Gonzaga’s longest basketball season -- its best one -- ended Monday night in the desert, leaving its fans, well, leaving them a lot of things: Proud, devastated, redeemed, delivered, conflicted.
That happens when you break through long-standing barriers to reach the national-championship game, then lead the thing with less than two minutes left before succumbing.
It was a magnificent, groundbreaking, mind-blowing season by Gonzaga, one that lasted 143 days -- a week short of five freaking months -- from a blowout over Utah Valley Nov. 11 to the final, unforgiving seconds of the 71-65 loss to North Carolina at University of Phoenix Stadium.
Essentially, the Zag season ended with an eerie bit of deja vu, as Nigel Williams-Goss' shot in the lane was rejected by Kennedy Meeks. A year ago, Josh Perkins was denied -- in the lane, by Syracuse's Tyler Lydon, to keep Gonzaga out of the Elite Eight.
It ended 37-2, a ridiculous number of victories even if a lot of them came against the detritus of the West Coast Conference.
This, and the next couple of Glory Hounds blog installments, will deal with the Final Four breakthrough, what it might mean for Mark Few’s chance someday at the Naismith Hall of Fame, and what impact the Zags’ March march might have for the program and the school.
Let’s get to it:
Monday night’s officiating was, to put it kindly, abysmal. It fulfilled a zebra’s dreaded quinella of misdeeds: Multiple missed calls and an overly tight rein that disrupts flow and reduces the production to fits and starts.
Consensus generously concludes that it was bad for both teams. Still, it seemed that it was Gonzaga that had more to overcome with the incessant second-half whistles, its foul peril deepened with fouls against Przemek Karnowski and freshman Zach Collins.
With Karnowski’s shooting problems, it seemed to me the uber-gifted Collins could have become the most important player on the floor. But he drew dubious calls on his third and fourth fouls, bodying Meeks as they jockeyed for a rebound and then getting caught fending off Isaiah Hicks at the high post to free up space going to the block.
“That poor kid (Collins) got 14 minutes,” lamented Tom Brennan, the former Vermont coach, on Sirius radio Tuesday. “Fourteen minutes. That’s just a shame.”
ESPN analyst Jay Bilas, while not openly critical of the officiating on the Mike and Mike radio show, said, “There’s certain things that happen in a game, where you can make a case for making the call, and you can make an equally good case for swallowing the whistle. I thought that was the (case) with a number of calls in the game.”
But the Collins foul against Meeks -- his third, with 15:53 left in the game -- seemed to square perfectly with this Bilas assertion: “Just because there’s physicality in rebounding doesn’t mean it’s a foul.”
If Collins was guilty of anything, he could have been more judicious as his foul trouble worsened. His fifth, with five minutes left on a hold against Tony Bradley underneath on a rebound, was an anti-climactic, matter-of-fact way to end his night. And his season. And maybe his college career.
On the future of Collins and Nigel Williams-Goss -- I have no inside information on either. But I think Nigel Williams-Goss is gone, and have thought that since about February. Remember, he nosed into the idea of an early departure to the draft while at Washington. He has an undergraduate degree already. And while he’s not considered a prime target by the NBA, this may be a case in which he might not stand to become a lot more attractive by playing his last college season.
Collins? I have no idea. The pros love him. He could clearly user another college season, but we all know that often doesn’t matter. With GU minus Karnowski in 2017-18, he could be a thunderous, double-double All-American force after adding weight and strength.
One NBA scout told me Collins’ father is thought to be heavily involved in his son’s future. Whether he holds sway in this decision, who knows?
On the BYU loss -- I think we can say now that the Feb. 25 Senior Night defeat to the Cougars was a good thing for the Zags. If indeed they were feeling any burden as they forged through Northwestern, then West Virginia, then Xavier, to reach the Final Four, one can only imagine the weight of the additional pressure had they been 34-0 and 35-0, etc.
The Holy Grail of matching the 1976 Indiana team -- running the table all the way through the NCAA tournament -- is simply not the stuff of mere mortals, including this Gonzaga squad.
On the path through the tournament -- There are yard-barkers out there who -- wait for it -- are questioning the “easy” path Gonzaga had to get to the Final Four, and the championship game.
Zip it, folks. The Zags had to take out Northwestern, which, as a virgin in the tournament, suddenly was everybody’s darling. Then they outslugged No. 4 seed West Virginia in a street brawl.
So what if they met Xavier, an 11 seed, and South Carolina, a No. 7, to reach the final? Remember, seeding is based on a four-month portfolio, and what happened in November or December, even January, often has little bearing on the snapshot of what a team is now. And what Xavier and South Carolina were when Gonzaga faced them is probably the hottest two teams in the tournament.
Funny how, once those teams are ousted, revisionist thinking takes hold in some minds, and meh, Xavier and South Carolina suddenly weren’t any good.
If you’re the average Gonzaga basketball fan, this Final Four is either about preparing for that long-awaited trip to Phoenix, or perhaps just figuring out where the TV is that you’ll be wedded to Saturday at 3:09 p.m.
And you figure the team . . . well, the team will go on the road, like it always goes on the road, and everything will be per usual, save for the momentousness of the surroundings.
Chris Standiford will tell you it’s not quite like that. He, and other operatives in the Gonzaga athletic department, have the bags under their eyes to prove it.
“I don’t think anybody on our staff has probably gotten more than six hours of sleep in any interval,” he told me Tuesday morning. “You’re living on adrenalin and loving every minute of it.”
Simply put, when a school makes the Final Four, the logistical crush is immense with things you’d never think about -- especially for a non-football-playing school with a smaller athletic staff. At power-five schools, more people can be diverted from their regular gigs to address the demands of a Final Four.
Here’s how it works: The day after teams make the Elite Eight, there’s an hour-long “transition meeting” staged by the NCAA for staffs of the two regional finalists. It’s essentially a primer for what to expect if your team wins the next day.
In “Glory Hounds,” the book I recently released on Gonzaga basketball, GU athletic director Mike Roth laughingly recalled his first of those, when the Zags had upset Florida in 1999 and were about to face Connecticut. The Huskies showed up at that meeting en masse, represented by about a dozen suits.
The Zags, well, you were supposed to bring an AD, sports-information director, travel coordinator and a ticket manager.
“Well, guess what?” Roth said. “We had two of those.”
It was different last week in San Jose. This was GU’s third such transition meeting and GU was ready. Except, Standiford says, if you believe at all in omens, you don’t want to be too invested, too presumptuous. So it’s hard to be all-in.
All-in happened just about the time Standiford had finished hugging a couple of coaches on the floor after GU’s 83-59 victory over Xavier the next day.
“As soon as I turned around,” says Standiford, Roth’s long-time wingman as deputy AD and a Zag alum, “a couple of the NCAA staff were there, saying, ‘Here’s some things to work on right away.’ They know what we don’t know.”
What they don’t know is contained in a “giant binder,” Standiford said, and that’s the staff playbook for this week.
After a 6 a.m. rise Sunday, the work began for Standiford and others in the GU athletic department, people like Kim Vore, associate AD for business operations, whom Standiford calls “a rock star that holds us together.” They christened the week with a 16-hour work day.
Gonzaga serviced about 750 boosters for the regional in San Jose. For this weekend, there are more than 3,000, all taken care of via the athletic department’s priority-points system based on annual giving. Hotel space for boosters is partly funneled through travel packages, but the athletic department has a finger on that pulse and must provide continual updates to hotels to hold or release rooms.
Players’ families also score this weekend. For the third straight year, the NCAA has in place a pilot program that allows for $3,000 per player family to attend the Final Four, $4,000 for the teams making the final game.
Gonzaga compliance staff is administering those parent/family logistics, including credentialing them for a salute event Thursday night, a brunch Saturday, and a slick system whereby they get choice seats for their team’s half of the Saturday doubleheader, then swapping with the other two teams’ family seats.
Coordinating for the band and cheer units is Chris Johnson, associate AD for external operations. Todd Zeidler and Barrett Henderson are heading up media requests, and trust me, there are a ton of them. Friday on site, there are podium interviews with head coach Mark Few and players, and a period of open locker room. Teams have a scheduled “workout” at University of Phoenix Stadium, but it’s not much more than a shootaround; they’ll go off to a gym someplace and do the hard, private business of preparation.
Then there are university-related events, socials, pre-game events. In keeping with Few’s hosanna to the guys who built Gonzaga, there’s a Thursday-night get-together for ex-players.
Standiford sees Few as establishing a businesslike mindset in advance of South Carolina. But at the same time, he says, “He has put a lot of thought and effort into being inclusive and making it a family event.”
Over the years, Standiford has had multiple opportunities to go to a Final Four. But, with the Zags annually in the thing since 1999, and occasionally playing the second weekend, he’s never had a yearning to get on another plane to attend one.
“I’m gonna go as a participant,” he always told friends.
It took a lot of years, but he was as good as his word.
Saturday was the most momentous day for Northwest college basketball since, well, when? The afternoon in 1958 at Louisville’s Freedom Hall when Kentucky won the national title over Elgin Baylor-led Seattle University? Maybe March 27, 1939, when Oregon’s Tall Firs claimed the first NCAA championship over Ohio State?
When first Gonzaga marched to its initial Final Four, and then Oregon waylaid Kansas, I couldn’t help but recall what provided the foundation for the entire improbable Saturday. In 2009, the Ducks’ pursuit of Gonzaga coach Mark Few came up empty, Oregon decided to keep struggling coach Ernie Kent (for the time being) and a year later, after a protracted search, the Ducks hired Dana Altman.
“They ratcheted up the pressure hard on that,” Brad Williams, Few’s attorney/agent, told me in “Glory Hounds.” “They had Phil Knight calling. Mark had been on their radar for a long time.”
It’s unlikely either of the 2017 Northwest Final Fours would have come about without Few’s decision to stay put after a meeting with then-Oregon AD Pat Kilkenny at a rather bizarre location. For those who don’t know the story (what, you haven’t bought your copy of “Glory Hounds?” For shame … ), below is the excerpt of the whole scenario:
On an early-spring day in 2009, Mark Few had a mission. He had an important business meeting at an unlikely venue. In fact, it’s safe to say it’s the only time in the history of a nondescript rest stop off Interstate 84 in north-central Oregon that the place has hosted a negotiation that would materially affect the trajectory of two college athletic programs in the Northwest.
Few’s Gonzaga basketball team had just lost to North Carolina in the Sweet 16 and now the routine of postseason housekeeping was upon him. For Few, that frequently has meant entertaining inquiries about vacant jobs. They seem to be nothing he cultivates; the approaches are made to him, by athletic directors – in recent times, more commonly by middlemen – interested in seeing if they could pry Few from his comfortable roost at Gonzaga.
More than half a dozen times, Few has been romanced by programs that have hung national-championship banners. It’s difficult to know definitively how many times he has been those suitors’ No. 1 candidate, but those occasions have been multiple.
By 2009, a decade into Few’s head-coaching tenure, this had become a rite of spring. Front men for Arizona, Indiana, Stanford and UCLA had nosed around, and somehow, Few had rationalized staying at Gonzaga. But now a different force loomed, one with assets unequaled by the others, and this might just be the one to shake Few loose.
The University of Oregon had been trying for some time to uncouple itself from Ernie Kent, in a relationship that reflects the fragile nature of coaching. Kent had been a beloved Oregon player in the Dick Harter era of the 1970s. In 2007, Kent had taken Oregon, a school with a sparse basketball history, to a second Elite Eight in five years. But he had surrounded that latter burst with some fruitless seasons, capped by a last-place, 2-16 finish in the Pac-10 in 2009, and the wolves were baying ominously in Eugene. Through those uneven years, Kent had exhausted capital with boosters in the lingering innuendo related to some personal issues off the floor.
To the northeast, there was another Oregon alumnus who looked like a prime candidate to replace Kent. Few grew up in Creswell, just 10 miles south of Eugene, he had graduated from Oregon, playing pickup games on the courts and ballfields on the UO campus. His parents, Barbara and Norm, had lived in Creswell for half a century.
And then there was the Pat Kilkenny factor. Kilkenny, who made himself a millionaire in the insurance industry in San Diego, was the Oregon athletic director. But he had taken a booster’s route to that chair, and by chance, he had also formed along the way great friendships at Gonzaga, owing to its several coaches with Oregon connections. Kilkenny was sufficiently beneficent to donate to their salaries, and so steadfast that when Zag assistant coaches departed the program to begin their own head-coaching careers, he donated significantly to them, too.
“He’s just an unbelievably benevolent guy,” Few says. “If he didn’t have a cent, he’d be a great friend.”
Behind the scenes, of course, there was Phil Knight, the Nike founder, who had long since befriended Few, and of whom Few says, “Phil, and Nike, really propped this program up. They’ve treated us like the national program it was long before other people came around.”
Even head-slapping happenstance seemed to argue for Few to be headed to Oregon. His Gonzaga team, a No. 4 seed in the 2009 NCAA basketball tournament, was sent to Portland for first- and second-round games, where the host school was none other than Oregon. So as the Zags were toppling Akron in their first game, there at one end of the scorer’s table as one of the regional’s hosts was Kilkenny, stationed close enough to the Gonzaga bench to hear Few mapping instructions during timeouts.
It all seemed perfect, too perfect not to happen.
Until it didn’t.
This wasn’t like many of the advances on Few by other schools, which don’t get past Brad Williams, the Spokane attorney who acts as his agent. This was Kilkenny, and he deserved a more personal hearing.
So they drove, Kilkenny and Few, to meet at a predetermined spot. For Few, it was a four-hour haul, west on I-90, down State Route 395 and then west on I-84. It was as clandestine as clandestine gets – “sunglasses and hats on,” Few says.
At a turnout off the freeway, Few had his come-to-Jesus meeting with Kilkenny. They talked and they talked some more – three hours’ worth, as Few recalls. In front of them, the Columbia River surged to the sea, flush with the winter’s record snowpack.
Kilkenny tried. Oh, how he tried. But in the end, what seemed so right . . . just wasn’t right.
The Fews’ fourth child, Colt, was only three months old. The other kids were settled in their schools. Marcy Few, his wife, was busy with a prominent role in the local Coaches Versus Cancer campaign. But more than anything, the way Mark Few viewed Oregon was the same as he viewed all those other opportunities. He had a better gig.
“I just wasn’t feeling it,” Few says.
Few couldn’t pull the trigger. In his mind, it just never lined up. Yes, there was a new arena on the way at Oregon, but it was going to be a 12,000-seat-plus hulk difficult to fill to capacity, a factor with its own pressures.
Yes, Oregon was fueled heavily by Knight’s largesse. But as a basketball force, it could get lost among other Pac-10 schools like Arizona and UCLA. There was no consistent talent pool in the lightly populated state.
“I never, ever felt that job was better than this one,” Few says, sitting behind his desk at the McCarthey Athletic Center. “Still don’t.”
In the end, Oregon, the place that was finally going to lure Few, became like all the other schools that approached him. In the end, Few made the decision to live in a place where his rustic home on 10 acres has mountain views to the northeast; where the drive to work is a skosh over 10 minutes; where rivers and lakes abound for his fishing jones; where, every year, you go to the NCAA tournament; and where your public obligations to boosters are under control.
The money could be greater elsewhere. But what can you do with four million dollars that you can’t do with two?
It seems inescapable: Dude’s got it figured out.
Final Four. Gonzaga’s Final Four. It seems so incongruous, such a non sequitur.
But there they were late Saturday afternoon in San Jose, the Zags body-bumping, slipping on celebratory T-shirts and ball caps, wearing grins as wide as Hamilton Street in Spokane, where the hoo-rayin’ at Jack and Dan’s must be over the moon right about now.
Gonzaga 83, Xavier 59, which, among other things, was an affirmation of the work Zags coach Mark Few did to reach the program’s first Final Four, which will silence the naysayers at least until Sunday, at which point they’ll begin to cackle that he hasn’t won a national title.
All the fretfulness, all the fits and starts of the first three games of the tournament -- the early deficits against South Dakota State, the late-game officiating controversy against Northwestern, the bar fight that was the West Virginia victory -- suddenly were flushed away in shockingly torrential fashion against Xavier.
That Gonzaga could play so well, not seize up with the magnitude of the moment in such an apocalyptic game, has to spring from Few. In a year in which he has picked up a couple of national coach-of-the-year awards, it was the latest in a lengthy series of victories.
Think about the makeup of the team that a year ago lost to Syracuse in a disheartening, late-game breakdown in the Sweet 16. That club was dominated by Kyle Wiltjer and Domas Sabonis, with a load of athleticism from Eric McClellan and some glue from Kyle Dranginis.
At that point, Nigel Williams-Goss was in a boot, recovering from ankle surgery midway through a redshirt season. Johnathan Williams III, also redshirting after transferring from Missouri, was amid strength coach Travis Knight’s school of tedious body-shaping sessions in the weight room.
Jordan Mathews wasn’t even a rumor yet. The Cal transfer didn’t visit until Hoopfest weekend in late June.
Ultimately, Few melded all those abilities. He persuaded Josh Perkins, whom Few had personally recruited tirelessly, that he could still flourish with Williams-Goss dominating the ball. And he squeezed some rogue tendencies from Williams-Goss’ game, leftovers, perhaps, from his free-lancing days at Washington.
He orchestrated those spokes to revolve around the hub of Karnowski, who sat out almost the entire 2015-16 season and eventually required back surgery, so he didn’t hit a basketball floor to play in his new surroundings until sometime well into summer.
And yet, Few, aided by assistants Tommy Lloyd, Donny Daniels and Brian Michaelson, made it all look seamless. The Zags strode to an unbeaten non-league record, therein beating Florida (now in the Elite Eight), Iowa State (Big 12 tournament winner) and Arizona (granted, without Allonzo Trier).
Before long, as the Zags were smothering the outclassed West Coast Conference, they were ranked No. 1, which, of course, augured a whole ‘nother level of national scrutiny. Nobody seems to inspire as much derision as these guys, typified by CBS’ Wally Szczerbiak’s Selection Sunday observation: “I don’t trust them.”
Surely, Gonzaga’s trek through the first four games of the NCAA tournament weren’t always artful. It shot sub-40 percent against South Dakota State, and after a blistering first half against Northwestern, retreated as the national-darling Wildcats menaced in the second half. Then came West Virginia, and a game of survival pocked down the stretch by Mathews’ memorable three-point dagger and a Gonzaga defense that choked off the Mountaineers on their last possessions.
That brought Gonzaga to Xavier, which had swatted aside Maryland, Florida State and Arizona. Yeah, the Musketeers were an 11th seed, but that’s a four-month portfolio. The real-time snapshot was a team that had bludgeoned third-seed Florida State by 25 and taken out Pac-12 champion Arizona in the Sweet 16.
The pressure on the Zags was thus immense, no matter that they had reached a second Elite Eight in three seasons. This would be labeled choking, of course, if they didn’t advance. One Seattle radio host on Friday staked out what remaining anti-Zag turf could be found: They were meeting a No. 11 seed, after having disposed of a 16 and a 4. So the naysayers could have it both ways: If they lost, they were folding again. If they won, well, it was a primrose path.
It would have been possible for Gonzaga to freeze in the moment, and indeed, when Perkins threw a lazy bounce pass on GU’s first possession, hijacked and dunked by Xavier, it was briefly ominous. But shortly, Perkins threw in a couple of threes, and his teammates joined him, and Gonzaga seemed to be playing free and easy and mostly enjoying the whole afternoon.
They didn’t defend much in the first half, getting beat off the bounce, which caused their big men to get in foul trouble. So Few and Co. dusted off a zone defense, which the Zags had employed rarely this year (but had also trotted out against West Virginia). And it seemed to work.
Along the way, Gonzaga limited one of the tournament’s sensations, Trevon Bluiett, to a mere 10 points on 3-of-14 shooting.
In the end, the Zags made 12 of 24 threes, when they were just 16 of 56 in the tournament’s first three games. They looked a lot like the team that was the rage of January and most of February.
It was a credit to a lot of people, none more than Mark Few. After all the brickbats, he's due a few bouquets.
So this is it for Gonzaga: A stone-cold, straight-up golden opportunity to get to the Final Four. Awaiting the Zags Saturday at 3:09 Pacific is 11th-seeded Xavier, which took down Arizona Thursday night in San Jose, just after Gonzaga had out-steeled West Virginia, 61-58.
Given how persistent the narrative that the Zags haven’t yet attained a Final Four, the prospect is tantalizing -- yet fraught with peril. Playing a No. 11 seed almost makes it look too easy, but it cannot be, not when Xavier has taken out three power-conference programs to get this far, not when it blew to pieces third-seeded Florida State in the second round, not when it denied Arizona, a team a lot of folks figured would be too much for Gonzaga in the Elite Eight.
But it’s right there for the Zags, a weighty eight-point favorite against the Musketeers, who have their own formidable history in the tournament in the last generation.
Random thoughts, notions and factoids in advance of the Zags’ second round-of-eight appearance in three seasons:
-- It’s hard to overstate how gutty was the victory over the Mountaineers, who have to rank among the hardest teams in the country to overcome in terms of sheer ability to force opponents into a style far removed from their comfort zone. For instance, foul trouble Gonzaga prompted the Zags to play multiple possessions of zone defense in the waning moments of both halves, and I can’t immediately remember any zone GU has played all season. This must be the least zone-dependent Zag team in 19 years of NCAA tournaments.
-- Jordan Mathews’ late three takes its place in a small pantheon of famous Gonzaga shots, perhaps just behind Casey Calvary’s renowned tip-in that sank Florida at the same juncture of the tournament in GU’s initializing run of 1999. This one, ironically, was set up by WVU’s pressing, overplaying style -- and Nigel Williams-Goss’ determination to push the ball up the floor after a rebound. Without the Mountaineers’ hounding concentration on Williams-Goss, there likely would never have been a clean perimeter look in those telling late moments, because they weren’t there most of the game.
-- Gonzaga has simply owned West Virginia and Bob Huggins, going 4-0 in the past five years, including a 23-point demolition in the first round of the NCAA tournament in 2012 -- in Pittsburgh, just 78 miles from the WVU campus.
-- It was a bar fight of a game, probably not surprising given the top-five defensive prowess of the two teams, and while WVU’s frenetic defense gets headlines, it was Gonzaga’s half-court defense that produced the big number. Against its Big 12 foes both in league games and the conference tournament, West Virginia shot .441; it hit 26.7 against Gonzaga. And in the four West Virginia-Gonzaga games since 2012, the Mountaineers shot a combined, skimpy .311.
-- I recall a conversation with GU assistant coach Tommy Lloyd many weeks ago, in which he said of freshman forward Rui Hachimura, “We think he can help us,” meaning late in this season. The athletic Hachimura’s development has been slow, but sure enough, he played four minutes of the first half. The contribution was negligible, but on a night when Gonzaga committed 26 fouls (including four by all three starting guards), Hachimura was able to spell Johnathan Williams III when he sat in the first half.
-- In three NCAA games, the Zags have only sporadically shown the stuff that propelled them to the top of computer rankings and the polls -- haltingly, in the second half of the South Dakota State game and the first half of the Northwestern game. But nobody said this was going to be Swan Lake.
-- Given the late-season struggles of Josh Perkins (whose late block of Nathan Adrian was huge), it’s more than a little surprising Gonzaga has flourished despite a sub-par tournament from Williams-Goss. His numbers: 12 for 42 from the field (.286), 10 assists, nine turnovers, but 22 rebounds.
-- Some Xavier numbers: In KenPom analytics, the Musketeers are No. 29 in offense, 67th in defense and 229th in tempo. They shoot 46 percent (88th nationally), allow .449 (230th), and have a healthy 6.2 rebound margin. They foul a lot, ranking 309th in fewest fouls, and at .691, don’t shoot free throws particularly well. Their season took a bad turn Jan. 29 with a knee injury to point guard Edmond Sumner, and they had a six-game losing streak in latter February.
-- Assuming the payout per “unit” -- one game’s advancement in the tournament -- is similar to last season (about $260,000) the Zags have banked some $4.8 million for the West Coast Conference over the NCAA’s rolling six-year window, split among the league members. Combined with Saint Mary’s at-large berth and victory, that number comes to about $8 million, so people around the WCC ought to be pleased. The four WCC victories in the NCAA is the most by the league since San Francisco’s national-title runs in both 1955-56.
A few days before Christmas, on a mostly deserted Gonzaga campus, I ran into Ken Bone, the former Seattle Pacific, Portland State and Washington State head coach. In a brief chat having to do with his special assistant’s role to GU coach Mark Few, Bone stopped me with an observation about the Gonzaga program.
He talked about chemistry and cohesiveness and camaraderie.
But it didn’t have to do with the players.
Most such discussions deal with the roster -- whether players get along, whether they’re unselfish, whether they’re focused first on getting their allotment of shots, whether they’re apt to want to be together off the floor.
Those are vitally important questions. But Bone -- essentially observing and advising in his year with the GU program -- was talking about something entirely different: Chemistry among the coaches.
“From what I’ve seen at Gonzaga, you have a group of coaches that know and accept each other’s roles,” he said, volunteering the thought without prompting. “There are different roles that need to be played, whether it’s on the practice court, or in a timeout, or in recruiting. They support each other. You can see the respect they have for each other. It’s really critical.”
Interesting thought. And no doubt an underrated one. There’s a natural inclination to examine closely the relationship players have with each other, and with their head coach, but we tend to accept as a given that the coaching staff has no hidden agendas -- that it naturally purrs along like a Ferrari.
To hear Bone tell it, we shouldn’t take it for granted.
“I don’t see any competition between staff members,” he said. “That can easily creep in there, too, sometimes.”
Makes sense. Assistants might be trying to carve out their own territory, bent on buffing their resume for their own head-coaching future. They might be trying to curry favor with the head coach to wedge out a more favorable position for a job recommendation.
The dynamics may be subtle, but the effect can be profound. Bone talked about the ways a fragile staff chemistry can infiltrate the team culture.
A given assistant usually has primary responsibility on a particular recruit. Once those players are infused into the program, an upwardly mobile assistant might try to argue for his player against that of another assistant “and try to manipulate certain conversations,” Bone says. “I’ve seen it happen.
“For example, we might be sitting with the staff before a game, talking about individuals, who might start, who might get X amount of minutes, do we need to get the ball inside. There’s opportunities for guys to manipulate those conversations.
“It appears to me there’s absolutely no hidden agenda. I just feel it’s all about what they need to do to win the game. I know that sounds simple, but I’ve seen the other side of it, and heard many stories -- like in any business. Certain people have their own agenda.”
When those agendas take hold, says Bone, the schism becomes apparent to players. If they sense that one assistant’s voice resonates more loudly and another’s isn’t respected, they pick up on it.
“That’s something that can splinter teams,” Bone says.
I remember something Tommy Lloyd, the longtime Zag assistant, told me while I was interviewing him for “Glory Hounds.” In the course of asking him about how involved he was recruiting specific players on the roster, he said, “We don’t keep score.”
Bone views the coaching collegiality as a natural extension -- or perhaps the progenitor -- of the player chemistry for which Gonzaga has been renowned.
“I feel it’s Mark’s decision in hiring the right type of people,” Bone said.
Referring to recruiting, he adds, “I’ve heard them talk about certain kids: ‘We’re not going to touch that kid; he doesn’t fit our culture.’ Or, ‘He’s a Zag.’ “
A couple of other components in the shaping of Gonzaga culture have become obvious to Bone. Few, he says, is deft at keeping a finger on the pulse of player emotions and feelings, knowing how to keep them engaged. Sometimes, that means just telling them to stay away from social media, which might be obsessing with the player’s recent shooting slump.
“They’re in continual communication with these players,” said Bone.
Another element that plays into the tightness of the enterprise is the sheer proximity of players to the nerve center of their existence. The campus is small, and just about every player lives within walking distance. There’s not a lot of need for a vehicle. They can usually get into the gym when they want. By contrast, Bone has been around programs where some players actually lived in different cities.
It calls to mind a conversation I had with Dan Dickau when he decided to leave Washington. Everything was so stretched out, every trip to Hec Edmundson Pavilion a production. He couldn’t get there on a whim. And because of that, basketball couldn’t be as important as it needed to be for him.
None of this, of course, will help the Zags bring the ball up the floor safety Thursday night against West Virginia in the Sweet 16. Still, it’s part of the formula, and it’s hard to argue Gonzaga hasn’t made it work.
So the University of Washington has hired longtime Syracuse assistant Mike Hopkins, which is, at the very least, a provocative hire. Among other things, it tells me that UW athletic director Jennifer Cohen had been working this transition for awhile. You don’t just decide to fire Lorenzo Romar after the Huskies’ 13th straight loss in the Pac-12 tournament, and then commence a national search which lands on somebody other than a head coach.
At minimum, Cohen was working back channels days and weeks ago. Maybe about the time Gonzaga’s Przemek Karnowski rumbled down the floor and got behind the insouciant Husky defense for a layup in the Zags’ easy victory early in December.
Although Hopkins had been a candidate for other jobs on the West Coast, it’s an out-of-the-box hire. I went back through half a century of UW basketball appointments (six of them), and in every case at least since Mac Duckworth coached in the ‘60s, Washington always named a sitting head coach to the position. So it’s a bold move on Cohen’s part, and she deserves props for not doing the rote, pat thing, which is hiring the coach who happens to be making a hot NCAA-tournament run in front of millions of TV viewers who normally couldn’t tell you what state Purdue is in.
Still, it’s fraught with questions, partly for the same reason. There are major unknowns about any assistant coach.
To me, one of the most intriguing ones is the long-term fate of the abundant talent pool in Seattle. Of course, that’s a dynamic that directly impacts Gonzaga.
As I documented in “Glory Hounds,” (chapter 10), the Seattle inner-city market has remained mostly closed to Gonzaga, except on the rebound with transfers from Washington like Dan Dickau, Erroll Knight and Nigel Williams-Goss. It’s a confounding fact that the Zags have done more business in Chicago (Jeremy Pargo, Zach Norvell) than they have in recent years with high school kids in Seattle.
The Zags, and others, explain it as: Only a percentage of the available talent fits what Gonzaga does. And only a percentage of that group is interested in Gonzaga.
I can’t guess what goes through the minds of 18-year-olds, but my sense is that to most Seattle kids, Gonzaga is still an outlier in their world, no matter that the Zags have far outdistanced the Huskies as a basketball program.
Casey Calvary, the productive Gonzaga forward from Tacoma on teams that started this 19-year, NCAA-tournament streak, told me for Glory Hounds, “Dragging a Seattle kid away from the UW . . . they’ll go to the UW even though they know it’s a bad basketball decision. Like, ‘This is my town, all my buddies are around here, I’m a Seattle guy.’ ’’
I think Calvary hit the nail on the head. Yes, the UW is a powerful force in Seattle. Yes, the Huskies have put a flock of players into the NBA. And yes, Romar was a role-model figure skilled at recruiting.
In some cases, to choose the UW became the path of least resistance. After two waves of success keyed by people like Brandon Roy and Isaiah Thomas, the Huskies weren’t winning big (and in recent years, weren’t winning at all), but a recruit could rationalize: I can change that losing. And I can get to the NBA. And, at the very least, I’m with my homies.
The culture is thick, and dare I say, occasionally suffocating.
Years ago, Washington State got a summertime commitment from Mark McLaughlin from suburban Inglemoor High. Within a month, McLaughlin -- who would go on to an itinerant career that landed him briefly at Washington -- had bailed on the commitment. WSU’s staff, then under Tony Bennett, believed McLaughlin’s AAU buddies had dogged him for choosing a place that wasn’t hip.
Gary Bell Jr., who had a rock-solid career at Gonzaga, used to say that he got the same inquisition from AAU teammates and rivals in Seattle.
When Daejon Davis decommitted from Washington for a period and began canvassing other schools, one of the places he visited was Gonzaga. The Zags’ staff was of the opinion, gained either from Davis himself or by impression, that Washington was out of the picture. It wasn’t; he recommitted to the Huskies.
Under Romar, the trend of gaining recruits -- both local and national -- and losing games became almost unfathomable. Earlier this season, I researched the past 10 NBA drafts and discovered that Markelle Fultz will become the seventh Husky in that timeframe to be a first-round pick and not play in the NCAA tournament in the year in which he was drafted. Incredibly, no other school in the country had more than two.
Until Romar was cashiered last week, I was ready to forecast that Corey Kispert, the Gonzaga wing recruit from King’s High just north of Seattle, would leave a greater mark on his college program than Michael Porter Jr. would at Washington. Wherever Porter ends up, whether Missouri or elsewhere, let’s ride that proposition out.
Now it’s Hopkins’ job to retain the local talent. He has a reputation as a good recruiter, albeit minus Romar’s godfather persona in Seattle. The guess is, he’ll succeed with city kids. And Gonzaga will keep being Gonzaga.
Old habits die hard. If it does happen, maybe Hopkins will actually win with those guys.
Ah, it's that time of year. Brackets, buzzer-beaters, chaos.
And of course, hating on Gonzaga.
Now, everybody who finds his name on the 68-team bracket can talk himself into a perceived slight. There’s so much buzz and blather over the tournament, it’s inevitable that in some form, just about everyone can convince himself he's been wronged.
But nobody seems to get bruised in this arena quite like the Zags, and to a certain extent, they have only themselves to blame. By working themselves into a position of national acclaim, by gaining their second No. 1 seed in four years, they’ve exposed themselves to scrutiny, which is eminently fair.
And the fact they haven’t attained a Final Four only adds to the microscope under which their credentials are parsed.
“I just don’t believe in this team,” said Wally Szczerbiak, the ex-NBA player analyzing for CBS Sports Network. “I don’t trust them.”
We’d never have known, Wally. Referring to Arizona’s draw in the West Region, with Gonzaga as the top seed, Szczerbiak said, “That’s a break. (‘Zona coach) Sean Miller is, I think, ecstatic with this draw.”
Szczerbiak’s sidekick, another former NBA forward, Danny Granger, is similarly skeptical. Referring to possible roadblocks to the Zags’ bid for a first Final Four, he said, “It could be anybody that’s playing well.”
How deep-seated is the anti-Gonzaga burn? Listen to what Mike DeCourcy, Sporting News college basketball writer, said (a bit bemusedly) on a podcast late in February:
“People hate them more . . . people hate them like they hate big oil, big banks and the Dallas Cowboys. Gonzaga has become college basketball’s most prominent target.”
About then, CBS analyst and Sports Illustrated writer Seth Davis penned a few paragraphs on the Zags, touching it off with this: “Every year, the Zags seem to steamroll their way through something called the West Coast Conference, only to get bounced early from the NCAA tournament.”
Really? A year ago, Gonzaga, an 11th seed, took down Seton Hall, tournament winner of the Big East (which produced the 2016 national champion), by 16 points. And then it demolished No. 3 seed Utah. This, a year after Gonzaga went to the Elite Eight before losing to eventual champion Duke.
(Davis went on to temper that sentence, but still, it was a strange thesis statement.)
On Feb. 24, USA Today chimed in on the Zags: “Sure, there’s room for skepticism, considering the Bulldogs have famously underachieved in the NCAAs.”
True, Gonzaga has left wins on the table in the NCAA tournament, especially as a high seed. It’s also true the Zags are 15-3 in first-round games since 1999. And since the 2010 tournament, they’ve been a No. 7 seed or poorer five times, and won at least a game in every case.
Except for Szczerbiak’s and Granger’s, the aforementioned commentary came when Gonzaga was still undefeated, and with the tournament revving up in earnest Thursday morning, it reinforces to me that the defeat to Brigham Young Feb. 25 was indeed a good thing, bitter as it was at the time for GU. This week’s endless analysis – bracket shows, analytics, prediction chatter, Boeheim vs. Greensboro – only underscores how glaring the spotlight would have been on Gonzaga had it been advancing through the tournament with 33, 34, 35 victories without a single loss. It would have been the surpassing national story, with nothing else even close, at least until LaVar Ball opens his mouth again.
Now the Zags are a mere garden-variety No. 1 seed, absorbing potshots.
So this is the week, it says here, they can begin answering.
I think there are perhaps three reasons why this is Gonzaga’s best team, and the third one has to do with all the daggers aimed its way. My sense is, this team has been hauling around a massive chip on its shoulder – a direct result of the doubters. You can see it in player comments and on the floor.
Unrelated to that, it has a greater overall level of talent than any previous Gonzaga team. It can bring two NBA-level (at some point, at least) players in Zach Collins and Killian Tillie off the bench.
And it’s Gonzaga’s best defensive team, ranking No. 2 in KenPom’s advanced analytics.
Will all of that matter? We’ll see shortly. Either the Zags perform, or they face a lot more March Meanness.
So I was listening to a Seattle sports-talk radio show a couple of weeks ago, and the host posed a hypothetical question to his audience about Gonzaga men's basketball and the NCAA tournament.
Two options for GU fans: One, you could choose a guaranteed run to the Final Four, but only with the stipulation that you'd lose in the national semifinals in Glendale, Ariz. Or, the second option is, you roll the dice, take your chances and try to win the whole ball of wax -- knowing that you might not even make it to the second weekend.
I was surprised at the choice of the show's co-hosts, who were in agreement. Before spoiling the outcome for you, let me relate a story from last week.
I spoke to the Spokane County Bar Assn. on Friday, and, curious about how those luncheon attendees might weigh in on the subject, I ran the proposition by them: Take the bird in the hand (the guaranteed Final Four) or go for the gusto and a shot at winning it all.
There were 50-60 people in the audience. At the mention of the first proposition, one fellow sort of half-raised his hand, looked around and then lowered it, seemingly a little sheepishly.
On the latter proposition, maybe 30 people raised their hands readily. (As for the disparity between that number and the total attendees, I had stipulated it should be a matter for Zag fans and supporters.)
Fair to say, I was pretty shocked. If I were in the shoes of a Gonzaga fan, I would take the guaranteed Final Four. Obviously, the Zags have never accomplished that, and there's so much nasty narrative about it nationally, I'd view it as a first-things-first approach. I think when Gonzaga finally does get to a Final Four, it will not only puncture the criticism on that front, but enhance the appreciation for what the program has accomplished. And no, I don't necessarily see this season as one in which it's as good as it will ever get at Gonzaga.
Having said that, I understand the let-it-ride philosophy and the belief that if this is a special team, it needs to be allowed to try to fulfill a dream. One of those luncheon attendees told me later the vote was a sign that people don't care about that segment of national dialogue that questions Gonzaga.
By the way, the radio hosts on that show I mentioned were in accord with the folks at the luncheon -- go for the gold.
So mine would apparently be the opinion of a small minority. That ain't the first time.
A stony silence has emanated from the athletic offices at the University of Washington regarding the future of basketball coach Lorenzo Romar, and we can only assume that shortly, a puff of white or brown smoke will drift skyward from the Graves Building.
(This is a blog that usually addresses some aspect of Gonzaga basketball, but occasionally, will riff on other related topics in college hoops. And since the Zags have re-engaged with Washington on a four-year deal, what the hey, indulge me.)
It’s probably no great surmise on my part that without Washington’s lingering financial commitment to Romar, he’d probably be gathering cardboard boxes to stuff office possessions into, so to vacate for the next guy. That’s the inevitable fate of coaches from Power Five conferences who fail for six straight years to get a team into the NCAA tournament.
Big picture, it’s staggering that the matter is even debatable anymore, never mind that Romar has this all-galaxy, all-universe, all-constellation recruiting class coming to Montlake (probably to stay together for, oh, a season and a half, given the roster churn that has besieged the program over those six years). And of course, that debate is framed by the contract that ex-athletic director Scott Woodward hitched to Romar years ago, subject of today’s treatise.
Romar is said to be due some $3 million if the Huskies decide to fire him, result of Woodward having thrown himself mindlessly at the feet of the likable coach back when the Huskies were, you know, relevant.
For the life of me, I don’t know what the hell these people are thinking. But then, I don’t know what they’ve sometimes been thinking at places like Washington State and Oregon State, either.
The arms race, see, is not limited to the building of facilities to keep up the Joneses. It also has a lot to do with salaries, or it must, or we’d more often see evidence of some vague fiscal responsibility instead of athletic directors acting with the forbearance of guys at a weekend bachelor party in Las Vegas
Somehow, Woodward decided that Washington’s life would be destitute without Romar, so he gave him a 10-year contract in 2010. Yes, there were murmurs about NBA coaching, and there was always the possibility of a college program poaching him, but isn’t six, seven, even eight years a sufficiently solid commitment?
Maybe Woodward was only taking a cue from his regional colleagues. At Washington State in 2009, Jim Sterk concluded that Ken Bone had to have a seven-year deal to replace Tony Bennett, all of it guaranteed. There was even a time when Sterk was paying Bone more than his football coach, and no matter how difficult things were under Paul Wulff, that should never have happened.
Anyway, would the whole thing have fallen through if Sterk had offered a five-year deal, with, say, a liquidated buyout the last year or two, to a coach whose only Division 1 coaching experience was at Portland State of the Big Sky?
(Sterk had left Pullman by the time Bone was let go after the 2014 season. At San Diego State, he dodged my e-mail and voicemail on the subject, and only when buttonholed in person by the Spokane Spokesman-Review at a subsequent NCAA basketball regional did he offer an explanation about the Bone deal. He said he had done the same thing for women’s coach June Daugherty and needed to be equitable. Oh.)
So it was left to Sterk’s successor, Bill Moos, to make a change from Bone to Ernie Kent, who had been out of coaching and was dying to get back into it -- badly enough to take the bait at one of college basketball’s most desperate outposts. Bone had made $850,000 annually. So wouldn’t $1 million or $1.1 million have been a reasonable starting salary, especially at a place where the cost of living is cheaper than the average Pac-12 stop?
No. Kent would get $1.4 million. No low-rent program, those Cougars.
Down at Oregon State a few years ago, athletic director Bob DeCarolis finally pulled the plug on Craig Robinson after six failed seasons of OSU basketball. But not without a sledgehammer buyout of $4 million. What was it that drove DeCarolis to fling himself at President Obama’s brother in law? Was it that crowd of 1,352 home fans for the loss to Radford in the College Basketball Invitational?
Alums have only so long to scratch heads over decisions like these. Some of their effort has to go to guarding their wallets in the face of the inevitable, and plaintive, pleas from their favorite athletic department that they need to step it up financially. The message: Please, save us from ourselves.
Aside from the arms-race component, I’m not sure how to explain these blunders, other than to suggest that (a) athletic directors often don't have any more certainty about hires than the guy who changes their oil; and (b) they hate the process so much that when they think they’ve got the right person, they lock onto him like barnacles.
Exhibit A: Sterk hired Tony Bennett, who, with his dad, authored the most astonishing rebuilding job in the history of Pac-12 basketball. And he hired Wulff, who went 9-41 in four years.
Anyway, we ought to know more on Romar shortly, right after the Huskies complete the season with a 13-game losing streak.
Who knows, a long extension may be coming his way.
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