So this is it for Gonzaga: A stone-cold, straight-up golden opportunity to get to the Final Four. Awaiting the Zags Saturday at 3:09 Pacific is 11th-seeded Xavier, which took down Arizona Thursday night in San Jose, just after Gonzaga had out-steeled West Virginia, 61-58.
Given how persistent the narrative that the Zags haven’t yet attained a Final Four, the prospect is tantalizing -- yet fraught with peril. Playing a No. 11 seed almost makes it look too easy, but it cannot be, not when Xavier has taken out three power-conference programs to get this far, not when it blew to pieces third-seeded Florida State in the second round, not when it denied Arizona, a team a lot of folks figured would be too much for Gonzaga in the Elite Eight.
But it’s right there for the Zags, a weighty eight-point favorite against the Musketeers, who have their own formidable history in the tournament in the last generation.
Random thoughts, notions and factoids in advance of the Zags’ second round-of-eight appearance in three seasons:
-- It’s hard to overstate how gutty was the victory over the Mountaineers, who have to rank among the hardest teams in the country to overcome in terms of sheer ability to force opponents into a style far removed from their comfort zone. For instance, foul trouble Gonzaga prompted the Zags to play multiple possessions of zone defense in the waning moments of both halves, and I can’t immediately remember any zone GU has played all season. This must be the least zone-dependent Zag team in 19 years of NCAA tournaments.
-- Jordan Mathews’ late three takes its place in a small pantheon of famous Gonzaga shots, perhaps just behind Casey Calvary’s renowned tip-in that sank Florida at the same juncture of the tournament in GU’s initializing run of 1999. This one, ironically, was set up by WVU’s pressing, overplaying style -- and Nigel Williams-Goss’ determination to push the ball up the floor after a rebound. Without the Mountaineers’ hounding concentration on Williams-Goss, there likely would never have been a clean perimeter look in those telling late moments, because they weren’t there most of the game.
-- Gonzaga has simply owned West Virginia and Bob Huggins, going 4-0 in the past five years, including a 23-point demolition in the first round of the NCAA tournament in 2012 -- in Pittsburgh, just 78 miles from the WVU campus.
-- It was a bar fight of a game, probably not surprising given the top-five defensive prowess of the two teams, and while WVU’s frenetic defense gets headlines, it was Gonzaga’s half-court defense that produced the big number. Against its Big 12 foes both in league games and the conference tournament, West Virginia shot .441; it hit 26.7 against Gonzaga. And in the four West Virginia-Gonzaga games since 2012, the Mountaineers shot a combined, skimpy .311.
-- I recall a conversation with GU assistant coach Tommy Lloyd many weeks ago, in which he said of freshman forward Rui Hachimura, “We think he can help us,” meaning late in this season. The athletic Hachimura’s development has been slow, but sure enough, he played four minutes of the first half. The contribution was negligible, but on a night when Gonzaga committed 26 fouls (including four by all three starting guards), Hachimura was able to spell Johnathan Williams III when he sat in the first half.
-- In three NCAA games, the Zags have only sporadically shown the stuff that propelled them to the top of computer rankings and the polls -- haltingly, in the second half of the South Dakota State game and the first half of the Northwestern game. But nobody said this was going to be Swan Lake.
-- Given the late-season struggles of Josh Perkins (whose late block of Nathan Adrian was huge), it’s more than a little surprising Gonzaga has flourished despite a sub-par tournament from Williams-Goss. His numbers: 12 for 42 from the field (.286), 10 assists, nine turnovers, but 22 rebounds.
-- Some Xavier numbers: In KenPom analytics, the Musketeers are No. 29 in offense, 67th in defense and 229th in tempo. They shoot 46 percent (88th nationally), allow .449 (230th), and have a healthy 6.2 rebound margin. They foul a lot, ranking 309th in fewest fouls, and at .691, don’t shoot free throws particularly well. Their season took a bad turn Jan. 29 with a knee injury to point guard Edmond Sumner, and they had a six-game losing streak in latter February.
-- Assuming the payout per “unit” -- one game’s advancement in the tournament -- is similar to last season (about $260,000) the Zags have banked some $4.8 million for the West Coast Conference over the NCAA’s rolling six-year window, split among the league members. Combined with Saint Mary’s at-large berth and victory, that number comes to about $8 million, so people around the WCC ought to be pleased. The four WCC victories in the NCAA is the most by the league since San Francisco’s national-title runs in both 1955-56.
A few days before Christmas, on a mostly deserted Gonzaga campus, I ran into Ken Bone, the former Seattle Pacific, Portland State and Washington State head coach. In a brief chat having to do with his special assistant’s role to GU coach Mark Few, Bone stopped me with an observation about the Gonzaga program.
He talked about chemistry and cohesiveness and camaraderie.
But it didn’t have to do with the players.
Most such discussions deal with the roster -- whether players get along, whether they’re unselfish, whether they’re focused first on getting their allotment of shots, whether they’re apt to want to be together off the floor.
Those are vitally important questions. But Bone -- essentially observing and advising in his year with the GU program -- was talking about something entirely different: Chemistry among the coaches.
“From what I’ve seen at Gonzaga, you have a group of coaches that know and accept each other’s roles,” he said, volunteering the thought without prompting. “There are different roles that need to be played, whether it’s on the practice court, or in a timeout, or in recruiting. They support each other. You can see the respect they have for each other. It’s really critical.”
Interesting thought. And no doubt an underrated one. There’s a natural inclination to examine closely the relationship players have with each other, and with their head coach, but we tend to accept as a given that the coaching staff has no hidden agendas -- that it naturally purrs along like a Ferrari.
To hear Bone tell it, we shouldn’t take it for granted.
“I don’t see any competition between staff members,” he said. “That can easily creep in there, too, sometimes.”
Makes sense. Assistants might be trying to carve out their own territory, bent on buffing their resume for their own head-coaching future. They might be trying to curry favor with the head coach to wedge out a more favorable position for a job recommendation.
The dynamics may be subtle, but the effect can be profound. Bone talked about the ways a fragile staff chemistry can infiltrate the team culture.
A given assistant usually has primary responsibility on a particular recruit. Once those players are infused into the program, an upwardly mobile assistant might try to argue for his player against that of another assistant “and try to manipulate certain conversations,” Bone says. “I’ve seen it happen.
“For example, we might be sitting with the staff before a game, talking about individuals, who might start, who might get X amount of minutes, do we need to get the ball inside. There’s opportunities for guys to manipulate those conversations.
“It appears to me there’s absolutely no hidden agenda. I just feel it’s all about what they need to do to win the game. I know that sounds simple, but I’ve seen the other side of it, and heard many stories -- like in any business. Certain people have their own agenda.”
When those agendas take hold, says Bone, the schism becomes apparent to players. If they sense that one assistant’s voice resonates more loudly and another’s isn’t respected, they pick up on it.
“That’s something that can splinter teams,” Bone says.
I remember something Tommy Lloyd, the longtime Zag assistant, told me while I was interviewing him for “Glory Hounds.” In the course of asking him about how involved he was recruiting specific players on the roster, he said, “We don’t keep score.”
Bone views the coaching collegiality as a natural extension -- or perhaps the progenitor -- of the player chemistry for which Gonzaga has been renowned.
“I feel it’s Mark’s decision in hiring the right type of people,” Bone said.
Referring to recruiting, he adds, “I’ve heard them talk about certain kids: ‘We’re not going to touch that kid; he doesn’t fit our culture.’ Or, ‘He’s a Zag.’ “
A couple of other components in the shaping of Gonzaga culture have become obvious to Bone. Few, he says, is deft at keeping a finger on the pulse of player emotions and feelings, knowing how to keep them engaged. Sometimes, that means just telling them to stay away from social media, which might be obsessing with the player’s recent shooting slump.
“They’re in continual communication with these players,” said Bone.
Another element that plays into the tightness of the enterprise is the sheer proximity of players to the nerve center of their existence. The campus is small, and just about every player lives within walking distance. There’s not a lot of need for a vehicle. They can usually get into the gym when they want. By contrast, Bone has been around programs where some players actually lived in different cities.
It calls to mind a conversation I had with Dan Dickau when he decided to leave Washington. Everything was so stretched out, every trip to Hec Edmundson Pavilion a production. He couldn’t get there on a whim. And because of that, basketball couldn’t be as important as it needed to be for him.
None of this, of course, will help the Zags bring the ball up the floor safety Thursday night against West Virginia in the Sweet 16. Still, it’s part of the formula, and it’s hard to argue Gonzaga hasn’t made it work.
So the University of Washington has hired longtime Syracuse assistant Mike Hopkins, which is, at the very least, a provocative hire. Among other things, it tells me that UW athletic director Jennifer Cohen had been working this transition for awhile. You don’t just decide to fire Lorenzo Romar after the Huskies’ 13th straight loss in the Pac-12 tournament, and then commence a national search which lands on somebody other than a head coach.
At minimum, Cohen was working back channels days and weeks ago. Maybe about the time Gonzaga’s Przemek Karnowski rumbled down the floor and got behind the insouciant Husky defense for a layup in the Zags’ easy victory early in December.
Although Hopkins had been a candidate for other jobs on the West Coast, it’s an out-of-the-box hire. I went back through half a century of UW basketball appointments (six of them), and in every case at least since Mac Duckworth coached in the ‘60s, Washington always named a sitting head coach to the position. So it’s a bold move on Cohen’s part, and she deserves props for not doing the rote, pat thing, which is hiring the coach who happens to be making a hot NCAA-tournament run in front of millions of TV viewers who normally couldn’t tell you what state Purdue is in.
Still, it’s fraught with questions, partly for the same reason. There are major unknowns about any assistant coach.
To me, one of the most intriguing ones is the long-term fate of the abundant talent pool in Seattle. Of course, that’s a dynamic that directly impacts Gonzaga.
As I documented in “Glory Hounds,” (chapter 10), the Seattle inner-city market has remained mostly closed to Gonzaga, except on the rebound with transfers from Washington like Dan Dickau, Erroll Knight and Nigel Williams-Goss. It’s a confounding fact that the Zags have done more business in Chicago (Jeremy Pargo, Zach Norvell) than they have in recent years with high school kids in Seattle.
The Zags, and others, explain it as: Only a percentage of the available talent fits what Gonzaga does. And only a percentage of that group is interested in Gonzaga.
I can’t guess what goes through the minds of 18-year-olds, but my sense is that to most Seattle kids, Gonzaga is still an outlier in their world, no matter that the Zags have far outdistanced the Huskies as a basketball program.
Casey Calvary, the productive Gonzaga forward from Tacoma on teams that started this 19-year, NCAA-tournament streak, told me for Glory Hounds, “Dragging a Seattle kid away from the UW . . . they’ll go to the UW even though they know it’s a bad basketball decision. Like, ‘This is my town, all my buddies are around here, I’m a Seattle guy.’ ’’
I think Calvary hit the nail on the head. Yes, the UW is a powerful force in Seattle. Yes, the Huskies have put a flock of players into the NBA. And yes, Romar was a role-model figure skilled at recruiting.
In some cases, to choose the UW became the path of least resistance. After two waves of success keyed by people like Brandon Roy and Isaiah Thomas, the Huskies weren’t winning big (and in recent years, weren’t winning at all), but a recruit could rationalize: I can change that losing. And I can get to the NBA. And, at the very least, I’m with my homies.
The culture is thick, and dare I say, occasionally suffocating.
Years ago, Washington State got a summertime commitment from Mark McLaughlin from suburban Inglemoor High. Within a month, McLaughlin -- who would go on to an itinerant career that landed him briefly at Washington -- had bailed on the commitment. WSU’s staff, then under Tony Bennett, believed McLaughlin’s AAU buddies had dogged him for choosing a place that wasn’t hip.
Gary Bell Jr., who had a rock-solid career at Gonzaga, used to say that he got the same inquisition from AAU teammates and rivals in Seattle.
When Daejon Davis decommitted from Washington for a period and began canvassing other schools, one of the places he visited was Gonzaga. The Zags’ staff was of the opinion, gained either from Davis himself or by impression, that Washington was out of the picture. It wasn’t; he recommitted to the Huskies.
Under Romar, the trend of gaining recruits -- both local and national -- and losing games became almost unfathomable. Earlier this season, I researched the past 10 NBA drafts and discovered that Markelle Fultz will become the seventh Husky in that timeframe to be a first-round pick and not play in the NCAA tournament in the year in which he was drafted. Incredibly, no other school in the country had more than two.
Until Romar was cashiered last week, I was ready to forecast that Corey Kispert, the Gonzaga wing recruit from King’s High just north of Seattle, would leave a greater mark on his college program than Michael Porter Jr. would at Washington. Wherever Porter ends up, whether Missouri or elsewhere, let’s ride that proposition out.
Now it’s Hopkins’ job to retain the local talent. He has a reputation as a good recruiter, albeit minus Romar’s godfather persona in Seattle. The guess is, he’ll succeed with city kids. And Gonzaga will keep being Gonzaga.
Old habits die hard. If it does happen, maybe Hopkins will actually win with those guys.
Ah, it's that time of year. Brackets, buzzer-beaters, chaos.
And of course, hating on Gonzaga.
Now, everybody who finds his name on the 68-team bracket can talk himself into a perceived slight. There’s so much buzz and blather over the tournament, it’s inevitable that in some form, just about everyone can convince himself he's been wronged.
But nobody seems to get bruised in this arena quite like the Zags, and to a certain extent, they have only themselves to blame. By working themselves into a position of national acclaim, by gaining their second No. 1 seed in four years, they’ve exposed themselves to scrutiny, which is eminently fair.
And the fact they haven’t attained a Final Four only adds to the microscope under which their credentials are parsed.
“I just don’t believe in this team,” said Wally Szczerbiak, the ex-NBA player analyzing for CBS Sports Network. “I don’t trust them.”
We’d never have known, Wally. Referring to Arizona’s draw in the West Region, with Gonzaga as the top seed, Szczerbiak said, “That’s a break. (‘Zona coach) Sean Miller is, I think, ecstatic with this draw.”
Szczerbiak’s sidekick, another former NBA forward, Danny Granger, is similarly skeptical. Referring to possible roadblocks to the Zags’ bid for a first Final Four, he said, “It could be anybody that’s playing well.”
How deep-seated is the anti-Gonzaga burn? Listen to what Mike DeCourcy, Sporting News college basketball writer, said (a bit bemusedly) on a podcast late in February:
“People hate them more . . . people hate them like they hate big oil, big banks and the Dallas Cowboys. Gonzaga has become college basketball’s most prominent target.”
About then, CBS analyst and Sports Illustrated writer Seth Davis penned a few paragraphs on the Zags, touching it off with this: “Every year, the Zags seem to steamroll their way through something called the West Coast Conference, only to get bounced early from the NCAA tournament.”
Really? A year ago, Gonzaga, an 11th seed, took down Seton Hall, tournament winner of the Big East (which produced the 2016 national champion), by 16 points. And then it demolished No. 3 seed Utah. This, a year after Gonzaga went to the Elite Eight before losing to eventual champion Duke.
(Davis went on to temper that sentence, but still, it was a strange thesis statement.)
On Feb. 24, USA Today chimed in on the Zags: “Sure, there’s room for skepticism, considering the Bulldogs have famously underachieved in the NCAAs.”
True, Gonzaga has left wins on the table in the NCAA tournament, especially as a high seed. It’s also true the Zags are 15-3 in first-round games since 1999. And since the 2010 tournament, they’ve been a No. 7 seed or poorer five times, and won at least a game in every case.
Except for Szczerbiak’s and Granger’s, the aforementioned commentary came when Gonzaga was still undefeated, and with the tournament revving up in earnest Thursday morning, it reinforces to me that the defeat to Brigham Young Feb. 25 was indeed a good thing, bitter as it was at the time for GU. This week’s endless analysis – bracket shows, analytics, prediction chatter, Boeheim vs. Greensboro – only underscores how glaring the spotlight would have been on Gonzaga had it been advancing through the tournament with 33, 34, 35 victories without a single loss. It would have been the surpassing national story, with nothing else even close, at least until LaVar Ball opens his mouth again.
Now the Zags are a mere garden-variety No. 1 seed, absorbing potshots.
So this is the week, it says here, they can begin answering.
I think there are perhaps three reasons why this is Gonzaga’s best team, and the third one has to do with all the daggers aimed its way. My sense is, this team has been hauling around a massive chip on its shoulder – a direct result of the doubters. You can see it in player comments and on the floor.
Unrelated to that, it has a greater overall level of talent than any previous Gonzaga team. It can bring two NBA-level (at some point, at least) players in Zach Collins and Killian Tillie off the bench.
And it’s Gonzaga’s best defensive team, ranking No. 2 in KenPom’s advanced analytics.
Will all of that matter? We’ll see shortly. Either the Zags perform, or they face a lot more March Meanness.
So I was listening to a Seattle sports-talk radio show a couple of weeks ago, and the host posed a hypothetical question to his audience about Gonzaga men's basketball and the NCAA tournament.
Two options for GU fans: One, you could choose a guaranteed run to the Final Four, but only with the stipulation that you'd lose in the national semifinals in Glendale, Ariz. Or, the second option is, you roll the dice, take your chances and try to win the whole ball of wax -- knowing that you might not even make it to the second weekend.
I was surprised at the choice of the show's co-hosts, who were in agreement. Before spoiling the outcome for you, let me relate a story from last week.
I spoke to the Spokane County Bar Assn. on Friday, and, curious about how those luncheon attendees might weigh in on the subject, I ran the proposition by them: Take the bird in the hand (the guaranteed Final Four) or go for the gusto and a shot at winning it all.
There were 50-60 people in the audience. At the mention of the first proposition, one fellow sort of half-raised his hand, looked around and then lowered it, seemingly a little sheepishly.
On the latter proposition, maybe 30 people raised their hands readily. (As for the disparity between that number and the total attendees, I had stipulated it should be a matter for Zag fans and supporters.)
Fair to say, I was pretty shocked. If I were in the shoes of a Gonzaga fan, I would take the guaranteed Final Four. Obviously, the Zags have never accomplished that, and there's so much nasty narrative about it nationally, I'd view it as a first-things-first approach. I think when Gonzaga finally does get to a Final Four, it will not only puncture the criticism on that front, but enhance the appreciation for what the program has accomplished. And no, I don't necessarily see this season as one in which it's as good as it will ever get at Gonzaga.
Having said that, I understand the let-it-ride philosophy and the belief that if this is a special team, it needs to be allowed to try to fulfill a dream. One of those luncheon attendees told me later the vote was a sign that people don't care about that segment of national dialogue that questions Gonzaga.
By the way, the radio hosts on that show I mentioned were in accord with the folks at the luncheon -- go for the gold.
So mine would apparently be the opinion of a small minority. That ain't the first time.
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.
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