Had a chance to scratch an old itch and see a game at Madison Square Garden, a venue I’d never visited, Tuesday night when Gonzaga played Villanova as part of the Jimmy V Classic doubleheader.
First, a little setup: On game day, there was nary a word of advance in either the New York Daily News or the Post on the game pitting the Nos. 4- and 12th-ranked teams. Maybe it had something to do with the firing Monday of New York Giants coach Ben McAdoo and the melodrama surrounding his quarterback, Eli Manning.
We sat, corner behind the basket, set back and up a way, in seats at $180 a crack. Of course, it was a doubleheader, also featuring Connecticut and Syracuse, two teams you could live without (and we did, leaving after the opener). But, it’s a benefit event.
Nowhere was there clothing or memorabilia commemorating the occasion. Why not sell a T-shirt and mark it up in the name of the cause?
Food and drink choices were good. I latched onto a bulging pastrami sandwich for $15.50 (angioplasty not included).
Photographs and newspaper pages recalling the Garden’s seminal events adorn the walls of the concourses, and inside, naturally, there are retired numbers of the Knicks and Rangers. I guess I’d have to conclude that I wasn’t overwhelmed by the place, but in fairness, how many arenas overwhelm you? It’s often the atmosphere therein that does it, and you don’t get atmosphere when you put college teams in a professional arena. (Don’t tell anybody, but Gonzaga is 0-2 in games I’ve seen live this year in that setting.)
My wife’s big moment was getting on the massive scoreboard during the DanceCam -- not because she was busting moves but because she was sitting next to Zach Norvell’s mom, who was.
So, to the Zags:
-- First off, it’s difficult to identify Gonzaga’s weaknesses against the excellence of the team it was playing. I’d been forewarned. “Villanova is really good,” Stu Jackson told me Monday in an aside during an unrelated interview, and the Big East exec and former NBA coach and league operative was spot-on. The Wildcats attack the basket, shoot and defend ardently in man-to-man, and -- even allowing for the vagaries of March Madness -- I’d be surprised if they’re not part of the Final Four. Gonzaga was described awhile back by a TV analyst as “connected,” but if that’s the case, Villanova is connected in the extreme.
-- ‘Nova benefitted by attacking the basket, in the tradition of Eastern teams. Or was it also a nod to the fact that Gonzaga isn’t overly deep, and there was opposing foul trouble to be gained? In the two GU defeats this season, Florida and Villanova have combined to shoot 62 free throws.
-- Johnathan Williams III and Killian Tillie combined for a mere 11 points, partly because of that foul trouble. In the two games I’ve seen up close, Williams has scored 39 points and five. Somewhere in there is a sweet spot the Zags can count on.
-- Well into the second half, the Zags’ two real ball-handlers, Josh Perkins and Silas Melson, were getting scant rest, and 'Nova was intermittently pressing. They ended up playing 38 and 36 minutes, respectively. Against lesser competition, maybe that can fly. But you wonder if it might affect things like Perkins’ shooting (1 of 7 from three).
-- Gonzaga’s turnovers are problematic, but seemingly fixable. Many of them are the kind you can see coming; now the players have to see them, too.
-- Corey Kispert’s absence (ankle) obviously hurt the Zags, but for the second straight game, GU got instant offense from Norvell (22 points). It will be worth watching to see how those two are juggled upon Kispert’s return so the development of two first-year players is maximized.
-- Villanova represents the peak of Gonzaga’s non-league schedule. The rest is negotiable, although Washington surely will be primed to right two decades worth of perceived wrongs Sunday in Seattle, and San Diego State looms Dec. 21. But if the Zags meet anybody as formidable as Villanova this season, that’ll be good news.
Gonzaga makes its debut in the Jimmy V Classic in New York Tuesday night against Villanova, another sort of scheduling milestone for the Zags. Amid the welter of November/December pre-conference showcases, the Jimmy V annually brings together some of the choicest brands in college hoops.
It also brings to light the kaleidoscope of scheduling possibilities out there for Gonzaga, especially now that it has joined the gentrified class of those who have reached a Final Four. Some of those discussions ultimately result in nothing tangible -- scheduling being a moving target of date, opportunity, prestige and who-knows-what-else -- while others remain live possibilities.
Here’s one of the former: For a good long while, it appeared Gonzaga and Villanova were going to play a game in Dublin, Ireland, next season (2018-19).
“For a while there, it looked like it was going to work,” says GU athletic director Mike Roth. “I wouldn’t say it was the 11th hour (that it broke off), but we thought it was pretty darned close.”
It seems that Fox, a Big East TV partner, discussed with Villanova, the 2016 national champion, a game in Dublin with Notre Dame, figuring it might appeal because of the heavy Catholic population in Ireland. Before that, there had been murmurs of trying to bring Villanova west for a Battle in Seattle appearance, which obviously didn't pan out.
The Dublin idea stalled on Notre Dame’s end, and that’s when Gonzaga entered the picture. Villanova and Fox each projected Gonzaga, and its Jesuit underpinning, as a good fit alongside 'Nova's Catholic roots But it proved to be too much of a logistical challenge.
“It really wasn’t one thing,” Villanova associate athletic director Josh Heird told me. “It was, ‘Where do we even start?’ “
Everything from the proper arena to sponsorship to promotion was a questionmark, and, says Heird, who coordinates Villanova basketball scheduling, “This thing, we would have been doing it on our own. I don’t want to speak for Gonzaga, but there’s not a lot of manpower in this athletic department. We’re not a Power 5 (school). We don’t have a bunch of resources we can throw at things.
“We just thought, ‘We’re biting off more than we could chew right now.' ”
But he adds: “I think there might be something we could do two or three years down the road.”
Says Roth: “I’m sure sometime in the future we’ll have them on the schedule; you never can tell.” He mentions “getting creative with games out of the normal markets.”
OK, so here’s some creative license: Don’t be surprised if Gonzaga gets involved in an event with similarities to the Champions Classic that annually involves Kentucky, Kansas, Duke and Michigan State. The four teams play an annual doubleheader at rotating sites (a game apiece), with the opponents switched each year in a three-year cycle. In this model, Gonzaga’s “host” games likely would be in Seattle (KeyArena’s long-debated renovation should get off the ground soon) or in Portland.
Meanwhile, the alliances with Villanova and Creighton -- Friday night’s opponent in Spokane -- can’t hurt. In the past, the Big East and the Zags have mulled whether Gonzaga could ever be an expansion fit, and -- however incongruous the geography -- it could someday be an option if realignment pushes that league to try to forge a nationwide profile.
Taking the temperature of Gonzaga’s performance in the PK80 tournament in Portland over the Thanksgiving weekend, you’d have to give the 15th-ranked Zags relatively high marks. Not a boffo, off-the-charts stone-cold “A,” but surely a three-game B or B-plus.
They thrashed what looks to be one of Ohio State’s weaker teams; did everything but beat Florida in a double-overtime classic, losing 111-105, and in a finale of schizo stretches, beat Texas in overtime. (The Florida game, had it gone to a third OT, was, for me, edging up in the category of best games I’ve ever seen in person to the 2005 Maui Invitational screamer between Michigan State and GU, won by the Zags in three overtimes. Memorably, in that one, neither team led by more than three points from the nine-minute mark of the second half to the finish, an astonishing stretch of 24 minutes.)
Gonzaga coach Mark Few came away from Portland expressing some satisfaction in projecting that his team can compete with anybody in the country.
What made the weekend a success, of course, was a game played at 10 a.m. Sunday, when a lot of people were in church or at brunch or trying to figure out why Washington State is suddenly rendered catatonic in the Apple Cup every year against Washington.
Nobody gets ecstatic about a third-place finish over a fifth in the Motion bracket of the PK80, but to Gonzaga, it’s of value. And that bespeaks an admirable quality about the program, the notion that you can almost always count on it to represent, as they say.
Let’s face it: That game stands to mean more to Gonzaga than to Texas. Those consolation games in pre-conference tournaments are gold to Gonzaga’s resume, while for the Longhorns, well, there will be multiple opportunities to atone, against Kansas and TCU and Baylor and Texas Tech. Gonzaga gets only so many chances against the flaccid WCC schedule.
Texas has generally been picked around the middle of the Big 12. Wherever the Longhorns finish, for the Zags, the game might mean a victory over an NCAA-tournament club, or at the low end, one going to a lesser tournament.
Gonzaga started slowly, then put on a blistering 24-0 run to take control. Of course, the Zags surrendered all of a 21-point second-half lead, and they’ve had a penchant for letting those things get away, from UCLA in 2006 to Iowa State last year, to Texas. That’s another story entirely.
Fact is, with precious few exceptions over the years, you can count on Gonzaga to show up, even if the stakes might seem negligible.
Certainly, there have been nights when the sleepy WCC schedule tripped up GU somewhere; that’ll happen.
There have been days and nights when Gonzaga didn’t get the memo. One of those was Duke in New York in 2009, a 76-41 disaster that caused Few and assistant Ray Giacoletti to soul-search as they roamed Gotham streets in a snowstorm (shameless plug: read all about it in “Glory Hounds”). Another was a 108-87 stinker at Virginia in the first few days of 2007.
Two more: Portland State’s ambush at GU in December of 2008, and Washington State’s 81-59 rout in 2010, although in hindsight, getting schooled by Klay Thompson isn’t such a disgrace.
Seems to me, though, that the consolation games of pre-conference tournaments are a worthy barometer of your native inclination to compete -- because I doubt seriously Few stands in a pre-game locker room and says, “Hey guys, this game means more to us than them.”
Texas was but an extension of history.
This isn’t an all-inclusive list, but go back to 2010-11, and a four-team November tournament in Kansas City. Gonzaga got smoked by Kansas State but came back to inch out a three-point win over Marquette, which turned out to be a 22-15, NCAA Sweet 16 team.
In 2013-14, Gonzaga was in danger of a miserable trip to Maui, losing its opener to Dayton and getting stuck in a nothing-to-gain, RPI-bruising consolation game against Chaminade. Next was Arkansas, a team that would go 22-12 in an NIT season, and Kevin Pangos responded with 34 points in a solid Gonzaga win.
In the fretful 2015-16 season, just about the only resume-builder until Gonzaga caught fire near the finish was a 73-70 victory over Connecticut in a consolation game in the Bahamas. That UConn team finished 25-11 and won a game in the NCAA tournament.
Such games can be sleepwalkers in front of skimpy crowds, perfect surroundings not to give a damn. Sunday, it was fair to assume that the emotional hangover was similar for Gonzaga and Texas -- the Zags having near-missed against Florida and the Longhorns having kicked a big second-half lead against Duke to lose.
However it happened, Gonzaga responded better. Modest though the return might seem, it was worth something.
Guessing that Gonzaga partisans haven’t found a lot to quibble over in their team’s walkover victories against Texas Southern and Howard. The Zags have defended well, run offense with some fluidity, substituted profitably and shown themselves to be more than a flimsy imitation of their landmark, Final Four club of 2016-17. This wouldn’t be the first team I’ve seen that, in the face of significant attrition, puts together a big season, seemingly in part because that’s the residue of a winning program. There’s an expectation to perform, if not excel.
Let’s not get carried away with wins over Texas Southern and Howard. But I think an initial inclination I had about this team is going to be faulty. I thought there were striking similarities between the current team and the GU outfit of two years ago. Recall, that was the one that was coming off an Elite Eight run in 2015, that had lost the graybeard backcourt of Kevin Pangos and Gary Bell Jr. It had two formidable talents up front -- Kyle Wiltjer and Domas Sabonis -- whom you might judge to be roughly comparable in production to Johnathan Williams III and Killian Tillie.
But while that team struggled to break in new guards in Eric McClellan and Josh Perkins, this one has veterans in Perkins and Silas Melson, and the combined wing help from Corey Kispert and Zach Norvell -- albeit freshmen -- appears likely to trump the steadiness of Kyle Dranginis. It also has a true center in Jacob Larsen, and the outfit two years ago went almost the entire year without Przemek Karnowski.
I’m sticking to one story, however. The player most pivotal to Gonzaga’s future this year will be Perkins, by a bunch. And not only because he’s the only real option at the point-guard position, at least until freshman Jesse Wade is capable of extensive time.
Perkins’ ride at Gonzaga has been eventful, to say the least. His description as a fourth-year junior seems more youthful than his varied experiences.
So much about Perkins has been sharp contrasts. He was going to play as a true freshman, and then he lost that 2014-15 season to a broken jaw suffered in November.
His play in ’15-16 was fretful. Mark Few, the head coach, was deeply worried about guard play early that season, for good reason. Perkins seemed hitched to the no-look pass as much as he was the quiet, routine play that worked. In one miserable stretch against Arizona, Montana and UCLA, he went 1 of 13 on threes with 10 turnovers in the first two. Then it gradually got better, the guards settled down and the Zags went to a surprise Sweet 16, but the final, unkind cut was Perkins’ runner to try to upend Syracuse that was swatted away by Tyler Lydon.
If Perkins was going to blossom, it might have been a year ago, but in October, he was charged with physical control of a vehicle while under the influence. When he got on the floor, here came Nigel Williams-Goss as main man, taking twice as many shots as Perkins, leading Gonzaga to a Final Four. Indeed, where Perkins had taken the third-most shots on the team as a redshirt freshman in ’15-16, he took 61 less in ’16-17. His assist turnover numbers, 119-75 last year, were actually poorer than they were the year before.
You never quite knew what you were going to get from Perkins. In the first two games of the WCC tournament last March, he didn’t make a field goal. In the breakthrough victory over West Virginia, he didn’t attempt one. Yet he had a crucial blocked shot in the final minute that was a desperately needed prelude to Jordan Mathews’ huge trey seconds later.
And then against Xavier, in an uh-oh moment for Gonzaga fans, it was Perkins’ lazy pass that led to a Xavier runout to start the game, something that he didn’t dwell on. He came back with three treys in seven attempts, part of Gonzaga’s deep-range fusillade that won it going away.
So it’s obvious what Gonzaga needs from an old hand wielding the joystick this year: Consistency. Few, who puts a premium on shooting from his point guards, wants Perkins firing with abandon, calling him an “elite” shooter.” Last year, with Williams-Goss unleashing 453 attempts, Perkins took only 6.1 shots a game. You figure Gonzaga coaches are fine with him bumping that number to at least 10.
Nothing that’s happened over two games disputes any of that. Playing with the look of freedom, Perkins has already launched 17 threes, hitting nine. If he can fulfill the upside there, fine-tune his decision-making and contribute leadership, he’ll be approaching the player Few spent so much time personally recruiting a few years ago.
So I made a call to the University of Washington ticket office awhile back to buy a couple of tickets for the basketball game with Gonzaga Dec. 10, and it turned into more of a production than I would have guessed.
Several weeks ago, I was told single-game tickets wouldn’t be available until mid-October. Calling back then, I was told single-game seats would go on sale Oct. 24.
Except for one game: Gonzaga. That one wouldn’t be available until Nov. 7.
In the meantime, the UW was touting the Husky-Zag game as part of its five- and eight-game partial season packages. Both of those include Gonzaga, so I guess you could say the Huskies are willing to capitalize on Gonzaga’s success.
Anyway, a call to the ticket office Tuesday (Nov. 7) got this response: There still aren’t any such tickets available on a single-game basis, except to UW season-ticket holders. When I asked if there would be at some point, the ticket agent told me, “That’s definitely a possibility.”
I doubt anybody at Washington would concede this, but a side effect of curbing availability of single-game tickets is to limit the number of Gonzaga partisans in the stands. Nothing nefarious about that, but it’s perhaps another indicator of how the programs have diverged sharply in recent years. While the Huskies bottomed out with a 2-16 Pac-12 record and the firing of Lorenzo Romar in 2017, Gonzaga was appearing in its first Final Four.
Mike Roth, the Gonzaga athletic director, is taking a thoroughly benign view of the proceedings.
“There’s no conspiracy theory, at least in my mind,” he said. “This is not an uncommon practice in college athletics. It’s the University of Washington maximizing their schedule for the outcome they want. Nobody can blame them for that.
“If the roles were reversed, I think we would do the same thing.”
I was told tickets would be in the $65-99 range, if and when they’re available. If you take the secondary-market route -- that’s what I did -- be prepared to pay $100 at the low end.
This will be the first Gonzaga-UW game at Hec Ed since 2005, the most sizzling game in the series since the Zags began dominating it in the late 1990s. That was the one in which Adam Morrison rifled in 43 points but missed a late perimeter shot that probably would have won it. Instead, Washington prevailed, 99-95, in a screamer of a game with premier players all over the floor, including Brandon Roy.
That’s the Huskies’ only victory in the last 11 games in the series. Nine of the 10 Gonzaga wins have been by double figures, and a rivalry once marked by prickly words, cold shoulders and eventually, a nine-year hiatus (2006-2015), seems to have given way to a sense of resignation among a lot of UW fans. It will be worth watching to see whether first-year coach Mike Hopkins makes it a priority publicly to narrow that gap.
Tommy Lloyd’s evening’s work was done at the SAP Center in San Jose. Gonzaga had outslugged West Virginia, and in the nightcap of the 2017 NCAA West Regional the Gonzaga assistant coach was scouting, Arizona had a seemingly comfortable lead over Xavier.
So Lloyd scooped up his papers and headed for the exits, per his custom, at the final TV timeout. With just under four minutes left, Arizona’s Parker Jackson-Cartwright made two free throws for a 69-61 Wildcat lead, and now it was going to be what had seemed pre-ordained, a matchup of No. 1-seeded Gonzaga against No. 2 Arizona.
“We’d been on a collision course since December,” Lloyd said, referring to Arizona. “They’d literally watched every one of our games.”
So Lloyd made his way out of the arena. He likes to beat the crowd, hustle back to the hotel and settle in for a long night of preparation. But in the car, the play-by-play on the radio was saying different about a Gonzaga-Arizona game. Here came Xavier, the 11th seed, winning 73-71 with a stirring run down the stretch, flipping Lloyd’s mindset.
It would be a different challenge, but one for which Lloyd staunchly believed the Zags were ready. He had recently watched games involving heavyweights -- “Kansas and Duke,” he recalled. “I’m saying, ‘We’re better than they are.’ I knew we had the horses.”
As surprised as he was about Arizona, then, Lloyd was saying to himself, “Good for Xavier. But they’re gonna get their ass kicked in two days.”
That came to pass on a late-March Saturday, as the Zags crashed their first Final Four, 83-59. As he remembered Thursday night at a Gonzaga tip-off preview in Seattle that day and the week that followed, Lloyd briefly got emotional. I’d never seen him like that.
“You do things a certain way, you put your life’s work into something, you do it the right way,” Lloyd postulated. “You come up short a few times, and you wonder, ‘Is it not meant to be?’ “
But it was, and Thursday night in Phoenix, there was the gala Gonzaga put together, bringing back former players and coaches.
“Those guys would have wanted to do it themselves (make the Final Four), but they were so happy,” said Lloyd. “It was truly, truly special.”
There was the confluence of events that prolonged Przemek Karnowski’s college career -- the back injury of December, 2015 that forced a redshirt season -- without which Gonzaga probably comes up short of the Final Four a year later.
“That back injury was a blessing in disguise,” Lloyd said. “I thank him for coming back for a fifth year.”
Now, the year after that is fraught with both promise and uncertainty. Already, it’s different. For the first time since the 2000-01 season, Gonzaga isn’t the pick of WCC coaches to win the league title. Saint Mary’s is.
For any Zag willing to accommodate a chip on his shoulder, that intel will be drilled home.
“Bring it on,” said Lloyd, emphasizing each word.
It will be a thinner, but more athletic roster at Gonzaga. There will be a premium on staying healthy, so it’s not good news that freshman guard Jesse Wade has been out with shoulder injuries related to a nerve issue.
Elsewhere, Lloyd credited Johnathan Williams III with an “amazing off-season” and said, “He’s ready to be a star.”
Guard Josh Perkins “is ready for his moment in the sun,” and backcourt mate Silas Melson “has done everything we’ve asked,” and is poised to “show what he’s capable of.” Forward Killian Tillie can be “the next great Gonzaga player.”
Gonzaga’s use of Williams and Tillie in a lot of offensive sets will remind fans of how GU deployed Elias Harris and Kelly Olynyk.
Nobody is more intriguing than forward Rui Hachimura, but it was just a year ago that Hachimura came from Japan speaking -- and understanding -- only sporadic English.
“I don’t think you guys have any idea how talented he is,” said Lloyd, speaking raw skills. “He’s probably, physically, the most talented guy we’ve ever had.”
Lloyd recalled a moment at Gonzaga’s “Kraziness in the Kennel” event when Hachimura launched himself 6-8 inches inside the free throw line off his right foot and dunked with his left hand. When you’re right-handed, the left foot is dominant.
“There’s probably not 10 guys in the world that can do that,” Lloyd said.
Maybe the X factor will be Corey Kispert, the 6-6 freshman from little King’s High in Seattle. The Zag coaches are clearly taken by him. “That kid was born to be a Zag,” Lloyd said. “A stud.”
Zach Norvell is a shooter who can go off and has shown cleverness off ball screens. Unsung Jeremy Jones reminds Lloyd of Mike Hart and David Pendergraft, “a tough, hustle guy.” The caveat on Jacob Larsen is that he’s coming off tendinitis and a knee injury, but he’s a legit seven-footer with a capable right- and left-hand jump hook and mobility.
Logically, if it can stay healthy, this will be a team playing best toward the end of the season. The bad news is, the games against teams like Villanova, Florida (potentially), Creighton and San Diego State are early.
“It’s going to be an adventure,” Lloyd said. “But it’s going to be a fun adventure. We did lose a lot. It might not be a smooth ride to get there, but we’ll be ready.”
Whimsically, Lloyd said he awoke from a dream that morning. Domas Sabonis, off to a roaring start in his second year in the NBA, was back at Gonzaga for his senior year. Nigel Williams-Goss, playing now in Serbia, had also opted for a final season at GU. Zach Collins was a GU sophomore, not a rookie with the Trail Blazers.
“We’re No. 1 in the country,” Lloyd said in that apocryphal world. “We’ll take it.”
In reality, the Zags are No. 19, and that’s only a sketchy guess of what might lie ahead. But what last season proved is that there’s no glass ceiling at Gonzaga. For seasons to come, the process there was validated.
“We’re not delusional, expecting Final Fours every year,” Lloyd said. “But when you’ve done it once, why not do it again?”
It’s mere weeks now -- less than 30 days -- until Gonzaga opens its 2017-18 men’s basketball season. The one after the big breakthrough.
I caught up with head coach Mark Few Wednesday to talk about life after the Final Four, after making the ’17 national-title game, after losing a nail-biter to North Carolina in Glendale, Ariz.
Does it feel different now, after the long-running narrative that Gonzaga, for all its cuddly underdog-ness over the years, hadn’t made a Final Four?
“Yeah, it feels different,” he said. “Obviously there was a lot of vindication in some people’s mind. It wasn’t really in my mind, but certainly in some. We were able to do something we had never done. (But) it’s also one of those deals, once you’ve done it, you’ve got to (get ready to) do it again. The world doesn’t stop. It does feel different, but I’m also kind of a realist, especially when you’re in any profession in sports. Give it a year, and the knock’ll be: ‘They haven’t won a national championship.’ ‘’
The Zags lost Nigel Williams-Goss, Przemek Karnowski, Zach Collins and Jordan Mathews, so it’s a recast -- if extremely talented -- team this year. I asked Few if the message is: That’s in the past, and you start anew.
“I don’t think you forget about it,” he said of the ’17 season, marked by a school-record 37 wins. “You try to draw on all the great experiences last year, but also figure out why we were so successful. There was a reason our defense was No. 1 in the country (in KenPom’s adjusted ratings), and that we were deadly efficient on the offensive end.
“We communicated fantastically out there on the floor. A lot of that was Nigel commanding it. We protected the rim great, we took care of the ball. We’re kind of going through that process of relearning why we were so good. A lot of that was personnel.
“One guy that probably never gets enough credit is Karnowski. He was just unbelievable. When he was healthy, he got us three or four minutes from a Final Four one year (in 2015) and to one last year.”
So in his heart of hearts, when he reflected back on 2017, did he recall the wonders of doing something magical, or is he nagged by the thought that inside the two-minute mark, the Zags had a one-point lead to win a national championship?
“Ninety percent the former,” he said, “10 percent the other. When you coach, that’s the game. Sometimes there’s a little breaks-of-the-game, luck, fortune. (But) it’s 90 percent, unbelievable what we’ve been able to do. We’ve been telling everybody we could win a national championship here, and we can. Standing on the sidelines, if we played a best-of-seven series (with North Carolina), it would go seven. It was two very evenly matched squads.”
Nearing completion at Gonzaga is the Volkar Center, to include a practice floor, academic center, strength and conditioning facility and hall-of-fame component. Describing what he called “massive facilities changes,” Few also cited improvements to the current locker room including the addition of hot and cold tubs, a kitchen area and changes to the shower room.
“To kind of keep that up to industry standards,” he said, adding, “I think we’ve always done a really good job of not getting carried away. We don’t need to be the fanciest house on the block.”
As he begins his 19th season as head coach at Gonzaga, some Few observations on personnel:
-- Johnathan Williams III, who entered his name in the NBA draft before opting out: “He’s somebody we’re going to have to run a lot of our stuff through. He’s kind of primed for a big year.”
-- Josh Perkins: “We’re trying to get him to look to score a little more. I think, for whatever reason, he’s undervalued just how well he shoots it and has always kind of fancied himself more of a playmaker and distributor. For a point guard, I think he shoots it at an elite level. The playmaking (for Perkins) needs to be kind of secondary.”
-- Jacob Larsen, the Dane coming off a redshirt season due to a knee injury: “He’s a work in progress, kind of ‘project-y.’ He had knee tendinitis when he was back home (before entering Gonzaga). He was one of those seven-foot kids that was a work in progress before all that.”
-- Rui Hachimura: “He’s great in the open court, great in space and just a physical specimen. But he’s got some ways to go to be able to function in the half-court and use all this God-given athleticism.”
-- Jeremy Jones: “He can really help us in that undersized small-forward role, getting him flying around. Defensively, he’s a real talent. We’re thinking we can put him 1 through 4 (defensively) and be pretty darned good.”
-- Zach Norvell: “He’s a streaky kind of kid. He does a nice job making plays with the basketball, but he’s still got some areas defensively to work on.”
-- Corey Kispert: “He’s going to be really good. He’s tough, athletic and has great size.”
This will be a different Gonzaga team, not as deep, not as imposing up front, and very likely, not as good. But the seasons change, all a little different from the last, and so it goes.
“We’re smaller, leaner, not nearly as much depth,” Few said. “Practices, we’re trying to be real cognizant of those (to stay healthy). We don’t have the bodies, the numbers we had last year. But we’re really athletic, especially on that front line.”
College basketball’s crisis moment -- unmasked this week by the FBI, no less -- elicits a swirl of reaction. So let’s get to it.
When I authored “Glory Hounds,” the 2016 look at the stories behind Gonzaga basketball, I made mention of an annual study conducted by an assistant professor of finance at Indiana University-Purdue University Columbus (trust me, that’s the correct institution; I looked it up).
The professor assesses the valuation of college basketball programs, much as Forbes Magazine does in its annual list of pro sports franchises. Probably largely due to a rabid local fan base that creates off-the-charts TV ratings, Louisville was No. 1 in 2016, worth $301.3 million.
I described professor Ryan Brewer’s work as determining what college hoops programs “would be worth if they could be bought and sold like pro franchises.”
Who knew, until this week, that Louisville was already running a pro franchise?
-- I can’t imagine how the NCAA enforcement staff is going to be able to stay atop what just mushroomed into an incredible workload. The FBI named or implicated about seven programs this week, and hinted that more would be coming. Now think back to how long some NCAA investigations have taken -- Miami, USC (Reggie Bush), North Carolina. How’s this possibly going to work without a massive increase in staff at the NCAA?
-- In the twilight of their respective careers, Joe Paterno and Rick Pitino were regarded as masters of their profession. As if we needed another reason that sports figures shouldn’t be deified, we have another one.
-- Among the four programs whose assistants were arrested, the head coach whose name, by association, surprised me the most was Sean Miller. Just sayin’.
-- Imagine trying to recruit cleanly against the force of a six-figure payout to a prospect -- and, apart from the FBI finding, I wouldn't risk any judgment on who might be clean and who isn’t.
-- Gee, that show-cause penalty incurred by Bruce Pearl at Tennessee really turned him around, didn’t it?
-- I don’t see how paying players would prevent such abuses. All it would do is bump up the black market.
-- It’s debatable what role the one-and-done rule has in this, if any. Perhaps it’s too easy to hammer the NBA and its reluctance to deal with that restriction (and it is the NBA, not the NCAA). But if you had a baseball-style, sign-or-stay-for-three-years (or two) rule in place, at least there might not be such a wanton eagerness to compensate prospects illicitly -- the return on the investment would take a while, as opposed to the seven-month blow-by that one-and-done players fulfill in college.
-- Among Pac-12 schools, USC, if it’s convicted of a major NCAA violation, would take the lead all-time in the conference in that category. It’s currently tied with UCLA with six. Cheat On, uh, Fight On.
-- Maybe it’s just a conditioned reflex, but I don’t see Louisville getting the death penalty over this, although it surely appears to check the boxes. That Southern Methodist shutdown in the mid-‘80s stands as the only time the guillotine has been wielded, and it came after a long history of the football Mustangs flouting the rules. On the other hand, if the NCAA wants to make a statement . . .
-- For a long run of tawdry, oily college athletics sleaze, has anybody done it lately quite like Louisville?
Jud Heathcote died in his sleep Monday morning, and it might be the only time in his life he went quietly. Wherever he’s headed now, they better have a reply at the ready, because Jud is coming at them with a rapier wit that could slice Kevlar.
He was 90 years old, and he packed a lot into 90 years. He was schooled on the Olympic peninsula, coached high school hoops in Spokane, sat next to Marv Harshman on a distinguished bench at Washington State, brought respect to Montana and won a national championship at Michigan State.
In his golden years, he was a godfather of sorts around the Gonzaga program, a season-ticket holder and an occasional lunch companion/critic with Zags coach Mark Few at Jack and Dan’s. “Tuesdays with Jud,” Few called it with a verbal eye-roll, but I’ll bet Few would tell you he gleaned something valuable through Heathcote’s barrage of digs.
My first glimpse of Heathcote came as an undergrad at Washington State in the late 1960s, when he and Harshman were working up 18- and 19-win teams that finished second in the Pac-8 to John Wooden’s dynasty at UCLA.
This was my recollection of Heathcote: At a wayward official’s call, or a misstep by a Cougar, he would go airborne off the bench, landing with both feet simultaneously in a thump that resounded throughout Bohler Gym. He was often far more demonstrative than Harshman.
His persona was as blunt as his humor was nuanced. I was at the Seattle Post-Intelligencer in 1989 when the Final Four came to Seattle. The day after the title game, a little bleary-eyed after a hard month, I needed to write a follow-up story on how the city had done in the host role.
I happened by the Sheraton Hotel, headquarters for the National Assn. of Basketball Coaches meetings. I ran into Heathcote, an NABC president, and given his ties to the Northwest, figured him for some deferential quotes on Seattle’s performance.
Jud didn’t do deferential. To my surprise, he lobbed some grenades at the organizing committee for things like buses that didn’t run on time. And he wasn’t kidding.
Frequently, he was. At the old Kennel at Gonzaga one night, I bumped into him at halftime and we chatted. Then John Blanchette, the longtime columnist for the Spokane Spokesman-Review, walked by.
“No, no, sorry, no interviews tonight,” Heathcote admonished Blanchette, who wasn’t looking for one. “I’m talking to a big-time sportswriter.”
That was Jud, capable of zinging two sportswriters with one stone.
Of course, his surpassing achievement was winning the 1979 national championship with Magic Johnson at Michigan State. That title game, against Larry Bird’s Indiana State, remains the most-watched NCAA basketball game in history and is often cited as the ignition point to the game’s most passionate era.
Some years after his retirement in 1995, a push began to get Heathcote inducted into the Naismith Hall of Fame, led by Jerry Krause, then the Zags’ basketball operations guy who is also a prolific author and a noted overseer of the game.
Heathcote had the national title, and if not an innovator, he was at least the most prominent practitioner of the matchup zone defense, which, with people like Magic and Greg Kelser, was nigh-impenetrable.
Selectors were no doubt chilled by some of Michigan State’s fallow years. Indeed, in the 10 seasons after the ’79 run to the championship, Heathcote’s teams went 76-104 in the Big Ten. He knew some extremes.
On the other hand, the man couldn’t catch a break. There was the 1986 Sweet 16 game against No. 1-seeded Kansas at Kemper Arena in Kansas City, when a late clock stoppage of about 15 seconds -- while play was ongoing -- enabled the Jayhawks to take a game into overtime that Michigan State was leading. And in the 1990 Southeast Regional final, officials allowed Kenny Anderson’s late jumper to stand, even as replays showed it failed to beat the buzzer in regulation and Georgia Tech, not the Spartans, advanced in another overtime heartbreaker.
Give Heathcote another Final Four, and maybe he’s in the Naismith Hall of Fame. As it is, he was named to the College Basketball Hall of Fame.
This piece comes a little later than I had planned; Tuesday, a scant few paragraphs from the finish, I managed to spill coffee across the keyboard, rendering the touchpad useless and necessitating a trip to the Microsoft store for a replacement.
I can almost hear Jud cackling about it.
Two minutes, that’s all it was. Actually, it was less than two minutes. With 1:52 remaining, Nigel Williams-Goss backed down Theo Pinson smartly, banked in a 12-footer and Gonzaga had a 65-63 lead.
In college basketball’s national-championship game.
Zag fans would like to freeze that moment in time, forever embrace it. They’d like to replay those last 112 seconds and beseech the gods to give them any kind of nod, any sort of break -- an unlikely three, a mishandled pass by North Carolina, any of those silly, random things that occur all the time in a basketball game -- to get Gonzaga its first national championship.
I caught up the other day with Zags assistant Tommy Lloyd, Mark Few’s right-hand man. And there’s no doubt that the what-might-have-been questions are rattling around in the minds of not only fans, but coaches.
Lloyd has major say on substitutions. He rehashes how Gonzaga might have better handled a night when all its bigs were battling foul trouble. (Zach Collins played 14 minutes. My contention is, if Collins, the newly minted Portland draftee, had been able to stay on the floor for 19-20 minutes, Gonzaga wins).
If Zag fans would like to stop the game at the 1:52 mark, Lloyd wouldn’t mind doing that, either.
“Is there a way, when Nigel hit one of those shots to put us up, could we have called a timeout?” he muses.
In other words, call a Ben Howland timeout -- one immediately after you score -- just to make sure your defensive strategy is perfectly understood.
“There’s no guarantee things would be any different,” Lloyd concedes. “They very well could have scored.”
And the Tar Heels did. Pinson hit Justin Jackson, guarded by Williams-Goss, at the 1:40 mark for a three-point play underneath and Carolina led for good, 66-65.
At 1:25, Williams-Goss got tangled up with Pinson and rolled his ankle, which may have had its own killing effect on Gonzaga.
Off a high ball screen, Williams-Goss missed a 16-footer at the 1:17 mark. Then those gods frowned again on the Zags, as Kennedy Meeks, in a scrum with 49 seconds left, had his hand on the end line with the ball in the other, an official didn’t see it, and Isaiah Hicks made a difficult, driving shot on Johnathan Williams III for a 68-65 UNC lead at the 25-second mark.
At the other end, Williams-Goss, off another high ball screen, lost his footing ever so briefly at the top of the key, put up a shot that Meeks rejected -- your Sports Illustrated cover -- and the resulting runout sealed Carolina’s 71-65 victory.
Few took criticism for keeping the ball in Williams-Goss’ hands when he was apparently gimpy. Counters Lloyd, “He’d been the guy that’d delivered all year, and he’d made two big shots on the two previous possessions. He was kind of having a magical season. We didn’t necessarily say, ‘Shoot.’ We put the ball in his hands and trusted he’d make a good decision. Defensively, they made a great play (at 68-65).”
That was the intrigue of Williams-Goss in his only season in Gonzaga blue. Wherever the precise location of the line between go-to guy and he’s-trying-to-do-too-much, Williams-Goss occasionally would dance on that fine demarcation. In those waning moments against Carolina, he took at least four straight shots. But it was a night when Przemek Karnowski couldn’t get the ball to go down, and on the shot Meeks blocked, the videotape doesn’t seem to show any other real option available to Williams-Goss.
Another takeaway by Lloyd: The Carolina defense Gonzaga faced in the championship game was better than the Carolina defense it defeated two days earlier -- at least on this night.
“I liked our game plan going in, how we guarded them,” Lloyd said. “I thought that was pretty effective. Their pressure, I felt bothered us more than even South Carolina’s. They had us running our offense farther out, had us on our heels.”
Predictably, a 37-2 season that ultimately ends in defeat left him -- and no doubt, most of the Zags -- with conflicted feelings.
“Obviously, you’re disappointed,” he said, remembering the immediate aftermath. “But you’re quickly able to put it into perspective. It’s (the Final Four) such an awesome moment, where you appreciate everything that’s happened. The other side is, man, what could we have done a little differently? I think you understand if you win, it’s one of those forever deals. Also, you understand how hard it is to get there. That next opportunity, there’s no guarantee.”
Indeed, there is not. In March, the line is sometimes exceedingly fine. If Jordan Mathews doesn’t hit a late three against West Virginia in the Sweet 16, the Zags probably don’t win and spend the off-season labeled as tournament underachievers.
For Gonzaga partisans, the good news is, it was a sensational, breakthrough season, and for Lloyd, an affirmation. It doesn’t have to be a one-off.
“Being on the inside kind of reminded me: Our process and our culture were right,” Lloyd says. “We don’t have to sacrifice our ideals to achieve things at the highest level. Some people called it (the season) magical. I don’t think it was. I think we were just good enough, it wasn’t an anomaly, or that something magical had to happen.
“No, we are that good.”
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