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Bud Withers' Blog

PK80: A Thanksgiving gorge on hoops

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.

#zagsmbb #unitedwezag #wcchoops #zagup #theslipperstillfits

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


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.
#wcchoops #zagsmbb #unitedwezag #theslipperstillfits #zagup

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The envelope, please: Gonzaga's Mount Rushmore

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?

#zagsmbb #wcchoops #unitedwezag #theslipperstillfits #zagup

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On Gonzaga's Mount Rushmore . . .

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.

#zagsmbb #unitedwezag #wcchoops #zagup #theslipperstillfits

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ESPN's purge, and a plea for newspapers

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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