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How long will this undefeated thing run for the Zags?

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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.

Gulp.

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.

#ZagsMBB #UnitedWeZag #ZagUp #slipperstillfits

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On the Battle in Seattle: What's Gonzaga got up its sleeve?

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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.

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Zags always make a point (a lot of them) against Washington

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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
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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.
#ZagsMBB #ZagUP #uwhuskies #uwgonzaga

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For this Zags-Huskies matchup, crickets

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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.

#uwhuskies #ZagsMBB

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UW, Gonzaga and the home fires

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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.
#uwhuskies #ZagsMBB

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Zags-Huskies: Reunited, and it feels so . . . weird

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So here we are, 10 years later. When the Gonzaga and Washington men’s basketball teams meet in Spokane Wednesday night, it will be two days short of exactly 10 years since they ended an annual series on the Zags’ home court. (They did get together last November in a first-round game of the Battle4Atlantis in the Bahamas, Gonzaga winning, 80-64.)

First, a quick word on what you’re reading. This is a blog created in conjunction with the release of my new book, “Glory Hounds,” which details the stories behind Gonzaga’s sustained success. The aim is to weigh in weekly -- maybe more often -- on some aspect of the GU program, or on occasion, Pac-12 and national hoops. (With that in mind, here's a link to an excerpt the Seattle Times is running this weekend from Glory Hounds: http://bit.ly/2gREVpw )

So much has changed since 2006, when the Huskies opted out of the Gonzaga series. First, it was voiced in some quarters that it was justified because the Zags needed the Huskies more than vice versa, a notion I never bought into. Gonzaga was doing just fine with its schedule, and didn’t need the Huskies to burnish it. It was the fans who were forgotten with that move.

“We’ve got to do the best thing for our basketball program,” Washington athletic director Todd Turner told me back then. “It’s been a great game, but the nature of our program is changing.”

Little did Turner know how accurate he would be.

I recall being on a Seattle radio show about that time, perhaps a little earlier, and being asked which of the two programs would get to a Final Four first. It was a good question. I picked the Huskies, simply on the basis of the teeming talent pool nearby.

As history shows, the right answer -- to date, anyway -- was neither. The Final Four has continued to elude the Zags, and the Huskies haven’t really been within a country mile of one since the series was interrupted. In fact, in the decade since the GU-UW series stopped, the Huskies failed to make the NCAA tournament seven times.

Remarkably -- given the transient, here-and-gone nature of players and coaches nowadays -- the same two head coaches are at work. Mark Few has had Gonzaga on a generally steady trajectory, while Lorenzo Romar has lately struggled to recapture the excellence he brought to the Huskies in two doses in what is now a 15-year run at Montlake.

Here’s what is differentiating the two enterprises: As a program, the Huskies are trying to discover whom they are. Gonzaga has figured it out.

Washington is just hip enough -- Pac-12 program; fetching, world-class city; personable, engaging coach -- to have cachet with the occasional highest-level recruit. It’s nigh-incredible that a program a continent away could lure a mega-talent like Markelle Fultz from the East Coast.

But it happens only sporadically, not nearly enough to build a program that way. What Washington desperately needs is a measure of stability, an end to the revolving door that has plagued the program lately. What it needs is a blend of the occasional superstar with veteran players devoted more to the ideals of the program than in what their draft status might be next June. (That’s not to suggest Fultz is so preoccupied.)

By and large, the Zags don’t have this problem. With the rare exception of somebody like freshman seven-footer Zach Collins, they don’t get those top-shelf guys. So they’re defined, you could say, by their limitations. They’ve settled on a system built around capable veteran players, European imports, and lately, transfers.

They’ve made it work nicely.

Ten years after the hiatus began, here’s where we are: Gonzaga is percolating at a high level, ranked No. 8 this week (entering a game with bete noir Arizona Saturday in LA), seemingly better equipped than ever to make a run at that Holy Grail, the Final Four. The Huskies (4-3) are trying to find themselves, failing defensively, trying to urge the pieces around Fultz to deliver.

From the time I’ve spent around Few, I’m fairly certain he’s lukewarm about the restart of the series. He figures his program has long passed the Huskies. And whether you believe that’s reason to abandon it, it’s hard to argue it hasn’t.

Direly, ahead of a Pac-12 schedule that appears pedestrian, the Huskies need to make a statement that they’re relevant. There’s nothing else in December with any juice.

Ten years later, the Huskies need the Zags in the worst way. Go figure.

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