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