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.
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.
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