So away we go: Saint Mary’s and Gonzaga, the dreadnoughts of the West Coast Conference, renewing Saturday night a deepening rivalry.
This time, it’s with a twist.
Each game last year generated its own distinct flavor. At Saint Mary’s in the latter part of January, with the Zags hunting an elusive quality win, they led by 10 points in the final five minutes. And they coughed it up, losing 70-67.
Surely, 30 days later, Gonzaga would atone on Senior Night. But no. Saint Mary’s led virtually the entire game and upended the Zags, 63-58. It was about as dark a place as Gonzaga has visited in recent years, seemingly a sign that 17 straight seasons of NCAA tournaments was drawing to a close.
“I just remember, we had a really bad week of practice,” said GU assistant Tommy Lloyd, referring to the run-up to the second game. “We had a handful of guys get pinkeye, so they couldn’t practice. We didn’t let that be known. We were a mess. We played like it.”
But in the WCC tournament finale, Gonzaga got it done, 85-75, shooting 61.7 percent and led by Eric McClellan’s 20 points.
All those were memorable in their own way, but for this latest Gaels-GU joust, a short memory might be best.
Why? Because five of the top six Gonzaga scorers didn’t play against Saint Mary’s last year. Nigel Williams-Goss and Johnathan Williams III were redshirting; Przemek Karnowski was wincing through his first steps after back surgery; Jordan Mathews was at Cal; and Zach Collins was still in high school. Throw in Killian Tillie, to balance returnee Silas Melson, and only two of Gonzaga’s primary eight-man rotation were on the floor for GU in 2015-16.
Undoubtedly, at some point in the locker room, or in a shootaround, or in a team meeting at the hotel, somebody will tell the Gaels: You’ve done this before. You’ve won on Gonzaga’s home floor. You’ve beaten these guys.
But have they, really?
That’s why this is such a milepost game for Gonzaga, now a winner of its first 16 games. The eyeball test tells you this Zags outfit is much better than last year’s, but this is the best available yardstick to validate it. Because Saint Mary’s has its starting five back, much unlike Gonzaga.
Saint Mary’s (15=1) brings some arresting numbers: Perhaps the most noticeable is that entering its blowout victory over Portland Thursday night, the Gaels were No. 350 in KenPom’s adjusted tempo rankings (Virginia was No. 351). That helps them place No. 3 nationally in scoring defense (58.1).
They take their time. They get good shots. They put defenses in compromising positions.
“They’re extremely sound in everything they do,” said Lloyd. “They do a really good job of reading the game, with a combination of spacing the floor, ball-handlers, decision-makers. They put you in situations where you’ve got to decide what you’re going to do.”
Jock Landale, a 6-11 Aussie, has become the centerpiece of the Gaels, averaging 18.4 points and 9.7 rebounds. His battle with Karnowski (and no doubt, Collins) will be intriguing.
Entering Portland, SMC was shooting .501 from the field, 12th nationally. Its .756 free throw percentage was 30th in the country. Its efficiency is underscored by a sharp 1.57 team assist-turnover ratio, 11th in the nation. And Saint Mary’s rebound margin (9.9) is No. 7.
The Gaels are capable of befuddling the Zags, who haven’t yet played as cohesive a team as Saint Mary’s.
But if Gonzaga hasn’t seen anything like the Gaels, Saint Mary’s hasn’t seen anything like the Zags, either. At least not these.
Now it begins. Now comes the praise and the scrutiny, the hosannas and the criticism.
About the time West Virginia forced top-ranked Baylor into its fourth gazillionth turnover Tuesday night in Morgantown, knocking the Bears out of their unbeaten distinction, the focus began tilting toward Spokane. Gonzaga is now the only Division I unbeaten, a status that confers, well, nothing really, but it does guarantee the nation’s sporting interest.
Who knows how long it might last? The expiration date could be as early as Thursday night at home against Loyola Marymount, it could be two nights later with savvy Saint Mary’s. It could stretch into February. It could even be a sizzling national story into mid-March, just as Wichita State’s was in 2014.
It’s not as though Gonzaga isn’t used to the spotlight. The Zags elbowed their way into it with their first forays deep into the NCAA tournament in 1999-2001. Adam Morrison’s unforgettable 2006 season augured more of it. And in 2013, GU earned its first No. 1 poll ranking.
For Gonzaga, this particular unbeaten-the-longest niche is a new one. The Zags have stretched their season-starting winning streak (15) longer than at any point in history, and this one is good enough to have outlasted the rest of the country.
So now, they’re going to know what could be an unprecedented media barrage, especially if the stainless streak continues to have legs. That would only be intensified by the fact the college football season is now over.
These will be among the story lines: Przemek Karnowski, bedridden no more and better than ever. How the transfers have meshed, and how Gonzaga seems to add them without damaging chemistry. Zach Collins and Killian Tillie, proficient bigs whose presence means there’s still considerable upside to this team. And inevitably: Is this Gonzaga’s best team?
For Zag fans, it won’t all be seashells and balloons. There will be the questions about whether Gonzaga finally has the chops to get to the third weekend of the NCAA tournament, or whether there’s a crashing disappointment out there. And there will be some carping about the ease of negotiating the West Coast Conference schedule.
That’s not undeserved. Surely it would be a stretch to think Gonzaga could plow through the ACC or Big Ten schedule for too long, undefeated. But it’s unfair to blame the Zags for being a part of the WCC, when the alternatives are just about non-existent. And their non-league schedule produced wins over Florida (No. 3 in the RPI rankings), Arizona (15), Akron (58), Iowa State (61) and Tennessee (67).
What sort of effect might the added media focus have on Gonzaga’s performance? It’s hard to see that any WCC gym would be any more amped to upend the Zags than they have been for years. And I could see Gonzaga, if it were to remain unbeaten for a long time, taking on the challenge of keeping the thing going.
One could argue that the dual pressure of being ranked No. 1 in 2013 and having a No. 1 seed created a burden that GU couldn’t manage. It never really played well that year after it was voted No. 1, nearly falling victim to a 1-versus-16 upset by Southern in the NCAA tournament and then getting ambushed by Wichita State.
Tommy Lloyd, the longtime GU assistant, didn’t seem especially concerned about the fishbowl that could await the Zags now.
“We have a lot of new guys, but it’s a pretty mature group,” he told me Wednesday. “Our goal isn’t what our current record is, our goals are ahead of us. We’ve got to keep moving forward. We’re coaching to get better every day, we’re not coaching to maintain, that’s for sure.
“We’ve kind of been off the grid, so to speak, a little bit. If the spotlight comes, we’ll deal with it. But we’re not sitting around talking about being undefeated.”
That’s a good thing. But a lot of other people will be doing it for them.
The new year has brought a deepening of the Lorenzo Romar conundrum, the one in which the Husky men’s basketball coach’s future is clouded by the ongoing wrangle between his coaching and recruiting acumen.
(This blog typically deals with happenings around Gonzaga basketball, but it will occasionally address the nearby programs and college hoops in general.)
On New Year’s evening, the Huskies started Pac-12 play with a home loss to Washington State, punctuated by the usual heroics from freshman guard Markelle Fultz, plus a lot of vacant looks by the other guys on the floor. Three nights later, 15th-ranked Oregon came to town, and the Ducks won by 22, pretty much treating Washington like a cat batting around a dead mouse.
So by now, we know this: For the Husky men, it’s not a question of whether, but how bad. Any real chance of making something of this season is close to having disappeared, and now it’s more an issue of just how far this will sink. After Washington got clocked by Gonzaga four weeks ago, Romar said he was looking forward to seven straight games in Seattle. Ahead of a visit from Oregon State, those first six have produced a 3-3 record and victories over Western Michigan, Cal Poly and Seattle U., significant only in the fact the Huskies didn’t lose to them.
Washington’s record is 7-7 now, and besides the aforementioned three, the wins are against Long Beach State, Western Kentucky, Cal State-Fullerton and Northern Arizona. A reading early this week of the RPI computer rankings of the seven brings us to an average of 271, which means none of the seven is faintly relevant.
It’s gotten so bad that the Wednesday Seattle Times noted that Washington had failed to make the NCAA tournament six straight years. Actually, it’s only five, but by now, who’s counting?
“Lorenzo’s got pocket aces,” crowed a morning talk-show host.
Of course he does. Romar has signed forward Michael Porter Jr., ranked by some the nation’s second-best high school recruit, the centerpiece of a top-five class. And his brother Jontay, a year younger, is committed to Washington.
They’re playing at Nathan Hale High School, where the coach, in his first job, is former Washington great Brandon Roy.
Speaking of first year, a month before Roy was named at Nathan Hale, Romar added Michael Porter Sr. to his staff. In a revealing December piece, Christian Caple of the Tacoma News-Tribune laid out the circumstances of that hire.
Romar and the senior Porter have a long association, dating to when they played together for Athletes in Action a generation ago. And Romar is godfather to Michael Porter Jr.
From there, it grows murkier. Porter Sr.’s coaching background is rooted in AAU circles, then to three years’ each as Missouri women’s basketball operations director and assistant with the Mizzou women, whose roster included two of his daughters. There had been no experience with college men before Washington.
For this, according to Caple’s story, the Huskies decided on a two-year contract for Porter Sr. worth $300,000 a year, plus a $5,000 monthly housing allowance and another $15,000 annually for family travel. Raphael Chillious, Romar’s top assistant, makes $203,016. The other assistant, Will Conroy, makes $144,000.
The Huskies had thought enough of Chillious to bring him back to the UW for a second run after a stint at Villanova. And last April, they announced a promotion of Chillious to the title of associate head coach. That came a month before they made public the hire of Porter Sr., which was a month before the announcement of Roy as coach at Nathan Hale. And in July, Michael Porter Jr. announced he would attend Washington.
In Caple’s story, both Romar and UW athletic director Jennifer Cohen lament some tight finances at the UW as cramping the salary pool for all the assistants, and they cite another unnamed major-conference program as having been desirous of Porter Sr.’s services.
So the solution was to pay Porter Sr. 48 percent more than the top assistant on the staff, ostensibly because of his experience with the Missouri women’s program. Apparently, Geno Auriemma wasn’t available.
The head spins.
We’ll insert here the disclaimer of every treatise on Romar. He has always been a good and honorable man. And there’s nothing known about the saga of the Porters that would violate NCAA rules.
But in the Huskies’ confounding backslide since 2011, Romar has accomplished a jaw-dropping double. Twice, he has had teams that sent two first-round draft choices to the NBA that year and failed to make the NCAA tournament.
Last year, that edition of the Huskies also included the Pac-12’s leading scorer -- a third player, Andrew Andrews -- and still it didn’t happen, a non-feat of majestic magnitude. It came in a Pac-12 Conference that sent seven teams to the NCAA tournament, which means (a) the games were consistently challenging, and (b) there was opportunity after opportunity after opportunity to build a resume.
All of this leaves some Husky fans behaving like a classic drug addict. Just one more fix. Just one more. Just give us one more recruiting class, and everything will be all right. Just as it was going to be all right when Dejounte Murray and Marquese Chriss entered school in 2015. Just as it was going to be all right when Fultz enrolled for this year.
So far, what Fultz has brought is breathtaking ability, surrounded by a bunch of guys who don’t play defense and don’t seem to fit particularly well. The sum is less than the parts, which means Fultz, if he goes No. 1 in the 2017 NBA draft, is Ben Simmons 2.0, minus the dissension.
Here’s a suggestion, then, for Jennifer Cohen: Forget that Husky basketball has signed anybody for next year. Pretend that the recruiting rankings don’t exist.
The Huskies have 17 games left. Evaluate Romar not on the basis of Michael Porter Jr., but on the development of this team -- you know, the one that actually plays and practices at Alaska Airlines Arena, the one with three four-star recruits around Fultz. By March, make a reading on whether they’re getting better, and growing more cohesive, and defending more competently, and playing like they care.
Because what Lorenzo Romar has shown he’s really good at, in the enigmatic recent years of his coaching career, is getting guys to the NBA. Cohen is going to have to decide whether, in the big picture of Husky basketball, that should be the endgame.
As West Coast Conference men’s basketball play begins Thursday night, there’s a sense of newness. That is, right up until you project the best in show in the WCC.
In eight of the past nine years, Gonzaga or Saint Mary’s has always either won the league or finished no worse than a tie for second in the regular season. That’s a trend expected to prevail in 2016-17, as the Zags, now No. 6-rated by the coaches, are the league favorite, while Saint Mary’s (10-1) is No. 19 in both polls.
The league underwent a 40-percent upheaval in head coaches last spring. WCC commissioner Lynn Holzman would tell you that’s reflective of a new wave of presidents unwilling to accept the dominance of Gonzaga, and to a lesser extent, Saint Mary’s.
So veteran Herb Sendek is now installed at Santa Clara. Ex-Saint Mary’s assistant Kyle Smith has taken over at San Francisco. And former NBA point guards Terry Porter and Damon Stoudamire are in place at Portland and Pacific, respectively.
A Cliffs-Notes look at the league as it begins play, alphabetically in order:
Brigham Young (9-4)
Coach -- Dave Rose (12th season as BYU head coach).
Best win -- Beat Colorado 79-71 at Provo.
RPI -- No. 147.
Key stat -- C Eric Mika, returned from a church mission in Italy, leads Cougars with 20.5 points and 8.8 rebounds per game.
Coach -- Mark Few (18).
Best win -- Beat Arizona, 69-62.
RPI -- No. 6.
Key stat -- Pick one: Zags are No. 2 nationally in 3-point FG defense at .267, they’re shooting .744 on free throws and have a 1.32 assist-turnover ratio.
Loyola Marymount (7-4)
Coach -- Mike Dunlap (3).
Best win -- Won at Colorado State, 69-66.
RPI -- No. 199.
Key stat -- Shooting has been an issue; Lions make .332 from three and 65.8 percent of their free throws.
Coach -- Damon Stoudamire (1).
Best win -- Beat Wyoming 73-65 in Stockton.
RPI -- No. 246.
Key stat -- Team shoots only 40.4 percent.
Coach -- Marty Wilson (6).
Best win -- Beat Little Rock, 66-65, on neutral floor.
RPI -- No. 256.
Key stat -- Chris Reyes, 6-7 Utah transfer, averages 14.7 ppg, shoots .619 and leads Waves in rebounding at 8.1 a game.
Coach -- Terry Porter (1).
Best win -- Beat Oregon State 53-45, at the Moda Center in Portland.
RPI -- No. 192.
Key stat -- G Alec Wintering’s 21.5 ppg leads four players in double figures.
Saint Mary’s (10-1)
Coach -- Randy Bennett (16).
Best win -- At Dayton, 61-57.
RPI -- No. 30.
Key stat -- Lots to like here: Big man Jock Landale has either led the Gaels in scoring or rebounding in all but one game. SMC has a 1.7 assist-turnover ratio and 9.4 rebound margin.
San Diego (7-5)
Coach -- Lamont Smith (2).
Best win -- Beat Cal-Santa Barbara, 77-68.
RPI -- No. 160.
Key stat -- Spokane University High product Brett Bailey, 6-6, has made quantum leap to lead Toreros in scoring (18.6) and rebounding (7.2).
San Francisco (10-3)
Coach -- Kyle Smith (1).
Best win -- Beat Utah 89-86 in Diamond Head Classic.
RPI -- No. 142.
Key stat -- Dons shooting .484, and .413 behind the arc.
Santa Clara (6-7).
Coach -- Herb Sendek (1).
Best win -- At Valparaiso, 87-80.
RPI -- No. 272.
Key stat -- Broncos have launched 104 more treys than opponents. Foes shoot 40.5 percent on threes.
Thursday night, Washington and Seattle University renewed a tepid “rivalry” at KeyArena. A lot of things remained static; the Huskies won comfortably, which they always do against the Redhawks, and 6,163 fans showed up, a little better than a third of capacity, and that pretty much sums up not only the appetite of the fans for the series, but the passion for either program as 2016 bows out.
(We inject here an explainer: This blog will be primarily about Gonzaga, but from time to time, will also entertain notions on programs affecting the Zags, or on college basketball at large.)
Right about now, fans of the two schools -- and more important, administrators -- need to be asking, “Where’s this thing going?”
We’ll focus here on the Redhawks.
Seattle U. coach Cameron Dollar is a relentlessly positive guy. He told the Seattle Times almost six years ago, as the Redhawks continued a transition back to NCAA Division I basketball, that he hoped to bring a national title to the school “in 10-14 years.”
Well, that time frame has been trimmed from 4-8 years, and if Seattle U. is any closer to it than it was back when Dollar said it, it’s not apparent to most observers.
The Redhawks flunked the latest test against Washington by 22 points. That’s a Washington team that is now 7-5 and has struggled in many of the wins.
Dollar, in his eighth season, is 101-127. Those numbers aren’t especially damning, inasmuch as he took over a program in 2009 that had a lot of challenges as it attempted to reclaim some of the glory it knew decades earlier.
It’s the trajectory that seems iffy. In 2010, Seattle U. had an incredible, 51-point victory at Oregon State that OSU (then) coach Craig Robinson must still be trying to explain. A year later, Seattle U. won at Virginia, in Tony Bennett’s second year there.
Lately, there haven’t been many in the way of marquee wins for the Redhawks. In a 7-6 season, they have victories over the likes of PLU, Northwest and Great Falls. You hear snippets of talk about Seattle U. positioning itself somehow to make a hot run through the WAC tournament in March and steal an NCAA bid -- which is fine, except the real path to success has to be building a team with enough resume credentials to win an at-large bid, no matter what happens in the tournament. You don’t plan for lightning in a bottle.
In retrospect, the turning point for the program as it transitioned up was probably its failed bid to get the West Coast Conference interested in expansion. The school is a natural for the WCC -- Jesuit, urban -- but not without some basketball chops. Essentially, Seattle U. asked the league to put the cart before the horse back in 2007, when it requested -- and was denied -- admission to the WCC.
Shortly after, University of Portland president William Beauchamp told me -- in reference to the upgrade to Division I -- “That requires a lot of money, and it’s not something that happens overnight. As far as the West Coast Conference is concerned, it was a little premature for them to come into the conference right now.”
That left the Redhawks to join the geographically warped WAC, a league ravaged by football expansion. Instead of playing games against schools like Portland, Saint Mary’s and Gonzaga, Seattle U. tips off against Missouri-Kansas City, Chicago State and Texas-Rio Grande Valley. Gaahhk.
I can’t vouch for the struggles Dollar and Co. face in revitalizing the Redhawks. It must be difficult not having a major-college-level arena on campus, no matter that Seattle U. can tout recruits on playing in a place (KeyArena) that housed an NBA team. Most crowds there are skimpy and the college atmosphere non-existent.
Bill Hogan, then-athletic director at Seattle U., told me back before Dollar was hired that the school was staging a fund-raising campaign for a campus arena. But last spring, Hogan (outbound in the position) said that approach had been shelved, that the Redhawks were going to try to grow the fan base at the Key and use it for momentum to get something done on campus.
Absent a donor of significant proportions, that probably means the basketball team is going to have to stir passions, and in 2016-17, there hasn’t been a lot of passion-stirring. The Redhawks lost in two difficult double-overtime games against a competitive team in Eastern Washington, and they also were destroyed by 43 at Notre Dame.
Two years ago, Seattle U. bought a couple of games on campus in the College Basketball Invitational. By definition, it’s a third-rate tournament. But perhaps the Redhawks had to do it at that point in their development, and they won games against Pepperdine and Colorado.
Dollar’s run includes five losing seasons in his last six. Because he’s an affable, media-friendly guy, and because there are so many sporting objects of interest in Seattle that rank ahead of Seattle U. (including Seahawk OTAs), the Redhawks tend to escape scrutiny.
But that day may be coming, and he needs to get the property in order, because an inspection right now isn’t particularly flattering.
This being sports and all, it’s foolhardy to assume anything and look ahead. Nevertheless, caveats, disclaimers and disavowals in place, there’s this: It might be awhile before Gonzaga loses. In fact, the Zags (11-0) might well be the last team standing nationally without a defeat in 2016-17.
Rick Barnes broached this possibility after the Zags survived his Tennessee team Sunday in Nashville: That they could run the table in the regular season and go into the NCAA tournament unbeaten.
That’s a big leap. Certainly, it’s not an impossible notion, if indeed this is one of Mark Few’s top-shelf Gonzaga teams, and it appears it is. The West Coast Conference schedule isn’t exactly loaded with land mines (although the cliché of every gym lusting for Zag blood will again hold forth.)
So we won’t go there with Barnes. But it isn’t out of the question the Zags, who host South Dakota of the Summit League Wednesday night in their final pre-league game, could soldier well into January -- like right up to Jan. 14, when they host Saint Mary’s -- without a defeat.
To date, five others nationally have spotless resumes -- Villanova, UCLA, Baylor, Creighton and USC.
Gonzaga has obviously surmounted the most imposing hurdles on the non-league schedule, even as a couple of those, like San Diego State and Iowa State, haven’t exactly assembled boffo portfolios.
It would be unwise to attach too much credence to Ratings Percentage Index numbers at this point. But South Dakota is No. 211, and of the first four WCC opponents, the only one with an RPI better than 200 is Portland at 125. Add a grain of salt to all that, since the No. 69-ranked team right now is Indiana and No. 81 is Michigan State. (Gonzaga is No. 8.)
But this is Gonzaga’s longest walk among the undefeateds to start a season since it began playing D-1 basketball in 1958-59. It just might last a good while longer, with all the attendant challenges and pressure.
It's also debatable whether the Gonzaga coaches would even want an extended, long unbeaten run deep into the season, such is the scrutiny it would invite.
Other observations on the state of the Zags, now No. 7-ranked:
-- The inability to simply strangle opponents after holding a big lead should be a concern. It’s happened against Iowa State, Arizona and now Tennessee. While an opening salvo like the 27-6 burst at Tennessee can’t be sustained for a game, too often those comfortable leads have seemingly led to some bad fundamentals, like losing three-point shooters and . . .
-- The defensive-rebounding malaise. What was before a curiosity now seems a problem. A year ago, Gonzaga allowed 10 offensive rebounds a game. In 2016-17, it is surrendering 15. There are times when it looks like GU’s best chance at a defensive board is that the opposing rebounder simply mishandles the ball.
-- Part of those struggles, though, are due to Gonzaga generally playing very good half-court defense, where Ken Pomeroy’s adjusted rankings now put GU at No. 16. Gonzaga is holding opponents to .361 field-goal shooting, markedly better than last year’s number of .396. In other words, there are a lot of rebounds.
-- Turnovers (20) were a problem against Tennessee, where it almost seemed that Gonzaga’s active defensive tempo carried over to the offense, to its detriment. On occasion, the Zags rushed shots or failed to make the extra pass.
-- Its depth continues to be a boon for Gonzaga. Freshman Killian Tillie, who is contributing mightily, is the No. 8 scorer at 4.7 points.
-- It’s been a spotty transition for Missouri transfer Johnathan Williams III. He has struggled with foul trouble, tied for the team lead in whistles, while averaging 9.0 points per game. Improved decision-making and the occasional ball- or shot-fake would flatter his natural athletic ability.
-- A .744 team free throw percentage is a good sign for the Zags. Przemek Karnowski, who has always hovered around 50 percent, is at .621, and surely the coaches would take that all year.
It’s that time of year -- holiday spirit, a chill in the air, and if you’re a Gonzaga basketball fan in the Puget Sound area, the Battle in Seattle at KeyArena.
Well, hold that last thought, because for the first time since 2003, the BIS isn’t part of the December calendar for GU faithful.
Not to suggest this will be a blue Christmas -- your cue, Elvis -- for west-side followers of the Zags, but their timing obviously isn’t the greatest. Gonzaga has one of its best editions yet -- maybe the mother of all of them -- and its 10-game run of success to start the season is unprecedented in the NCAA Division I era at Gonzaga, dating to 1958-59.
The Zags, and the opposition they’ve enlisted, have been providing the best college basketball available at the maligned Key outside the NCAA tournament. In the first year of the Battle in Seattle, Gonzaga won an overtime game against Quin Snyder’s fifth-ranked Missouri team. Two years later came a gritty 64-62 Zags victory against Oklahoma State. “I called ‘bank,’ ‘’ Adam Morrison said devoutly.
Three years later, Gonzaga was about to upset a No. 2-ranked Connecticut team but a late three-point shot went down for the Huskies, who won in overtime, 88-83.
As college hoops goes, it hardly gets any better. Problem is, scheduling is hard. Every one of those games requires a return engagement, one reason why the playbill occasionally faltered in the Battle, with opponents like Massachusetts, South Alabama and Cal Poly.
In those games, drawing in the neighborhood of 9,000 people against the close-to-capacity houses they pulled in for the aforementioned heavyweights, the Zags learned that fans wouldn’t turn out merely to watch their beloveds. They needed an appealing matchup.
Nothing wrong with that. If you’re a season-ticket holder at the McCarthey Athletic Center in Spokane, it’s one thing to bite the bullet for the occasional “guarantee” game opponent, knowing you’re going to get high quality on other nights. But in a one-off in Seattle, Gonzaga couldn’t expect to trot out an RPI No. 167 foil and hope to fill the place.
“I haven’t heard too much wailing and gnashing of teeth,” GU athletic director Mike Roth told me this week about the BIS. “(But) people are disappointed, absolutely. And I’m disappointed.”
Here’s one of the difficulties with the game: Requiring a return for high-level opponents, the game annually takes up two spots on a non-league schedule bloated by the expansion of the West Coast Conference schedule from 14 to 18 games. There’s the game itself, and annually, the return of the game the year before. (Sunday, the Zags will be in Nashville, paying back Tennessee for its BIS appearance a season ago.)
Now, the intrigue.
At a Seattle alumni event in October, Roth teased attendees with what he called a “unique” proposal built around the Battle in Seattle. He wouldn’t divulge details, nor was he willing to shed any more light when we talked Tuesday. All he said was it’s pending, not yet finalized.
“I’m hoping we can pull it off,” he said Tuesday. “It’ll be met with enthusiasm on a number of fronts and some not-enthusiasm on other fronts.”
Hmm. This is just me musing -- Roth said nothing even off the record about GU’s intentions -- but you don’t suppose the Zags could be pondering a high-level conference matchup (hello, BYU and Saint Mary’s) at the Key?
Several factors would argue for the idea. One, the WCC schedule is now nosing into December, which it didn’t in the old 14-game format. Two, students are on holiday break, so that’s a constituency you wouldn’t be affecting as dramatically.
And three, the league has been struggling for national respect, minus Gonzaga. GU coach Mark Few made a pointed statement last March on the occasion of Saint Mary’s Selection Sunday snub about how WCC athletic departments weren’t funneling the profits from the tournament (much of it generated by Gonzaga) back into basketball.
Meanwhile, WCC commissioner Lynn Holzman told me over the summer that a new wave of WCC presidents seems much more attuned to the needs, and potential, of its basketball programs than the old guard.
So: Can you imagine the buzz this weekend if Saint Mary’s were meeting Gonzaga at the Key, two teams earlier ranked among the nation’s top 12? Guaranteed 17,000-seat sellout, appealing national TV draw, giving the WCC a large-crowd showcase it gets only when the Zags or Gaels travel to BYU. (And those often get lost in a blizzard of other key national games in January and February.)
The obvious downside is the removal of a top-notch game from the season-ticket package at the MAC, and that’s not a small consideration. But perhaps another high-level non-league game would make it more palatable -- of the Illinois-Michigan State-Arizona-UCLA ilk of recent years.
Mark Few probably wouldn’t find it a rousing idea, either, since coaches are extremely protective of home games. But there was a recent occasion when GU played four home games before its students returned to campus from holiday break.
Again, it’s just a thought. But as the Battle in Seattle takes a breather, maybe not a bad one.
After watching Gonzaga put up 98 points against Washington Wednesday night in the rivalry-reinstatement game, I got to thinking: Even with an extended interruption in the series, the Zags have made a habit of scoring on the Huskies.
I didn’t realize how pronounced that trend was
Going backwards to the 2004-05 game when Washington came to the brand-new Kennel 14th-ranked and fresh from a tournament championship in the Great Alaska Shootout, the Zags have scored 98, 80, 97, 95 and 99 points against Washington. That’s 93.8 points per in those five games.
That ain’t the half of it.
In the last seven games between the two -- dating back through the 2002-03 season -- Gonzaga has shot 50 percent or better in every one.
I find that stupefying.
Here’s the breakdown:
2016: 53.8 percent (Gonzaga wins, 98-71).
2015: 50 percent (Gonzaga, 80-64).
2006: 50.7 percent (Gonzaga, 97-77).
2005: 52.1 percent (Washington, 99-95).
2004: 58.9 percent (Gonzaga, 99-87).
2003: 61.1 percent (Gonzaga, 86-62).
2002: 55.6 percent (Gonzaga in OT, 95-89).
You have to go back to the 2001-02 season to find a Gonzaga team that didn’t shoot 50 percent against Washington. In other words, you have to go back to the last year of the Bob Bender era. The starting guards were Dan Dickau and Blake Stepp for Gonzaga, Curtis Allen and Erroll Knight for Washington.
In that game, Gonzaga shot 41.7 percent. And still won by 20 on the road.
What’s also striking, and surprising, about that stretch is how Washington, whose trademark has been offense-oriented basketball under Lorenzo Romar, hasn’t shot well against Gonzaga. In the last eight games between the two programs (including that last one with the Bender-coached Huskies), Washington has hit the 50-percent mark only once -- and four times has shot .311 or worse, including Wednesday night.
More random, capricious, throwaway observations on the latest proceedings in the Kennel:
-- Captain Obvious here: Washington is a team trying to find its way. That’s clear. But the Huskies did have the advantage of a few days’ extra prep time over Gonzaga, having had a full week between games (TCU to Gonzaga), while the Zags had to focus first on nemesis Arizona last Saturday. Plainly, that edge was worth nothing.
-- While Gonzaga coach Mark Few had to be pleased with the evening’s work, the game will do nothing to increase his appetite for the resumption of the series. Few made it clear to me in “Glory Hounds” that he’s lukewarm about playing Washington, saying, “It’s all about (RPI) top-25 and top-50 wins.” So his team just went out and proved his point for him.
-- Nigel Williams-Goss acquitted himself famously in what had to be a difficult spot -- playing against a coach who had known him since he was a young teenager, his former college coach, one whom he had criticized publicly (by association) upon transferring to GU. It wouldn’t have been a surprise to see him pressing and forcing upon himself a bad night. Instead: 23 points, 9-of-13 shooting, 5 rebounds, 5 assists, 2 turnovers.
-- Markelle Fultz is an effortless scorer, the real deal. But in all honesty, I don’t understand why he would have chosen to come 3,000 miles to a struggling program.
-- Fultz and Zach Collins’ summit meeting: It looked like a perfect block. It’s too bad when an official makes that call, simply on the basis that it looks like it couldn’t have happened without a foul.
-- I don’t ever remember seeing or hearing of a team (Washington) gathering 29 offensive rebounds. It’s other-worldly. But then, you don’t often hear of a team having zero assists at the half, either.
A funny thing happened on the way to the renewal of the once-sizzling Washington-Gonzaga basketball rivalry: Nobody cared.
Well, that's not completely true. I'm guessing there will be 6,000 people in an hour at the McCarthey Athletic Center who will care quite a bit about it, as well as the entire fan base of Zag Nation (every college rooting constituency is a Nation these days).
And there are no doubt diehard Husky fans curious to see whether their team can hold up against one of the Zags' most imposing outfits yet.
But when you compare the buildup to this game -- which does, after all, mark the warming of a once-frigid relationship between the two schools -- it pales in comparison to the slings, arrows and verbal barbs that accompanied the Cold War that preceded this.
Recall that when the Huskies curtailed the series in advance of the 2006 game, they did it to further the cause of a "national schedule." That drew a lot of snickers from Gonzaga fans, and a TV camera picked up Zags coach Mark Few saying, "If I'd lost to somebody eight times in nine years, I'd probably want to cancel the series, too." Naturally, that drew major catcalls from Washington partisans.
Virtually forgotten -- or at least unmentioned in contemporary reports -- is the "offer" the Huskies made to Gonzaga in the fall of 2009 of a three-year contract to stage the game at KeyArena. Sure, the 17,000 Key was 5,000 bigger than any other reasonable alternative (the Spokane Arena), but that would have meant Washington was annually traveling four miles for the game, while Gonzaga was doing an overnight 285 miles away.
The Zags laughed at that one, and I can't say I blame them. No doubt that would have been a rousing restart to the series -- virtually guaranteed to sell out -- but Gonzaga would have been at a decided disadvantage.
UW's then-athletic director, Scott Woodward, made that proposal to his GU counterpart, Mike Roth, at about 5 p.m. one day via e-mail. Roth, leaving his office at quitting time, felt he didn't have time even to review the terms before the Huskies leaked it to the media.
Of course, Gonzaga eventually rejected it, Few saying something to the effect that he would have a baby with "Bigfoot" before the Zags would do something like that.
As the years passed, the public passion for the series seemed to wane rather than intensify. Maybe that's what the two sides preferred -- a turndown of the heat around the game.
Or maybe that's what happens when the distance between the programs becomes a gulf. When they tip it off in Spokane tonight, the Zags' RPI computer ranking will be No. 8, the Huskies' No. 180. Surely that's the largest such spread at game time since around the turn of the millennium, when the Zags were getting to three straight Sweet 16s and Washington was nearing the end of the Bob Bender era.
And even if they had been playing every year in the interim, that might still be the largest gap.
So the hubbub around this one is less than fervent. Newspapers have essentially sort of yawned about it. An informal poll on KJR AM Wednesday afternoon found about 75 percent of respondents believing a Washington victory over Alabama in the national football semifinals is a greater likelihood than a UW win at Gonzaga.
That's skepticism, bordering on apathy. We'll see if the Huskies can rouse their faithful to believing tonight.
Among the various points of contention when Washington and Gonzaga began a dance aimed at resuming their basketball rivalry was this: Where to resume it?
The Huskies, naturally, wanted it at their place. They argued that the last game (not counting the neutral-site matchup last year in the Bahamas) before the series ended was at Gonzaga (in December of 2006), so it only made sense to restart it at Hec Edmundson Pavilion.
Gonzaga said no dice. You ended the series, they countered, so we hold the cards on where it picks up.
The Zags won out, of course, getting the game in Spokane, and that could be important when east and west meet again Wednesday night.
There is precedent that it matters. In 2004, shortly after Gonzaga opened the McCarthey Athletic Center, the 14th-ranked Huskies were coming off a tournament victory at the Great Alaska Shootout, and when they added another trip, to Spokane, an Adam Morrison-Ronny Turiaf-Derek Raivio team thwarted the Huskies in an extremely high-level game.
A year later, the Zags, after a memorable, third-place trip to the Maui Invitational, played at Hec Ed in early December and lost 99-95 to a Brandon Roy Husky team. (If you saw those two games, you’d have a hard time not arguing the series should have continued.)
Home court was worth a lot in those instances. Whether it matters again Wednesday night might be viewed as debatable, what with Gonzaga now ranked No. 6 by the coaches, and the Huskies scrapping to remain relevant.
But think of it this way: Washington played last Wednesday night, and will have had a week to plot against the Zags. Gonzaga (8-0) spent the latter half of last week dealing with No. 16 Arizona -- albeit injured and depleted Arizona -- so the Huskies have a decided edge in prep time. Washington hosting the game, especially with the Zags having just traveled, would have cut further into that edge.
This could be tantamount to a crusade game for the Huskies (4-3), who have underperformed to date. They could turn the ship around in a mere two hours by getting a win that perhaps nobody else will this season at the MAC.
Two obvious narratives: How Gonzaga deals with the Huskies’ uber-freshman, Markelle Fultz; and how Washington acquits itself against the balance of the Zags.
Fultz will probably see several different Zag defenders, including Jordan Mathews and Silas Melson, and it’s routine for Gonzaga to throw up some zone in such situations, though Fultz (.481) and the Huskies (.424) shoot the three well.
On the other side, there’s this ridiculous stat, which must be unequaled anywhere in Division 1 basketball: Through Gonzaga’s first six games -- three against NCAA-tournament-worthy opposition -- the Zags had seven different players either lead them in scoring or tie for it.
Both teams have functioned well on offense. Washington shoots .492 and Gonzaga .484, the Zags ranking a healthy 12th in Ken Pomeroy’s adjusted offensive ratings. Washington’s biggest concern must be its defensive chops -- or lack thereof; No. 160 by KenPom -- against the offensively adroit Zags. Five GU players average in double figures and a sixth, Mathews, is at 9.1.
Gonzaga has an efficient team assist-turnover ratio of 1.33-to-1, while the Huskies are a shade on the negative side in that category.
And a final item on Washington’s to-do list: In three games against NCAA-tournament-level teams -- Yale and TCU (twice), the Huskies sent the opposition to the foul line 95 times. Gonzaga hurt Washington a year ago inside in the Bahamas matchup, and can (and will) send waves of bigs at the Huskies, who can’t afford to be dominated down deep.
As the series resumes, they’re already conceding a bunch of decibels to the Zags.
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