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Jud Heathcote: He was one of a kind

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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.
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Tommy Lloyd: Reflections on a near-miss

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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.”
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PK80: A Thanksgiving gorge on hoops

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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.


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J-III returns; maybe the sky isn't falling at Gonzaga

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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.
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The envelope, please: Gonzaga's Mount Rushmore

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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.

Other thoughts:

-- 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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On Gonzaga's Mount Rushmore . . .

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Not so long ago, when the absolute dog days afflicted a sports-talk radio station -- no buzz, no hot topic, crickets -- the host inevitably would drag out this old standby and ask for input from listeners: Should Pete Rose be in the baseball hall of fame?

I hope the Glory Hounds blog hasn’t descended to that abyss, but it’s possible. Anyway, I’m going to entertain the notion of who should be on Gonzaga’s men’s basketball Mount Rushmore.

Actually, I think the subject is fascinating, it’s just that it’s one of those out-of-season reveries apropos of not particularly anything at the moment.

Seems to me that Gonzaga makes for a fairly unusual Mount Rushmore, just as the Gonzaga story is highly unusual. Let’s go ahead and violate the journalist’s unwritten credo and call it unique.

Why? If we’re to chisel out features of the top four people responsible for the phenomenon that is Zag hoops -- including players, coaches, presidents, donors -- I suspect you’ll find more than the average nuance, sub-theme and sidebar that populate other programs. That's because the program came from nothing to within two minutes of a national championship.

Say, for example, we did this for, oh, Ohio State. From a great distance, I’d suggest you’d have Fred Taylor, who coached the 1960 national champions. And probably guys like Jerry Lucas and John Havlicek, stalwarts of that era, would draw heavy support. And in more recent times, players like Evan Turner, Greg Oden and Mike Conley.

But it would probably be a pretty orderly procedure, because while the Buckeyes have a reasonably robust basketball heritage, its story is hardly striking or especially notable.

Then there’s Gonzaga, bound up by all sorts of figures and forces and phenomena that, in the words of Sports Illustrated, have made it a “nouveau power.”

So onward. I’m not going to declare myself on this post (partly because I haven’t decided). But I’ll do so in a week. For now, I’ll throw out some candidates and some thoughts.

Before the Zags’ crazy 19-year streak of NCAA appearances got so long, it was easier to single out players as Mount Rushmore operatives. There were simply fewer of them. Countervailing that, as the skein got longer, the player list got more and more selective, and it was easier to look at overarching factors like coaches and administrators. Then, in 2015, the Zags returned to the Elite Eight for the first time since ’99, winning 35 games. And of course in 2017, they won a school-record 37 and marched all the way to the NCAA title game, so it seems logical certain players who made that happen demand a closer look.

That said, I think we can all agree on the only automatic bid on this Rushmore: Mark Few.

These are others to chew on -- certainly not the only ones whom we should vet:

Dan Monson, who coached that ground-breaking 1999 team, the first of the young lions who pulled up the program by the bootstraps, and essentially hired Few.

Dan Fitzgerald, whose supporters will argue that he laid the solid foundation and gathered assistants like Monson, Few and Bill Grier.

Tom and Phil McCarthey, whose largesse of some $9 million enabled construction of the arena that essentially made GU basketball a major player.

Mike Roth, the athletic director whose steady stewardship over two decades provided Few a reason to stay put.

Robert Spitzer, the former Gonzaga president who bought into the idea that upgrading basketball was a wise choice for the university. What if the sitting president back in the formative years had been a stuffy, non-believer in the power of athletics?

Casey Calvary, the implacable forward who was the key big on the 1999-2001 teams, and whose ’99 tip to beat Florida is one of the two or three biggest shots in GU history.

Dan Dickau, both for becoming an athletic and academic first-team All-American, and also symbolizing the phenomenon of the transfer whose game expands when he sits out.

Ronny Turiaf, with Dickau part of that key second wave of players that sustained the NCAA run, and maybe the most popular Zag in history.

Adam Morrison, whose game -- and persona -- gathered more spotlight than any other GU player.

Kelly Olynyk, who went from lost redshirt to first-team All-American.

Nigel Williams-Goss, whose transcendent, first-team All-America season helped trigger Gonzaga’s first Final Four.

By no means is this a complete checklist, just some obvious candidates.

I’ll be back with my picks in a week. Might even include somebody not on this list.


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ESPN's purge, and a plea for newspapers

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Last week’s purge at ESPN was so staggering, so pervasive, as to make you wonder where to assign the cause. Was it a simple (though cruel) case of course correction, a business shifting assets? Or was it merely one more assault on the media industry and its printed-word wing?

Some of both, apparently. Aside from the shutdown of an entire enterprise, I can’t recall any more wrenching change within a media company. Andy Katz, probably the most connected figure in college-basketball media, gone. Jayson Stark, witty and imaginative baseball insider, gone. Dana O’Neil, author of insightful and poignant college-hoops pieces, gone.

ESPN followed the business model, the one so counterintuitive to good journalism. To hell with the idea of institutional knowledge, of people with deep, nuanced understanding of a beat. You cashier those people because they’re making the most money. Instead, you follow what somebody called the 24/24/24 template. You go for 24-year-old people making 24 grand a year, willing to work 24 hours a day.

It shouldn’t need saying, but we’re all the poorer for this.

ESPN’s move upends the notion that sports, as presented by the World Wide Leader, was a bottomless well of plenty. ESPN developed so many platforms -- ESPN2, ESPN3, ESPNU, ESPN News, ESPN Deportes, 30 for 30, etc., etc. -- that its reach and its resources seemed limitless.

Instead, it flung itself so blindly at the NFL, in part, that it demanded austerity elsewhere. So we’ll get wall-to-wall coverage of OTAs. And the combine, of course (ohmygawd, who did best in the cone drills?). And the draft. And free agency. All this while Browns offensive tackle Joe Thomas, still playing, noted recently that he sometimes forgets the reason he went to the grocery store.

For those of us who prefer a change of seasons, not only in the climate but our sports, is there no time to squeeze in something on the NCAA Elite Eight before we bury ourselves in Todd McShay’s latest mock draft?

We began getting a hint at the guillotine coming when ESPN frequently implemented the weird practice of college-basketball game announcers not at the, uh, game, but holed up in studio in Bristol, Conn.

ESPN did what the average Joe does when times get hard. You decide what you can live without, while aiming to make everything seem the same. You know, what newspapers have been doing for years now.

Here’s where I tell you to do something that might seem to make no sense: Go subscribe to a newspaper. Not because of ESPN cutting back, but because they’re part of the soul of your community, and that’s important.

Go against the grain. Go against a president who, when he’s not spouting something that’s demonstrably false, regularly accuses the “corrupt” media of fake news.

I’m not saying it’s easy in these times, when newspaper pages are dwindling. My old paper, the Seattle Times, decided to abandon coverage of Gonzaga basketball this year -- nice timing -- save for the nuts and bolts of what Associated Press provides and an occasional update from the Spokane Spokesman-Review.

So when the Zags made the Final Four -- the first time a school in the state had been there since the Eisenhower Administration -- the paper, on Thursday before the national semifinals, had nary a word on Gonzaga. Maybe it was in good company. Neither did the Los Angeles Times.

I always wondered how intense the workload would be, covering a team that made the Final Four. Never got to find out. But when Gonzaga did it in March, the Times sent one writer to Phoenix. Incredibly, the News Tribune of Tacoma had nobody there.

(If a program with about 11,000 alums in King, Pierce and Snohomish counties falls in the forest to North Carolina, does it make a sound?)

I hate that there are people at newspapers who don’t know the difference between “refute” and “rebut.” And when somebody’s story is built from quotes from a press release rather than a phone call, I cringe.

Yet, the benefits of a buck-fifty a day -- a dollar in Spokane -- far outweigh the negatives. If there are a lot of reasons today to abandon newspapers, there are a lot more reasons to keep reading them.

The watchdog function of newspapers remains immeasurable. There’s a reason the Times has won 10 Pulitzers. And, two words if you think so-called “neighborhood bloggers” could replace professional journalists: Get serious.

By and large, the people who populate newsrooms are the kind of people you’d want to be around, the kind you want in your corner -- curious people, people who ask questions that need to be asked. Committed people that aren’t making a lot of money doing what they do. Real people.

Check out sometime the web hits a newspaper gets in a time of crisis -- say, a police shooting. They go through the roof, as if readers are saying, “We know where to go. This is serious.”

We live in a time of division. And, perpetually, it seems, of belt-tightening. If ESPN needs to do that, well, OK. If in any way its cuts are giving you less reason to watch and read, try filling that void with a newspaper.
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Spokane Arena (and the Zags) take another whack at it

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The NCAA announced future NCAA subregional and regional sites Tuesday, and it was good news for Northwest college hoops fans -- Seattle (2019), Spokane (2020), Boise (2021) and Portland (2022) all got first- and second-round action, which is merely the best weekend in all of sports. Essentially, it means that anybody in three Northwest states can drive to see the Madness.

(I’m not quite sure how the assignment of games to Seattle’s KeyArena would dovetail with two proposals to do massive renovations to the building in the ongoing -- make that never-ending -- discussion of attracting the NBA and NHL to the city. Either players are going to be executing crossover dribbles amid wrecking balls and exposed rebar, or the successful NCAA bid only serves to underscore how interminable this process is.)

This will be the sixth time the Spokane Arena has hosted an NCAA men’s subregional, and the award reminds us of an oddity in Gonzaga’s glory years of 19 straight NCAA tournaments.

Never have the Zags played an NCAA-tournament game there. And they could have.

Sending them elsewhere in years when Spokane Arena is hosting isn't the slam-dunk you might think. Essentially, it could have happened -- more than once -- if three thresholds were reached:

-- The subregional’s host school can’t be one of the eight teams assigned to the site. Gonzaga qualifies there; Idaho is now handling the chores of hosting, while Washington State did it in the past.

-- A school can’t play more than three games at the arena in question -- or that’s considered a home floor, and about three decades ago, the NCAA took tournament games off home floors.

-- A team must land one of the basketball committee’s so-called “protected” seeds -- that is, top four (16 overall). The NCAA couches this in terms of protecting those teams from a “potential home-crowd disadvantage,” but what it equates to is, putting them in the most friendly site available.

Offhand, I can’t think of a much friendlier place for the Zags than Spokane Arena. It’s about a mile and a half from the GU campus.

At any rate, it’s more than a little quirky that, in 19 years of making tournaments, Spokane Arena has never lined up for them.

Consider: Seven times since 2003, the first time Spokane Arena hosted the men’s sub-regionals, Gonzaga has earned a No. 4 seed or better. And five times the Arena has hosted. That’s a bunch of occasions when it could have happened.

Except: Every time Spokane has had the event, Gonzaga has had one of its less dominant teams, falling far from the magic No. 4 seed line.

-- 2003: Gonzaga, a No. 9 seed, played in Salt Lake City, beating Cincinnati and playing a memorable, double-overtime loss to top-seed Arizona.

-- 2007: While Kevin Durant’s brief college career was ending in a blowout against USC at Spokane Arena, Gonzaga, a 10 seed, was getting eliminated in the first round in Sacramento by Kelvin Sampson’s Indiana team, only weeks after Josh Heytvelt’s arrest left GU short-handed.

-- 2010: Michigan State and Maryland advanced to the Sweet 16 in Spokane, while the Zags were sent east to Buffalo as a No. 8 seed.

-- 2014: Michigan State (hello again, Jud Heathcote) and San Diego State reached the round of 16, while Gonzaga went to San Diego as an 8 seed.

-- 2016: Top-seeded Oregon survived a big upset bid by St. Joseph’s in the second round at the Arena, while the Zags were off to Denver (and damn happy to be in the tournament at all) on their way to the Sweet 16.

I always wanted to see the look on the face of some unsuspecting No. 5 seed from three time zones away when it realized it was going to be matched up in a second-round game at Spokane Arena with fourth-seeded Gonzaga, which could pile in a couple of vans to make the road trip.

I wrote about this a few years ago, and I think it still holds. In the era of no home floors for the NCAA tournament, I believe the nearest an NCAA participant’s campus was to a neutral floor was Georgia State, in downtown Atlanta, maybe a five-dollar cab ride to the Georgia Dome. Make no mistake, Georgia State was no protected seed in 1991; it was a No. 16, and got demolished, 117-76, by Arkansas. (The committee must have figured it really didn’t matter.)

The year 2020 seems a long way off. Who knows what Gonzaga might look like in three seasons? Ostensibly, that’s a roster that could include Killian Tillie, Jacob Larsen, Rui Hachimura, Zach Norvell, Corey Kispert and Jesse Wade. Maybe that’s the season of home cooking in March.
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Zach Collins, We Hardly Knew Ye

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Well, Zag fans, you’ve hit the big-time. You’re now part of the “in” crowd in college basketball, part of a high-rolling, high-wire act just like Kentucky and Duke.

Congratulations, I guess.

When Zach Collins declared Tuesday for the NBA draft, he became the first Gonzaga player in history to do so after putting in a single freshman season. The Zags have had a handful of others leave early, but never after a freshman year.

Have to admit, I never thought it was a given that he’d declare after one year -- even with a productive NCAA tournament. He seemed to enjoy the year greatly, and there’s no doubt he’s not ready for the NBA, not needing weight and strength, not having accounted for seven of GU’s 15 total player disqualifications on fouls this year. Indeed, the understated nature of his year is obvious in the fact he wasn't even a starter, averaging 17 minutes.

But readiness is not the NBA yardstick, and no doubt, Collins’ potential is immense. So, too, are NBA paychecks. Here are some for 2016 draftees in the neighborhood of Collins’ projected draft slot: Domantas Sabonis (No. 11), $2.44 million; Taurean Prince (12th), $2.32 million; Denzel Valentine (14th), $2.09 million; Caris LeVert (20th), $1.56 million.

This is the first of what I expect to be a one-two blow. I’m anticipating Nigel Williams-Goss to follow suit -- even as his NBA prospects are far cloudier -- leaving Gonzaga with some rebuilding on its hands. The departure of NWG, in combination with Collins and the exits of Przemek Karnowski and Jordan Mathews, would strip the Zags of four of their top five scorers.

At the very least, Collins’ decision seems to render the possibility of a repeat run like 2017 highly unlikely.

From what I’m gathering, Zag fans are conflicted. There’s obvious disappointment in forfeiting what-could-have-been scenarios for next year. But some are speculating that Collins’ college drive-through makes the Zags elite and augurs a new era in which they can flourish in recruiting because they’ve now shown themselves to be capable of getting a one-and-done talent to the League.

Of that, I’m skeptical.

Old standards tend to be almost immutable in recruiting. Precedent dies hard. I suppose there might be the random case in which a decorated prep player picks Gonzaga over UCLA because of the aforementioned proposition. More likely, that recruit chooses Gonzaga or UCLA for the same reasons a prospect has always selected Gonzaga or UCLA.

Perceptions affecting recruiting tend to happen glacially. In my research of “Glory Hounds,” Zags coach Mark Few told me he was surprised at how slowly the initial burst of NCAA-tournament success -- seven wins in three golden post-seasons in 1999-2001 -- equated to recruiting gains. It wasn’t until later that the accumulated success began to pay dividends.

Similarly, look at Gonzaga’s recruiting in Seattle, a subject I explored in detail in Glory Hounds. We’re now a generation into the Zags’ golden era -- 19 years straight of NCAA tournaments -- and candidly, it’s had very little impact in inner-city Seattle.

More than Collins’ case, I’d expect the Zags to profit by the increased spotlight through the ’17 tournament run on their success with transfers. And in the wake of Collins’ departure, GU coaches will doubtless have a keen ear to the ground on such prospects in the next couple of months.

Other riffs on the Collins decision:

-- Someday, we may look back on the NBA’s 19-and-under rule as a bizarre aberration of the pro-sports labor market (in fact, if you’re so inclined right now, feel free), a stricture that invites a seven- or eight-month stopover at a university between high school and the NBA. I’d favor a baseball-style revision: Be allowed to go out of high school, or wait two seasons (rather than baseball’s three) to be drafted.

-- I regarded Collins as a stealth candidate for college player of the year, had he returned for his sophomore season. He likely would have been a preseason All-American.

-- The Zags’ deep run might have impacted Collins -- as in, they accomplished everything they could accomplish, short of winning the national title. Also of possible relevance, as he weighed staying: While Gonzaga schedules are demanding, they lose punch in the WCC outside Saint Mary’s and BYU. It isn’t unreasonable to wonder how much Collins would gain by dominating Pepperdine and San Diego.

-- Collins’ move shifts the focus to a couple of returnees -- 6-11 Jacob Larsen of Denmark, who redshirted after a knee injury; and fourth-year junior Ryan Edwards. The train may have already left the station for Edwards, who played mop-up minutes this year (48, fewest of his three seasons on the floor) and would seem to fit the profile of a potential grad transfer.
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Zags, Monkey-off-Back Edition, Part II: Few and the Hall of Fame

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I can’t tell you a lot about the Naismith Hall of Fame selection process; only by describing its renderings can we begin to interpret its thinking. But I would suggest that with Gonzaga’s recent run to the NCAA championship game, Mark Few ought to have done himself a major favor in someday gaining entry into that lodge.

The HOF’s proceedings are notoriously clandestine. Back when I was U.S. Basketball Writers president in 1992-93, I recall being on an advisory committee. We had a conference call, and representatives from organizations like the NBA and USA Basketball weighed in on candidates. I think we took a vote on them, but it may have been merely advisory. And that was that. I don't think we even knew ahead of time who had been selected.

To my knowledge, there are no hard-and-fast markers to aid in consideration of college coaches, and perhaps that’s the way it should be.

What we do know is that annual classes have expanded, both to accommodate the growth of women’s and international basketball. There also seems to be a trend of recognition of “contributors,” those who gave something considerable to the sport apart from playing or coaching it.

The coaching landscape has certainly changed, and not necessarily for the good of Few’s argument. Of the last 13 Division I coaches to be named, dating to 2002, 12 have won national championships. That statistic is in itself a little chilling, because it seems to say that the committee isn’t looking deeper, at circumstance and setting.

But go back from 2001 to 1985, the year former PLU, Washington State and Washington coach Marv Harshman was selected. There were 15 Division I coaches in that group, and seven didn’t win a title, including Harshman or Oregon State’s Ralph Miller. In fact, neither of those two made a Final Four.

Thus, it’s a moving target, or at least a developing one.

Total victories help, but they’re not a guarantee of anything. In fact, look at Nos. 13-15 and 17 on the all-time total wins list at any NCAA level entering the 2016-17 season: Thirteenth is Eddie Sutton at 806; 14th is Rollie Massimino (793); 15th is West Virginia’s Bob Huggins (791) and 17th is Lefty Driesell at 786. And Massimino has Villanova’s stirring 1985 championship (but a checkered record elsewhere, including his last six ‘Nova teams, which were 48-50 in the Big East).

I’d expect retired Bo Ryan (747 wins at three schools) to find a way in soon. You’d also like to think the committee would have been considering somebody like Mike Montgomery, who was pretty much spotless over 32 years, with 677 wins -- an average of 27 in his last seven years at Stanford -- and a worthy antagonist of powerful Arizona in Lute Olson’s best years.

So . . . Few?

With Gonzaga’s dazzling 37-2 season, he jumped the 500-win mark and is now 503-113, a win percentage of .8165. That leapfrogs him two spots to No. 4 all-time among NCAA coaches at all levels, behind two legendary figures, No. 3 Adolph Rupp and No. 2 Clair Bee. (No. 1? Wait for it -- Jim Crutchfield, who just resigned as head coach of your Division II West Liberty, W.Va. Hilltoppers to take the job at Nova Southeastern in Florida. His win percentage of .855 might get bruised as he rebuilds Nova’s 6-20 team this season.)

But let’s not get consumed with total victories or win percentage. The West Coast Conference is a victory waiting to happen, at least when you’re not playing Saint Mary’s or BYU.

Here’s what should matter: That Few has been the driving force in a long, sustained, organic movement of Gonzaga from college-basketball nobody to national player, a phenomenon the extent of which hasn’t happened in recent decades in the game. And maybe ever.

It should matter that Gonzaga has now gone to 19 straight NCAA tournaments, tied for sixth on the all-time list. And that in winning games in nine straight tournaments, the Zags sit at No. 10 in history in that metric.

As I wrote in the book “Glory Hounds,” it might take a deeper look at the Gonzaga story than mere win-loss records and percentages to assess Few’s impact. The committee did just that in naming John Chaney in 2001, minus a Final Four but with a major contribution to African-Americans in his job at Temple; and Princeton’s Pete Carril (1997), a figure who never came close to a Final Four but forged an indelible stamp on the game with his strategic concepts.

A Final Four will only help Few’s case. There’s work still to be done. But it seems ever more doable.



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