45 times. That’s Dean Smith-Mike Krzyzewski repetition, with seemingly every conceivable move and counter.

But the big deal was this: In a spot when it seemed that Saint Mary’s might be wresting West Coast Conference supremacy from the Zags -- when it seemed the Gaels might be at the program’s all-time apex -- Gonzaga delivered a searing, 78-65 welt to Saint Mary’s Saturday night that was more emphatic than the score suggests.

On Feb. 1, a story in Bay Area papers made a credible case that this is Saint Mary’s best team in history. Another account quoted Bennett on opponents’ supreme dilemma of trying to neutralize big man Jock Landale or his supporting cast, which have combined to lead the nation in field-goal percentage.

Gonzaga’s answer was to clinicize -- my word, not Webster’s -- the Gaels. Consider that that once GU had broken from the gate to an 11-4 lead, the game would never again feature less than a three-possession
margin. Or that when Corey Kispert’s attempted three from the corner swirled out, it deprived Gonzaga of a 20-point lead less than eight minutes into the game.

“The program has a lot of pride,” Lloyd said Monday. “Our backs were against the wall.”

Not that Saint Mary’s doesn’t have a lot of pride as well. And not that there won’t be ample occasions to prove it, probably starting with a seemingly inevitable third meeting in March in the WCC tournament.

But this was jarring stuff, at the same level in my mind as the 82-59 blowout of Utah in the NCAA tournament two years ago, when Gonzaga was a No. 11 seed and Utah was a 3.

It was keyed, of course, by the Zags’ aggressive double-team of Landale in the post, and make no mistake, that’s a tape that’s going to be worn out by opponents seeking to pick the lock on Saint Mary’s black box in March.

Lloyd expresses some surprise at the post-game emphasis placed on the double teams. But that’s what happens when a stratagem holds Landale to just four shots.

As he explains it, Gonzaga has had that tool in the box. But against past Saint Mary’s centers Omar Samhan and Brad Waldow, the Zags had sufficiently imposing posts in Robert Sacre and Kelly Olynyk to mostly stay away from the double.

Too, because Landale abused the Zags for 26 points in Saint Mary’s 74-71 victory last month in Spokane, there’s a tendency to recollect that he was incessantly backing Johnathan Williams down for baskets. A lot of his damage came on pick-and-roll action and thus wasn’t very applicable to double-teams.

However it happened then, as Lloyd says, “He kicked our ass.”

When the Zags did double in the first meeting, it looked either (a) late, or (b) half-hearted.

“I felt we needed to get our double there quicker,” Lloyd told me Monday. “And we needed something way more aggressive.”

When Landale caught the ball on the block in this latest rendition of Zags-Gaels, with Williams or Rui Hachimura pushing him away as much as allowed, he was rushed by a second defender. Here’s how the first half-dozen double-teams unfolded:

-- Zach Norvell, joining Williams.

-- Killian Tillie, with Williams.

-- Williams, in concert with Hachimura.

-- Tillie, with Hachimura.

-- Kispert, with Hachimura.

-- Silas Melson, converging with Williams.

“It wasn’t like we invented a new defense,” said Lloyd. “When someone is better than you (in the first meeting), you have to come out and be more aggressive and try something with conviction, not hope. Our guys started feeling it was working and started believing in it.”

It seemed to fluster Landale, so they kept doing it.

It was suggested in some quarters that it was merely the failure of Saint Mary’s perimeter shooters -- five of 20 on threes -- that made it all look good. Well, only to a point. Most of those threes were contested with quick rotations. Often, the double teams on Landale resulted in him passing to the same side as his field of vision, which resulted in another perimeter pass to the next man, and the methodical response by Saint Mary’s helped the quicker Zags recover defensively.

When two programs have met 45 times, some things have to remain house secrets. When I asked Lloyd about preparation for the double-teams approach, he said, “We’ve worked on it a few times the past few weeks.”

You can probably infer that 10 minutes of prepping for Pepperdine may have gone by the boards in favor of banking some time for a random opponent with a dangerous big guy.

By Monday, everything looked different, although Gonzaga’s path to a WCC regular-season title is still tougher than Saint Mary’s, with trips to BYU and San Diego. But suddenly, the Zags could be hunting a preferred seed in the NCAA tournament, which would probably mean a favorable site in Boise (the other Western sub-regional is in San Diego).

First things first. As Lloyd insists, there’s a good bit of territory before a possible third game with Saint Mary’s.

“If we do play ‘em again,” he said, “I’m sure they’re going to have something up their sleeve, and they’ll make adjustments.”

Count on it. Because this last one left a mark.
#zagsmbb #wcchoops #theslipperstillfits #unitedwezag #zagup

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