A stony silence has emanated from the athletic offices at the University of Washington regarding the future of basketball coach Lorenzo Romar, and we can only assume that shortly, a puff of white or brown smoke will drift skyward from the Graves Building.
(This is a blog that usually addresses some aspect of Gonzaga basketball, but occasionally, will riff on other related topics in college hoops. And since the Zags have re-engaged with Washington on a four-year deal, what the hey, indulge me.)
It’s probably no great surmise on my part that without Washington’s lingering financial commitment to Romar, he’d probably be gathering cardboard boxes to stuff office possessions into, so to vacate for the next guy. That’s the inevitable fate of coaches from Power Five conferences who fail for six straight years to get a team into the NCAA tournament.
Big picture, it’s staggering that the matter is even debatable anymore, never mind that Romar has this all-galaxy, all-universe, all-constellation recruiting class coming to Montlake (probably to stay together for, oh, a season and a half, given the roster churn that has besieged the program over those six years). And of course, that debate is framed by the contract that ex-athletic director Scott Woodward hitched to Romar years ago, subject of today’s treatise.
Romar is said to be due some $3 million if the Huskies decide to fire him, result of Woodward having thrown himself mindlessly at the feet of the likable coach back when the Huskies were, you know, relevant.
For the life of me, I don’t know what the hell these people are thinking. But then, I don’t know what they’ve sometimes been thinking at places like Washington State and Oregon State, either.
The arms race, see, is not limited to the building of facilities to keep up the Joneses. It also has a lot to do with salaries, or it must, or we’d more often see evidence of some vague fiscal responsibility instead of athletic directors acting with the forbearance of guys at a weekend bachelor party in Las Vegas
Somehow, Woodward decided that Washington’s life would be destitute without Romar, so he gave him a 10-year contract in 2010. Yes, there were murmurs about NBA coaching, and there was always the possibility of a college program poaching him, but isn’t six, seven, even eight years a sufficiently solid commitment?
Maybe Woodward was only taking a cue from his regional colleagues. At Washington State in 2009, Jim Sterk concluded that Ken Bone had to have a seven-year deal to replace Tony Bennett, all of it guaranteed. There was even a time when Sterk was paying Bone more than his football coach, and no matter how difficult things were under Paul Wulff, that should never have happened.
Anyway, would the whole thing have fallen through if Sterk had offered a five-year deal, with, say, a liquidated buyout the last year or two, to a coach whose only Division 1 coaching experience was at Portland State of the Big Sky?
(Sterk had left Pullman by the time Bone was let go after the 2014 season. At San Diego State, he dodged my e-mail and voicemail on the subject, and only when buttonholed in person by the Spokane Spokesman-Review at a subsequent NCAA basketball regional did he offer an explanation about the Bone deal. He said he had done the same thing for women’s coach June Daugherty and needed to be equitable. Oh.)
So it was left to Sterk’s successor, Bill Moos, to make a change from Bone to Ernie Kent, who had been out of coaching and was dying to get back into it -- badly enough to take the bait at one of college basketball’s most desperate outposts. Bone had made $850,000 annually. So wouldn’t $1 million or $1.1 million have been a reasonable starting salary, especially at a place where the cost of living is cheaper than the average Pac-12 stop?
No. Kent would get $1.4 million. No low-rent program, those Cougars.
Down at Oregon State a few years ago, athletic director Bob DeCarolis finally pulled the plug on Craig Robinson after six failed seasons of OSU basketball. But not without a sledgehammer buyout of $4 million. What was it that drove DeCarolis to fling himself at President Obama’s brother in law? Was it that crowd of 1,352 home fans for the loss to Radford in the College Basketball Invitational?
Alums have only so long to scratch heads over decisions like these. Some of their effort has to go to guarding their wallets in the face of the inevitable, and plaintive, pleas from their favorite athletic department that they need to step it up financially. The message: Please, save us from ourselves.
Aside from the arms-race component, I’m not sure how to explain these blunders, other than to suggest that (a) athletic directors often don't have any more certainty about hires than the guy who changes their oil; and (b) they hate the process so much that when they think they’ve got the right person, they lock onto him like barnacles.
Exhibit A: Sterk hired Tony Bennett, who, with his dad, authored the most astonishing rebuilding job in the history of Pac-12 basketball. And he hired Wulff, who went 9-41 in four years.
Anyway, we ought to know more on Romar shortly, right after the Huskies complete the season with a 13-game losing streak.
Who knows, a long extension may be coming his way.
Have to admit, I didn’t recognize that Gonzaga team out there Saturday night against BYU. It was simply a confusing performance.
As much as it was an inspired, all-in effort by BYU, it was also a sluggish, seemingly unfocused -- at least at times -- showing by the Zags, who saw their bid for an unbeaten regular season extinguished, 79-71. They did things like fail to put a body on an offensive rebounder that resulted in a killing basket, and step on the sideline while receiving a routine pass for one of their 16 turnovers.
As good as Gonzaga has been defensively this year, I never got the sense GU was ready to summon the steely resolve to hunker into a stance and get a stop when it was needed. (As T.J. Haws was allowed to dribble out on top in 1-4 sets, I could only wonder how the Zags would possibly deal with
somebody like UCLA’s Lonzo Ball in that same scenario a few weeks from now.)
You can argue that it was just one of those nights, and that’s not irrational. BYU threw in some really deep threes, from places that are hard to guard, and that only made for greater space for big man Eric Mika, who was unstoppable.
The sky isn’t falling, obviously. If the analysis seems harsh, it’s only because Gonzaga’s performance was so far from what we’ve seen virtually all season.
Check the numbers, and it’s no secret why Gonzaga came up short:
-- BYU shot 45.2 percent, hardly blistering, but a better percentage than any GU opponent in the last 15 games. The Cougars also shot better than Florida, Iowa State, or Saint Mary’s (twice) -- all NCAA-bound -- against the Zags.
-- BYU made nine threes. Only Tennessee (10) has made more this year against the Zags.
-- BYU held Gonzaga to a 38-all rebounding standoff, first time anybody has fared that well in 11 games. Tellingly, when the teams met Feb. 2 in Provo, GU had a 47-34 advantage.
-- Gonzaga tied a season low with eight assists. Thus, fewer than one in three GU baskets (26) was assisted.
-- Gonzaga shot a season-worst 3 of 16 (.188) on three-pointers.
-- You have to go back to the Tennessee game Dec. 18 to find one when Gonzaga made more than its 16 turnovers.
Given all that, you could conclude it’s wondrous Gonzaga was a possession or two from winning the thing.
Having said that, I don’t think it’s too bold to add that a performance like this doesn’t get Gonzaga to the second weekend of the NCAA tournament.
Friday on this blog, I wrote about how Senior Night sentimentality can get in the way of performance. But because Gonzaga roared to an 18-2 lead -- probably its best start of the season -- that didn’t seem to be the case.
Did the burden of trying to finish it and go 30-0 become too oppressive?
Could have; going 16 for 29 at the foul line prompts such questions. Once BYU steadied itself and edged back into contention, it may have served as a sobering reminder to the Zags that their night’s work wasn’t done, and seemingly, it became an increasing struggle to accomplish it. That’s probably something only a coach would know.
Other random notions:
-- Mika’s flagrant foul deep into the second half on Przemek Karnowski was his first personal, and it underscored the fact GU didn’t really try to exert foul pressure on Mika, even when his big night was snowballing in the first half. Karnowski, recall, went forever without scoring. Forcing Mika to guard more could have been helpful.
-- BYU’s defense, albeit ranked only No. 65 nationally by KenPom, seems for some reason to trouble Gonzaga with a sort of soft trap on the perimeter -- not necessarily a ball-hawking, turnover-seeking trap, more of an offense-disrupting one that the Zags should handle better. It bothered them in Provo, and to some degree, Saturday night.
-- A rugged night against Mika should tell Zach Collins he plainly needs another year before launching himself on the NBA. But we all know how illogical that process can be.
-- The Zags need Killian Tillie back, to deepen the bench and give them another proficient “big” on the floor. (Injury information around GU seems vastly under-reported, even in general terms, so I can only assume something ESPN’s Andy Katz said recently is on the money -- that the coaches hope to have him back for the WCC tournament, which begins this week.)
-- I’m increasingly of the opinion that the “X” factor for the Zags is guard Jordan Mathews. Against BYU, he had 12 points, but he took just five shots, and he hardly seems a picture of confidence about his stroke, probably the result of a seven-game stretch from Jan. 26 to Feb. 16 when he shot .333 and made seven of 29 threes. If I’m coaching him, I’m telling him to get at least 10 shots a game, because if he’s continually deferring, there’s no point in having him just sort of be . . . out there.
-- What’s the fallout for Gonzaga regarding a No. 1 seed? Tough to say. Joe Lunardi thinks they’re still solid. But they’re possibly vulnerable to whoever wins the Pac-12 tournament, especially if it’s Oregon or UCLA (the Zags would have a good counter if it’s Arizona, which they beat.) In any case, they’ve just added to their nation of skeptics. One of those is CBS’ Steve Lappas, even as he named Mark Few his national coach of the year Sunday on the Louisville-Syracuse broadcast. “Put it this way,” Lappas postulated. “If you were an 8-9 seed, and you had to play a 1 -- Villanova, Kansas, North Carolina or Gonzaga -- which one are you picking? I know which one I’m picking.”
Tough words for a team that just went three and a half months without a loss. For Gonzaga, the test ahead is an old, familiar one: Proving itself.
Saturday night, Brigham Young comes to the Kennel, party to a coronation. At least that’s what the script says. Gonzaga has a chance to become one of college basketball’s rarities, a team negotiating the regular season unbeaten.
(According to my browse through the NCAA record book, there have been 12 Division I teams that finished a complete season unbeaten and another 15 that went undefeated in the regular season but lost in the post-season.)
Indulge me here, Zag fans, with a bit of déjà vu that seems like it couldn’t have been more than, oh, 36 years ago.
What’s that you say? It was.
In writing for three Northwest newspapers over 45 years, I was blessed to cover two different college basketball teams that attained a No. 1 ranking. What are the odds, in this neck of the woods?
The latter was Gonzaga’s 2013 outfit that slipped into the top spot early in March and had it three weeks before Wichita State happened. You know that story.
My first brush with No. 1 was in 1980-81, working for the Eugene Register-Guard and tagging after Ralph Miller’s irresistible, homegrown Oregon State outfit. It rose, improbably, to a No. 1 ranking in January of ’81 and proceeded to hold a piece, or all, of the top spots in either the Associated Press or United Press International (coaches) polls all the way into March -- eight weeks.
I could regale you for hours with Ralph stories. Ralph was just, well, Ralph, a bespectacled, wrinkled larger-than-life guy whose open practices consisted of him sitting on the sideline at mid-court, chain-smoking brown More cigarettes while occasionally barking at his players. He was also somebody who routinely invited the press to his road hotel suite after games, to down a couple of drinks and listen to him tell tales of a long career coaching at Wichita State and Iowa.
Anyway, Ralph had the team of his life that year, a pressing, running group dotted by several Oregonians, including Portland-area guards Mark Radford and Ray Blume and McMinnville’s Charlie Sitton. It blew through the Pac-10, surviving a close game at Arizona State, and it was the toast of the state of Oregon. It’s worth noting that while this was going on, Mark Few’s Creswell High team just south of Eugene was also No. 1 in Oregon’s AA high school rankings, and he has said the Beavers were sort of a collegiate role model for that prep team. (In my Gonzaga book, “Glory Hounds,” Few’s teammate Randy Schott told me they considered themselves the prep version of OSU.)
The Beavers were unbeatable, or so it seemed. The season wound down, and, back in the days before there was a Pac-10 conference tournament, they were 26-0 and on the precipice of going unbeaten in the regular season and into the NCAA tournament. The team earned the nickname “The Orange Express,” and toward the end of their staccato victories, their terrific radio play-by-play man, Darrell Aune, would roar, “The Orange Express is ro-o-o-llin’!”
Came the last Saturday of the regular season, and all OSU had to do was win on Senior Day to complete the perfect year. Surely, at home in front of the adoring crowd at Gill Coliseum, this would be a mere formality.
That’s the afternoon that, for ever after, made me wonder what effect the sweet sentimentality of handing roses to your mom on Senior Day has on the hard business of maintaining the mental edge to compete.
That’s also the day we realized how outrageously talented fifth-ranked Arizona State was -- more than Oregon State. It had Lafayette Lever and Byron Scott at guard, two guys who had lengthy careers in the NBA. It had seven-foot Alton Lister, a future Seattle SuperSonic, at center.
At halftime, it was 40-20, Arizona State. This was back in the days before the three-point shot. The sellout crowd was stunned beyond description. This can’t, couldn’t, shouldn’t be happening.
OSU made a wan charge in the second half, getting the deficit back to 12 as I remember, but the motivated Sun Devils weren’t to be denied. They won by the preposterous score of 87-67 -- I don’t even have to look it up -- and it was such a signal occasion that three and a half decades later, the ASU basketball press guide has the boxscore of the game as a stand-alone item in its historical section.
Worse, that OSU team would never win again. It fell to Kansas State in its first game of the NCAA tournament, still the most devastating loss in school history.
There was a popular motel then in Corvallis, Nendel’s, and that’s where the Sun Devils were staying. I still remember Alton Lister on the dance floor of the hotel bar that night, boogieing at the expense of the Beavers.
To be clear, I don’t see anything like this spoiling Gonzaga’s celebration Saturday night. The Zags are too good, too focused, too hell-bent on history to have BYU mess it up now. Gonzaga has the advantage of the bitter memory of two straight Brigham Young victories in the Kennel in 2015-16 (the first on Senior Night) and this is a lesser Cougar team than those.
And Fat Lever ain’t walking into that BYU locker room, and Byron Scott, who shot 11 for 14 that day, won’t be casting perimeter jumpers.
If there’s a moral, maybe it’s this: Enjoy the ride, and don’t take anything for granted.
Watching Saint Mary’s take apart Brigham Young the other night, I was struck by a strange question:
Is it possible we’re undervaluing Saint Mary’s?
Consider: The Gaels are now 24-3, against what most people feel is a schedule that’s at least a tick more challenging than many they’ve put out over the years. That places Saint Mary’s in position to tie or better Lynn Nance’s 1988-89 team, which went 25-5, for fewest losses in school history.
(I suppose the 2009-10 Saint Mary’s team would be considered the gold standard at the school. It went 28-6 and rolled to the Sweet 16. That Omar Samhan-led club rocked Gonzaga 81-62 in the WCC final after the Zags swept the regular-season series.)
Yet I haven’t seen or heard of any speculation that this could be Randy Bennett’s best Saint Mary’s team. Such is the oppressive effect of Gonzaga’s season, in which the helpless West Coast Conference opposition routinely genuflects by double digits -- including the Gaels.
At Provo, Saint Mary’s led by 11 at halftime and was up by 23 before recording a second 13-point victory over BYU. It was mostly effortless, and in fact, it looked easier than Gonzaga’s victory there Feb. 2, in which the Zags kept sprinting into 15-to-18 point margins, only to see the Cougars routinely whittle it back to single digits.
Go back to a couple of Saint Mary’s earlier games: On Jan. 12, on the road, the Gaels manhandled Portland, 74-33. SMC led 37-9 at halftime. It led 58-14 midway through the second half.
That’s not a blowout, it’s a pistol-whipping.
On Feb. 4 -- again on the road -- Saint Mary’s bludgeoned San Diego, 71-27. Again, it allowed nine points in the first half. With seven minutes left, it was 59-15.
My gut instinct is that the WCC is mostly dreck this year. Yet RealTimeRPI.com has the conference ranked a respectable ninth nationally, one ahead of the Mountain West and three in front of the Missouri Valley.
Tough to say how much the dominance of Gonzaga, and to a lesser extent, Saint Mary’s, sways that ranking, but it must be considerable. (Before Gonzaga met Saint Mary’s for the second time, I entertained a counterintuitive -- admittedly bizarre -- thought: That there would be some value in GU losing to the Gaels, simply to discourage national naysayers from the notion that the WCC is no good.)
At any rate, it’s Saint Mary’s lot to be doing perhaps its best business in a year when Gonzaga is maxing out. The Zags won by 23 when the teams met Jan. 14, albeit a deceivingly big margin, and they repeated by 10 at Saint Mary’s Feb. 11.
Here’s a different way of saying it: Saint Mary’s is holding its WCC opponents other than Gonzaga to .383 field-goal shooting. The Zags are shooting a combined .602 in the two games with the Gaels. (And the fact GU also shot 61.7 in the WCC final last year has to make for some furrowed brows in Moraga.)
So maybe we’re sleeping on the Gaels. And transitively -- who would think it -- on the only undefeated team in the country.
Ray Giacoletti never envisioned a January like this one: Vacationing in Fort Lauderdale, cruising to the Bahamas, Cayman Islands, Cozumel and Key West.
“It was good to get away and decompress a little bit,” he said.
It had to feel strange, taking off in the middle of basketball season. After all, Giacoletti, 54, had been a coach for 32 seasons, an assistant at Washington (1994-97) and Gonzaga (2007-13) and a head man at North Dakota State, Eastern Washington, Utah and Drake. But now he was a free agent, having stepped down from the head coaching position at Drake early in December.
Drake did not go well. Giacoletti left the Zags after their 2013, No. 1-ranked season, having been thrown a lifeline in ’07 by an old friend, GU coach Mark Few. Now he would take one more shot in the captain’s chair.
He knew the pitfalls. Drake is an academically demanding school in the Missouri Valley Conference, one that used to be a respected name in college basketball; it went to the 1969 Final Four. But the Bulldogs have made one NCAA tournament since 1971. One.
Drake is in Des Moines, largest city in Iowa. But a state lightly populated (3.1 million) has vibrant basketball programs at Iowa, Iowa State and Northern Iowa.
Giacoletti got off to a 15-16 start, before the dark clouds circled. Drake then went 9-22 and 7-24. The Bulldogs weren’t athletic enough.
But there was a glint of hope. Giacoletti had recruited a Polish big man, seven-foot Dominik Olejniczak -- from Przemek Karnowski’s hometown of Torun. The freshman started the final nine games and averaged 10.3 points in that stretch. If Drake was going to be revived, Olejniczak would be the key force.
And then he was gone, transferred to Mississippi, the details of which Giacoletti doesn’t want to share publicly.
Drake finished eighth in the Great Alaska Shootout in November. Then it led DePaul by 15 midway through the second half Nov. 30, and lost. Three days later, after the Bulldogs dropped an overtime decision to Fresno State to fall to 1-7, Giacoletti met with Drake athletic director Sandy Hatfield-Clubb and said he’d had enough.
“She tried to talk me out of it for two days,” Giacoletti told me recently. “You hear people say it all the time: I just felt deep down in my gut, they needed a new voice for them to take another step.
“I honestly was going to probably finish the year and then retire. As long as that was in the back of my mind, it was, ‘We need to find a way to make it the best we can be and salvage it some way.’ ”
Hatfield-Clubb turned the job over to assistant coach Jeff Rutter on an interim basis, and the Bulldogs showed a spark in January, edging up to 5-4 in the MVC. But now they’ve lost six straight and the defeat to Evansville Tuesday night was Drake’s 20th.
What might Giacoletti have done differently? Find a way, he says, to have recruited more athleticism. He would have orchestrated more Skyping sessions with Olejniczak and his parents to keep them connected.
“I didn’t get it done,” he says. “It’s on me, it isn’t on anybody else.
“In these jobs, you need to get lucky with some things. It’s not for lack of effort or work. You’ve got to get fortunate. At Washington, we got lucky with Todd MacCulloch (the seven-foot Canadian who led the Huskies to two NCAA tournaments in 1998-99). Todd MacCulloch got us over the hump. That guy got you to another place.”
Giacoletti’s routine these days includes a morning workout, breakfast, and the realization that he doesn’t want to be done with basketball. So he’s targeted two possibilities: Broadcasting and scouting.
He has spent some time job-shadowing color analysts. When we talked, he had one such appointment lined up with ESPN’s Fran Fraschilla. He has a friend in NBA scouting, who advised him, “Go to every D-League game and write a report up.”
“That’s exactly what I’ve been doing for 32 years,” Giacoletti says. “But those are pretty good jobs. Those jobs don’t just open up.”
Perhaps some of Giacoletti’s influence at Gonzaga remains. He was in charge of defense in his six seasons, and during that time the Zags defended better, and now they’re at a top-five level nationally according to KenPom.com.
Giacoletti pondered the notion of Gonzaga having been No. 1 in 2013, then turned over the entire roster -- save for a freshman Karnowski who averaged a modest 11 minutes -- to become top-ranked again.
“It’s mind-boggling,” he said.
Caught up with Gonzaga coach Mark Few in an early-February conversation this week, and he addressed a wide range of topics, mostly on his roster.
The top-ranked Zags are now 24-0, and as of Wednesday, that means that in Few’s 18 years as head coach, they’ve now gone 56 days longer -- eight weeks -- than the 2008-09 team did to open a season. That squad lost to Arizona on Dec. 14 and until this one, was the longest not to experience defeat under Few.
So I asked him: Does it feel any different to be undefeated?
“Not to me,” he said. “It just feels like the next game: ‘Hey, we’ve got to get going on this next one. There are conference-championship ramifications on the line this week.’
“People talk about it, but it’s not even that focused (at GU) on it. We’re just trying to get through the next week. We’ve got to get better this week than we just were, whether it’s one percent improvement or whatever, whether it’s rebounding, taking care of the ball, or something else.”
More observations from Few:
-- On Nigel Williams-Goss and his increasingly exceptional play: “He’s a very, very eager learner and student of the game. He’s really hard on himself. He wants to get 100 percent on every quiz, or anything that comes up, practice or games. I think there was a point when he really began to trust us as a staff. The more you get to know him, you understand how competitive and tough he is. The other thing is, he’s a ferocious defender now. It’s based more on preparation and attention to detail and innate toughness.”
-- On Przemek Karnowski and his improvement this year: “Especially this last month or so, he’s really been moving and handling himself around the basket. He’s got a little bit more of an arsenal down there. Finally, after five years, we’ve convinced him he can be successful using his right hand and going over his left shoulder.”
-- On Johnathan Williams III: “We don’t really know what clicks. When he decides to come out and be really assertive and play with some emotion is when we’re at our best, at both ends. He’s kind of a low-key guy, so pulling that out of him sometimes has been hard.”
-- On Zach Collins: “He’s a talent; he’s going to be very, very good. He really helped us down the stretch at BYU, protecting the rim and rebounding. His next jump, hopefully, will be to get him passing and handling the ball a little bit, kind of like (Kelly) Olynyk.”
-- On Killian Tillie, the freshman forward, and his quick return from an ankle sprain suffered in Portland Jan. 23: “He’s a tough kid. He responds pretty quickly. He wants to play. He’s just kind of an energizer.”
Elsewhere, a few morsels from around the state and college hoops:
-- Saturday marks not only ESPN College GameDay’s first appearance at Saint Mary’s -- where Gonzaga plays that evening -- but the NCAA basketball committee’s inaugural rollout of its top 16 seeds for the 2017 tournament. Most are forecasting Gonzaga to be the No. 1 overall seed. But given the fluid nature of the sport and the number of games played, those projections could see upheaval by nightfall. So it’s likely to be more of an exercise in describing how the process works.
-- The futility of Washington, now 9-14 with uber-freshman Markelle Fultz, underscores how individual talent hasn’t always been an asset on Montlake. I researched the past 10 NBA drafts this week, and the numbers are fairly startling: Fultz would be the seventh Husky in that period not to play in the NCAA tournament in the same year he was drafted in the first round, joining Spencer Hawes (2007), Terrence Ross and Tony Wroten (2012); C.J. Wilcox (2014); Marquese Chriss and Dejounte Murray (2016). (Ross and Wilcox played in the 2011 tournament, last one to include the Huskies.) The mind-bending part is that no other NCAA school has had more than two such players.
-- What are the odds? Washington State visits Utah Thursday night, and chances are, anything would be an improvement for WSU over its last two games with the Utes. The Cougars lost both -- improbably, by the same score, 88-47, last February in Salt Lake City and Jan. 18 in Pullman.
-- When asked, Few sought to correct an eyebrow-raising assertion by multiple TV analysts that he earlier named Williams-Goss "the best leader" he's ever had. While conceding that he could have misstated his feelings, Few, noting that GU has had some powerful leaders like Kevin Pangos, says, "What I've said is, we've had some great leaders and he's certainly right up there with the best of them. What he does better, he can really communicate around the floor. He does so much talking (to teammates)."
With the installation of Gonzaga as the No. 1-ranked team in the country in this week’s polls, I harked back to 2013, and the early-March Monday that the Zags gained that honor for the first time. On the buoyant campus, there was a 21-foot sheet cake with a blue “No. 1” shape, provided by GU’s food-service contractor and free to student passersby to partake (sounds like the same ritual happened this time).
I ran into Drew Barham that day, and the Zag reserve forward had a look on his face perhaps best described as a mixture of pleasure and bemusement at all the attention.
The recollection of Barham, the grad transfer from Memphis, got me thinking this week: How does this Gonzaga team compare to that one?
Barham was an excellent, catch-and-shoot operator who hit 44.4 percent of his threes that season. And he was a quiet, understated, great team guy. But he was limited in speed and quickness, and essentially, a one-trick pony. He averaged eight minutes a game, and would take on a greater role in 2013-14.
Which leads me, a little circuitously, to this conclusion, one you won’t hear uttered from the lips of coach Mark Few anytime soon: The current team is significantly better.
The ’13 outfit, recall, had first-team All-America Kelly Olynyk at center, Elias Harris at forward, and the sophomore guards, Kevin Pangos and Gary Bell Jr. After some long, mostly early, experimentation with Guy Landry Edi at a small forward, the coaches settled on handyman Mike Hart at the “three” spot, and he ended up starting 20 games.
For depth, that team was relatively close to the ’17 club, although Edi’s role shrank to the point that he averaged only 11 minutes a game. Sam Dower and Przemek Karnowski came off the bench, Dower at 16 minutes a game and Karnowski, at 11 minutes, a mere shadow of his ever-more versatile presence today.
David Stockton (19 minutes) was the first guard off the bench, and the best passer, and Kyle Dranginis, a redshirt freshman, contributed 11 minutes a game.
But in just about every metric, the ’17 Zags seem superior, including the eyeball test.
For instance, Dower was the first “big” off the bench. He was an offensive factor, but not a defensive or rebounding force. He averaged only 2.7 boards a game.
Compare that to the first reserve big guy on this team: Zach Collins is the third-leading scorer, and he leads the Zags in rebounding (5.7) and blocked shots (31). The No. 2 big off the bench, Killian Tillie (mending now from an ankle sprain), has made 10 of his 21 threes.
The starting guards, then and now, are probably close to a wash, although keep in mind, Pangos and Bell weren’t halfway through their careers until that season ended. Stockton versus Silas Melson, the first guard subs? Stockton was a better playmaker, but Melson’s athleticism facilitates his role as a solid defender, and in his junior year, he’s contributing more as a shooter (.389 on threes, .871 on free throws) than Stockton did.
Check the team stats: This squad shoots .512 overall and .380 on threes; the numbers were .497 and .371 in ’13. At the foul line, the edge is .744 now to .705 then.
Defensively, the ’17 team surrenders .369 shooting, .290 behind the arc. In ’13, it was .385 and .330.
This team has a slightly better assist-turnover ratio -- 1.54 to 1.35. The only major statistical edge owned by the ’13 team is rebound margin, 7.5 to 6.0, no doubt owing to the current team’s penchant for allowing offensive boards.
But here’s the number that jumps off the page: The 2017 team has 100 blocks, which already tops the 2013 team’s total of 96. Collins, Karnowski and Johnathan Williams III protect the rim, giving Gonzaga an intimidation element that’s rarely been part of the repertoire.
For the analytics geeks, Ken Pomeroy had the '13 team at No. 3 in offensive efficiency and 30th in defense. The latest edition is No. 7 on offense and third on defense.
What’s been happening on the floor reflects all the metrics. While the current team has routinely obliterated WCC opponents, the ’13 club -- while it ran the table in the league -- had some struggles. It beat Santa Clara by seven on the road and Saint Mary’s by five in Spokane. It nosed out a two-point win at San Diego and won by five at BYU.
Nobody in the league has come closer than 15 to this team.
In Collins and Tillie, when he returns, it appears there’s upside with this team. And if Jeremy Jones and Rui Hachimura continue progressing, there could even be more options available.
It’s possible this team could plateau and lose games unexpectedly, and never mind the imponderable of injuries, etc. And now, at No. 1, it gets the best of every opponent and opposing fan (as if it didn't already).
But for now, as February begins, this is the best it’s ever been at Gonzaga.
Gonzaga got three minutes worth of national advertising Saturday on ESPN’s weekly College GameDay show, as the subject turned to the Zags’ potential shelf life in the NCAA tournament.
“There’s still skepticism,” said host Rece Davis. “There’s always skepticism about Gonzaga.” But he added: “They made good tournament runs the last two years.”
There was no bigger skeptic than Jay Williams, the ESPN analyst. And while his words won’t be popular among Gonzaga fans, his point deserves airing.
“I think they’re legit, but it’s the same old story,” Williams said. “Let me tell you why. I think they have the talent to get to a Final Four. The only thing I worry about, when you coast through the West Coast Conference like they’re going to do, even if you have a hiccup and you lose at Saint Mary’s, I don’t think the team is battle-tested, and I think that could be a major issue when you go into the NCAA tournament.
“I think there’s a lot to be said about a team that’s used to being in those grind-it-out-scenario games. You have experience in those types of adverse moments. You know who your leaders are. You know who the ball’s gonna go to. Those are all gonna be new things when they’re facing adversity in the NCAA tournament.”
Williams could be right. There’s just no way of knowing.
Starting in 2002-03, the Zags began throwing in a mid-to-late season game against a quality opponent. That first came in the old ESPN Bracket Busters event, which Gonzaga quickly decided the program had outgrown, and opted out.
Later came January-February games against Stanford (2006 and 2007) and Memphis (2007-2011). As recently as last year, the Zags, struggling to find a quality win, lost at Southern Methodist.
Perhaps there’s a muscle-memory element to what Williams says. Maybe when you’re locked up against a physical Wisconsin team in the NCAA tournament, something clicks in and you realized you succeeded against a similarly bruising team a month earlier.
But it’s debatable.
I don’t know if Gonzaga failed to get to the Final Four in 2015 because the moment was too big against Duke. More likely, it was because the GU guards, while good, just weren’t quite good enough. Similarly, last year against Syracuse in the Sweet 16, it seemed more a failing of fragility and inexperience in the backcourt that cost Gonzaga down the stretch. And remember, Syracuse’s pressure brought the Orange back from a much bigger deficit against Virginia two days later than it faced against Gonzaga.
Two things: The nature of the tournament -- playing tougher teams as you progress -- seems to argue against Williams. In the early rounds, if you advance, you’re ostensibly playing more and more capable opponents. For those teams that don’t face a rugged league schedule -- and let’s face it, Gonzaga is one of those -- it’s like on-the-job training.
Then there’s this: If Gonzaga was indeed vulnerable because it hasn’t been drop-forged by a heavyweight conference, it would probably have shown up in some immediate, stunning losses. Instead, over the 18-year streak of consecutive NCAA tournaments, GU is 15-3 in first-round games. Moreover, on most of the occasions the Zags have been in tossup first-round games, or close to it, they’ve prospered -- to wit, against Florida State in 2010, St. John’s in 2011, West Virginia in 2012 and Oklahoma State in 2014. The middle two of those were blowouts.
Gonzaga has never suffered the jaw-dropping, can’t-believe-it first-round upset that would support the theory, while a lot of purebred programs have -- Duke, Michigan State, Kansas. That doesn’t debunk Williams’ theory, but surely the first game is where you might find some supporting evidence.
Bottom line: Every theory has some legs, until Gonzaga silences the doubters with a Final Four.
If Gonzaga does what appears almost inevitable -- beats San Diego and Pepperdine this weekend to remain undefeated -- then Zag fans ought to indulge themselves in the moment. Step outside, breathe in the fresh air (even if it might be freezing fog in the Inland Empire). Pour yourself a nice whiskey on the rocks or your favorite IPA.
You’re about to be ranked No. 1 again.
Think about that.
For the second time in four years, Gonzaga should rise to the top of the polls next week. Sure, No. 1 is an issue of debate and without doubt, GU, once it’s positioned in the top 10, has an easier road to the top in the mostly cushy West Coast Conference. All true.
It might not happen, if some of Tuesday night's craziness persists. Kansas may beat Kentucky and thus get more love from the pollsters. There could be skepticism over Gonzaga's resume.
But if it happens, it’s remarkable. It was remarkable when it happened the first time, with the 2013 team early in March that year, and it might be just as remarkable again, doing it with a roster that’s entirely turned over from that ’13 team, save for center Przemek Karnowski and deep sub Rem Bakamus.
Karnowski averaged 11 minutes in 2013.
When I asked ex-Zags coach Dan Monson -- on the eve of the 2013 team’s elevation to No. 1 -- whether he had ever envisioned something like that in the long, laborious runup to the good times at Gonzaga, he said, “No. We had a lot of beers together, but we never had that many.”
What it reflects is what the whole length and breadth of the Gonzaga phenomenon of this millennium reflects: That the Zags weren’t going away, that they were going to keep knocking at the door, that they were going to continue to be a big player in college hoops. At that, to be judged No. 1, even if it’s fleeting, even if it comes with qualifications, bespeaks a higher level of respect, acclamation and accomplishment.
Now: If it happens, can Gonzaga flourish under those circumstances? The 2013 team never really played to that ranking, struggling in its WCC-tournament opener against Loyola Marymount, narrowly beating No. 16 seed Southern in the first game of the NCAA tournament and then getting ousted by a brassy Wichita State team in the round of 32.
Soon, if Gonzaga (20-0) keeps winning, it will hear the old refrain: It’s better to get a loss before March. Somebody like BYU (next week) or Saint Mary’s (Feb. 11) could take care of that anyway. But it’s a conundrum without solution; are you supposed to lose on purpose to release the pressure valve on the burden that comes with being undefeated?
Random other late-January considerations:
-- The isolated speculation that Gonzaga might not get a No. 1 seed if it goes undefeated through the WCC tournament is ludicrous. True, the field of really good teams -- and candidates for top seeds -- seems deeper this year. But you can take this one to the bank -- the Zags don't get snubbed for a top seed if they go undefeated. Gonzaga is 6-0 against the top 52 teams in the RPI. In fact, without knowing what’s to come, I’m of the opinion that a one-loss Gonzaga team probably still gets a No. 1 seed. For what it’s worth (and every year is different), GU was a two-loss team when it picked off a top seed in ’13.
-- A battle, perhaps unprecedented, looms among Western teams for a No. 1 seed in the West. That pits Gonzaga, UCLA (19-2), Oregon and Arizona (both 18-2). The Bruins, No. 1-ranked in KenPom offensive efficiency but only 128th in defense, have a huge win at Kentucky. Oregon hosts Arizona Feb. 4 and travels to UCLA on Feb. 9 in a major five-day, two-game test. ‘Zona’s rematch of its win at UCLA comes Feb. 25.
The Wildcats should expect the NCAA basketball committee not to give them any breaks for what happened during Allonzo Trier’s suspension; that’s not judged as an injury, but something he brought upon himself.
And what’s the significance of a No. 1 seed, and staying in the West? Besides the presumed competitive advantage, the West region host is San Jose, and the next-nearest are Kansas City and Memphis.
-- The committee announced this week it will reveal on Feb. 11 its current top 16 seeds. I suppose that’s a nod to the old maxim that February tends to be a dull sports month, once the Super Bowl has taken place. And no doubt it will be a conversation piece for several days. But given the fluidity of the sport -- witness the losses by the Nos. 1-, 2- and 4-ranked teams Tuesday night -- the rankings of those seeds will be highly disposable, probably even a week out. And Selection Sunday won’t come until 29 days later.
When Gonzaga guard Nigel Williams-Goss unloaded a game of superlatives at San Francisco Jan. 5, it got some Zag fans to wondering: Might they have just witnessed the best individual performance in school history?
Tough to say. You’d probably have to apply some serious contemporary analytics to it, as well as to the competition for that title, and sad to say, that’s beyond the grasp of this blog. Besides, I think it’s only fair to consider things like the fact the three-point shot wasn’t born until 1986-87; the strength of the opponent and perhaps even of that particular Gonzaga team. (In other words, where’s a Sagarin rating when the Frank Burgess era needed one?)
But it’s a hoot to walk down memory lane and assess the logical candidates for an honor for which there is no one correct answer. (And apologies for taking so long to pull this together. Even old decrepit, retired sportswriters get waylaid by other things.)
Not having been around the Gonzaga program until the last couple of years of the 20th century, I can’t vouch definitively for some of GU’s supreme individual games before then. So naturally, I started with the school’s top-10 list in individual game scoring.
Inevitably, that begins with Frank Burgess, whose 52-point game against Cal-Davis in 1961 tops the Gonzaga list. Burgess, a 6-1 Air Force vet from Eudora, Ark., “could thread that net from anyplace,” his coach, Hank Anderson, once told me.
I tracked down Jerry Vermillion, the GU career rebounding leader of the early 1950s, on the Washington coast, and he offered this recollection of Burgess: “He had great moves before he shot. He’d fake it with two hands, sometimes reach through the two hands of other people, and let it go.”
Lunching once with Burgess in Tacoma, where GU’s leading career scorer became a U.S. District Court judge, Vermillion heard this story: Burgess, post-Gonzaga, toured for a time with a Harlem Globetrotters opposition team, and foisted one of his patented fake moves on his man.
“Man, what are you doing?” his Trotter counterpart protested. “We’re supposed to be putting on a show here.”
It’s entirely possible that Burgess’ 52-point night wasn’t his most sterling in a Zag uniform. UC-Davis, after all, was NCAA Division II until 2004, and it had a 4-17 record in that 1960-61 season when Burgess lit it up in a 123-79 victory.
On the other hand, his 42-point game against Seattle U. in 1960, tied for eighth on the Gonzaga list, bears more scrutiny. It came in the season finale against a 16-10 SU team that was frequently making the NCAA tournament in that era (it didn’t that year) and was headed by future pro Eddie Miles.
(A footnote on Burgess: When he led the nation in scoring in 1961, he succeeded a guy who had owned that title three straight years: Oscar Robertson.)
No. 2 on the Zag individual game scoring list was the 50 rung up by Jean Claude Lefebvre in 1958 against Whitworth. Lefebvre was the 7-3, 340-pound Frenchman who wore size-22 sneakers and spent two seasons with Gonzaga.
Anderson, for the book “Bravehearts,” was candid about Lefebvre when I asked him if the big guy was at all skilled. “No,” he said. “I would say he had a real good attitude and was willing to work.”
Vermillion, who holds the GU career rebounding lead by a prodigious 691 boards, had a 44-point game against Whitman in 1953. Alas, he points out, the Zags lost the game.
Vermillion, 6-4, was blessed with strong arms and shoulders and exceptional length. He says his standing jump rose to 13 inches above the rim. He would routinely tap the ball in for several points a game, a practice he says was refined when Anderson would have the Zags play volleyball for 2-3 weeks before the year’s workouts began.
A generation ago, Zags guard Jim McPhee cracked the GU top-10 scoring list for a game by raining 42 points on Loyola Marymount twice within eight days of 1990. McPhee is the highest-scoring Gonzaga player in the WCC era with 2,015 points, but his twin 42s had the advantage of Loyola’s wacko, end-to-end style then under Paul Westhead. One of those McPhee outbursts was in a 144-100 loss.
For GU fans of recent vintage, there was Kyle Wiltjer’s 45 points, No. 3 on the school list, on a 15-for-22 shooting inferno at Pacific two years ago. That was an unremarkable 12-19 Tigers team going nowhere, but it was the highest-scoring game by a Gonzaga player since Burgess’ 52 some 54 years earlier.
Personally, without the long, sharp perspective of history, I’d lobby for one of Adam Morrison’s efforts, probably during the blazing pre-conference bender he went on in 2005-06. Twice, recall, he went for 43 points -- first, in a triple-overtime victory in the semifinals of the Maui Invitational, when he went 14 of 28 against Michigan State. That’s the best game I ever covered, two teams going toe-to-toe without any real pressure or do-or-die ramifications.
You could easily make a case Morrison’s 43-point explosion mere days later at Washington was the school’s best, if Gonzaga hadn’t lost the game, 99-95, GU’s only defeat to the UW in the past 11 meetings. In fact, it might be No. 1 anyway; Morrison went 18 for 29 from the field against a quality, Brandon Roy-led Husky team that like the Zags, narrowly missed advancing past the Sweet 16 in ’06.
Later that season, Morrison’s 44 at Loyola Marymount vaulted him to a tie for fourth on the GU list. But the numbers are antiseptic against the rich lore of the swath he cut that season and the color he brought to the game.
Morrison scored but seven points in the first half that February Saturday at LMU. Then he went crazy for 37 in the second half, pointing frenetically at the Lions’ student section after dropping another trey.
Here’s how Robyn Norwood wrote it in the LA Times:
“With the aura of a rock star and the soul of a shooter, Gonzaga’s Adam Morrison turned away what would have been Loyola Marymount’s biggest victory since the end of the Hank Gathers and Bo Kimble era Saturday.”
Norwood described Morrison’s “long, shaggy hair and thin mustache” on a day in which he drained eight of 10 three-point shots in the second half and finished 14 of 20. She quoted Morrison:
“I played horrible the first half. Then I went out there and got a wide-open three to start the second half and it went down. Then the second one went down. End of story from there.”
To this tableau, Williams-Goss added his statistically superb game -- paradoxically, after he had been dogged by the flu: 36 points on 12-of-15 shooting, 11 rebounds and six assists. It came against a competitive if not stellar USF team.
Great game, contributing to a good debate.
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