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On a clear day, Zags can even see Nevada

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You might have missed this angle Tuesday night, but an old friend of Gonzaga came oh-so-close to doing the Zags a solid.

Leon Rice, the 12-year GU assistant, coaches Boise State, which fell victim to No. 10 Nevada, 72-71, on a three-point shot by Cody Martin with 4.5 seconds left – Martin’s first made trey in exactly a month.

Why, you ask, would Zag followers care especially about Nevada’s fortunes?

The answer lies several weeks down the road – possibly – when the NCAA basketball committee convenes to deal out seeds and sites on Selection Sunday.

Today, by consensus, the Zags (16-2) project to be a No. 2 seed in the NCAA tournament. Obviously, that’s subject to change. I feel safe in saying that were Gonzaga to run the table and win the WCC tournament, it would find itself in a spirited discussion for a No. 1 seed – dependent partly on future losses by projected No. 1s.

Nevada, 17-1 after the Boise State victory, is generally seen as a No. 3 seed today. That, too, could change, and it would get interesting if Gonzaga stays at No. 2 and Nevada bobs up one line to a No. 2. Or if both become No. 3 seeds.

Thanks to the Pac-12 and its de-emphasis on basketball – we kid – Gonzaga and Nevada are the sole contenders for the honor of best-seeded team in the West in 2019. As such, if they happen to be on the same seed line in March, the one the committee judges superior will get to stay in the West, while the other goes elsewhere. Anaheim is hosting the West regional, and Kansas City, Louisville and Washington, D.C., the others.

My belief is, this is a bigger deal for fans than it is teams. Regionals are in large, professional-style arenas in which partisanship is divided. Sure, some teams will be more popular than others, but the backing is nothing like a college venue. Still, for most Gonzaga fans, Anaheim (March 28 and 30) would be a preference, in terms of proximity, access and weather, if their team gets to the Sweet 16.

(The western sub-regional sites, by the way, are Salt Lake City and San Jose.)

How do the two teams stack up against each other today? I was a little surprised to see the Zags with a fairly decisive edge in the NCAA’s new NET metric – No. 6 at mid-week, as opposed to Nevada’s No. 23. The Wolfpack can boast that it has a better road record (5-1 to GU’s 2-1) as well as neutral (4-0, to GU’s 3-1).

But the reason becomes more apparent in their records in the NCAA’s Quadrant 1 reckoning – or combined record against the top 30 at home; top 50 on neutral sites; and top 75 on the road. There’s a lot more meat on the bones of Gonzaga’s schedule, as the Zags are 4-2 in that combination, while Nevada is just 1-0.

In a close head-to-head comparison, the Zags would be able to argue that they operated through most of their non-league schedule without Killian Tillie and Geno Crandall, and if they were to piece together a dominating run through the WCC, that contrast would only become more pronounced.

And regardless of what happens, they’ll hold the big hammer of a victory over a healthy Duke team. Meanwhile, the New Mexico squad that throttled Nevada recently has a NET ranking of only 188.

It’s worth wondering just how much weight the NET will be given by the selection committee, which, no matter its composition, was famous through the decades for saying that the late, unlamented RPI was merely one tool in the process. But given that the NET is more sophisticated – for instance, taking into account things like offensive and defensive efficiency – it makes sense that if anything, it will be relied on more than the RPI.

Lotta dribbles to take place before any of this matters, and even if it does, teams have to survive two games to get to the regional. But for Zag fans, it’s worth a glance now and then at Nevada.
#wcchoops #zagmbb #theslipperstillfits #zagup #zaghoops

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Not so far from Spokane, it's a raunchy hoops season

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Fired in December? Who gets fired or furloughed in December, except football coaches and federal workers?

But you’d have to say Steve Alford earned it at UCLA, with a fortnight that included a 29-point thrashing at Cincinnati and home defeats to Belmont and Liberty. It doesn’t do Bruin backers much good to know that Belmont has had a pretty robust basketball tradition (in addition to being a worthy music school). As for Liberty, the head coach there is Ritchie McKay, who has presided over more than one chaotic program at Oregon State, New Mexico, et al.

At times like these, I used to gulp, along with the other wretches following Gonzaga, and wonder whether this might be the time we’d have to spend days tracking rumors, following flight plans and otherwise keeping an eye on Zags coach Mark Few. Indeed, he was a possible target when the Bruins hired Ben Howland in 2003.

It wasn’t long after that Norm Few, Mark’s father, scoffed at the idea, saying he hadn’t heard of many “record trout coming out of the Los Angeles River.” And in time, it became obvious that Few wasn’t going anywhere, unless it was to a more sedentary life casting dry flies.

So breathe easy, Zag fans. These are restful days for you. Thanks largely to Few’s stability, there isn’t much question that Gonzaga is the No. 1 program in the West.

True, that’s a fragile designation, subject to change almost annually. Arizona is restocking again, but Sean Miller is still chasing that elusive first Final Four. Oregon and Gonzaga matched Final Four trips two years ago, but the Ducks skidded to the NIT last year and have slogged through an undistinguished start to 2018-19.

Which brings us to the meat of today’s treatise. “Undistinguished” is about as pretty a word as you can conjure in reference to the Pac-12 this year. Gonzaga would probably prefer no attempt at contrast, avoiding any guilt by association.

I’ve covered and watched the league for damn near half a century, and – gut feeling here – this is the worst I’ve ever seen it. Yeah, there have been other spasms of embarrassment: I recall a year in the mid-‘80s when the Pac-10 sent four teams to the post-season, and the day after all four were eliminated in the first round, the league’s post-season guide arrived in the mail.

Then there was 2012, when Washington won the regular season and didn’t get to the NCAA tournament, so tepid was the competition in the Pac-12.

These are the current guideposts: This week, the league has nobody ranked in the AP top 25, a feat of breathtaking ineptitude. It’s 7-25 against other Power Five conferences (three of the wins by Arizona State). It has losses to Princeton, Indiana State, Texas Southern, Kent State, Belmont, Liberty, Montana State and Santa Clara (twice). You say it’s no big deal, losing to Santa Clara? Well, the Broncos lost by 17 to Prairie View A&M – which is 1-11.

It would be stunning if the Pac-12 gets more than two teams in the NCAA tournament. Realistically, the only path to two would be a team that amasses a dominating league record – minimum, probably 15-3 -- and that team not winning the conference tournament. Short of that, the league might be looking at an automatic bid only.

What’s caused an epic collapse in a conference that as recently as three seasons ago, placed seven teams in the NCAA tournament?

USC and Arizona have been encircled by the FBI probe into agents and fraud. UCLA bears a resemblance to USC in football: Unable to come to grips with its pre-eminence in the sport, incapable of matching a coach to the prestige.

The Utah-Colorado tandem has recently formed probably the toughest Pac-12 road trip. No more. There and elsewhere, the easy answer is lack of players. Utah recently had guys like Delon Wright, Jakob Poeltl and Kyle Kuzma. Now it loses by 15 to an 8-7 BYU team on the Utes floor.

Washington has been a disappointment, a preseason ranked team blown out by Auburn and Virginia Tech. But the near-miss against Gonzaga suggests that, playing well, the Huskies could show well in conference (a lot of that based on the lousiness of it).

Oregon was picked to win the league. But it doesn’t shoot the three or rebound that well, has four losses (including the Texas Southern stinker) and now 7-2 freshman Bol Bol (21 points, 9.6 rebounds) has a foot injury of undisclosed severity.

Cal and Washington State are dreadful. Wyking Jones appears in over his head with the Bears, while defense is perpetually a rumor with Ernie Kent’s teams. The question in Pullman is whether WSU (7-6) can win more games than the football team did (11).

So there you have it, a veritable Brotherhood of Blushes. Whatever the new year holds for Gonzaga fans, they can be thankful that the problems nearby are somebody else's.
#zagmbb #theslipperstillfits #wcchoops #zagup #zaghoops #pac12hoops

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Against the grain, Mark Few sticks his neck out

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Among the outcomes of the autumn trial resulting from the FBI investigation into college hoops was this: Silence, from the guardians of the game. Three shoe-company operatives were found guilty, several programs were bruised badly in the testimony – and in the wake of it, coaches seemed to take the fifth.

Too much on their plates, maybe. Got a shootaround to conduct. There’s Christmas shopping. A “buy” game to win, 104-63, before the conference season starts.

Oh, there was the clumsy response by Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski, who in October called the events “a blip on the radar screen of college basketball.” Somehow, days later he thought better of that assessment, and hastened to append that even a blip could be a serious thing. Whatever that meant.

So it was a bit startling when last week, Gonzaga coach Mark Few called on NCAA president Mark Emmert to break a leg, in so many words, and get moving on taking action against programs that were named in the trial. Left to its usual timeframe, the NCAA would get to it about when Few’s kids have grandkids.

“Step up and be a leader and make some quicker decisions,” was among Few’s urgings to Emmert.

I can see where it might not be that simple. If some schools are cheating as wantonly as the grapevine (and the trial) suggests, the investigation will have a lot of tentacles, far more than contained in a New York courtroom.

But give Few points for the chutzpah. I contend that coaches self-policing is a prime avenue for helping to apply bleach to a sport that sometimes seems beyond cleansing.

He and I have discussed this. Always the devil’s advocate, he contends media should play a larger role. Quixotic, but unrealistic, I say. It’s simple economics.

In more robust times for newspapers, for example, there might be time to check out a rumor, but it always came with a caveat: You could spend days spinning your wheels searching, with no guarantee a story would come out of it. Editors only want to invest in so many wild goose chases.

Nowadays, newspaper resources have grown frightfully skimpy. It’s not that the will for investigative stories has evaporated, it’s the way.

Just about every writer has heard a coach bemoan losing a recruit to somebody who’s allegedly cheating. So why can’t coaches turn a violator in?

Long ago, Few did it. Gonzaga was a key player in exposing Washington assistant Cameron Dollar in the recruiting of Clarkston standout (and future GU player) Josh Heytvelt. It resulted in a finding of almost two dozen violations against Dollar, who went on to be head coach at Seattle University and is now back at the UW.

Few said recently he earned a “lot of grief” for it. You know, from the honor-among-thieves crowd.

Turns out Few’s recent comments about Emmert were egged on by a close friend, a former coaching associate, and somebody whose staff was involved in the Dollar-Heytvelt drama – Ray Giacoletti.

“I’ve been the one to tell Mark, ‘Hey, you got as much voice as anybody,’ ’’ Giacoletti told me this week. “ ‘Would you stand up and say something? You’ve got juice; it’ll be a national story.’ ’’

I asked Giacoletti – now living in St. Louis and doing TV and radio work, two years removed from stepping down from his last job as Drake head coach – about the risks in speaking out. He minimized them, maybe because he spent six years working for Few.

“The only risk would be if you were doing something yourself you shouldn’t be doing,” Giacoletti says, “and that’s not the case at Gonzaga.”

Giacoletti can tell you how self-policing works. A quarter-century ago, he was a young assistant to Bob Bender at Washington, and they were trying to resuscitate a program that had been dormant for almost a decade after the forced retirement of Marv Harshman.

They were recruiting a seven-footer from Winnipeg, Todd MacCulloch. So was Utah coach Rick Majerus. One night they called the MacCulloch home, and Todd’s mother said, “You guys should have been here this weekend.”

Why? Well, Coach Majerus was, she said, working Todd out and having dinner at the house. Giacoletti says it was during a restricted period when that would be improper. The UW coaches provided MacCulloch’s mother with a name and number of the NCAA. She called, described what had happened, and soon, Giacoletti says, MacCulloch was off the list of players Utah was allowed to recruit. MacCulloch went on to lead the Huskies to NCAA tournaments in 1998-99, a Sweet 16 the first year.

Now it’s 2018, and the headlines in the sport are seamy. But the silence is mostly deafening. It could be that Few’s entreaty to Emmert carries challenges but the thrust of his words seemed important.

“Krzyzewski never stepped up and said anything,” said Giacoletti. “If he ain’t saying anything . . . I think Mark’s got the respect of all his peers. The ones who did it the right way are elevating him even another step. Like, where’s everybody else been?”

Holding their breath, maybe. Waiting for another shoe (company) to drop. Or in the case of Emmert, staying away from New York, where college basketball was on trial.

“I think there’s a line drawn in the sand,” said Giacoletti. “The NCAA’s got one shot here. If they don’t do what they need to do, it’s done, over. If you can’t stop it now, you never will.”
#zagmbb #theslipperstillfits #wcchoops #zagup #zaghoops

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"We Are G.U." details a zany side of Zag hoops

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Sometimes it seems as though Gonzaga basketball started in 1999, so much scrutiny is given to the Zags’ unlikely launch to prominence that year and their continued ascending arc (guilty as charged for my focus on this era).

Here to tell you that there’s a lot more to the story are Mike Shields and Aaron Hill, a couple of GU grads who have written a history of the Kennel Club. “We Are G.U.” is about as exhaustive and detailed a tome as you could imagine on the subject, and a worthy complement to the burgeoning library spawned by the phenomenon of Gonzaga basketball.

Hard to believe, but the origins of the Kennel Club are almost as distant from the ’99 uprising as we are today – on the other side -- from that Elite Eight shocker. Essentially, the group sprang from a series of events that began with Shields and his brother Tim dashing onto the floor at Kennedy Pavilion – unannounced, uninvited and obviously uninhibited – to do an improvisational cheer routine during a timeout of a 1984 game against Whitworth.

From there, it snowballed – an overture from Dan Fitzgerald, the coach/athletic director, to organize a spirit group; consistent involvement and support from the baseball team; official T-shirts and ever-better organization.

Hedonism was the imperative governing every decision. Shields, in fact, writes that he could have graduated in economics in mid-year (1983-84), but decided, understandably, to spread the credits thinner so he could stretch his college days a semester longer. Why not, when one party he describes drained 15 kegs and entertained 400-500 people?

The Kennel Club grew, and so did its creativity. One night, they held a Fitz lookalike night, replete with guys with white streaks in their hair. Later, a Kennel Clubber, Eric Edelstein, would become known for his late-night phone calls to opposing coaches. Imagine Brad Holland, the ex-San Diego coach and former UCLA guard, foggy and fielding a call from “Bill Walton,” saying, in that imperious voice, “ . . . and another thing, Brad, Coach Wooden would be embarrassed . . . the plays we would run at UCLA, where is the beauty of an entry pass to Keith Wilkes or the effortless screens and movement to get players like Gail Goodrich open? We see none of that with your team. It’s terrible.”

The authors document the sometimes-tenuous relationship the Kennel Club had with the GU administration, which was concerned about potential over-the-top behavior. So the club came under university jurisdiction after the 2004 season, which coincided with the opening of the McCarthey Athletic Center. That gave rise to a system by which the Kennel Club regulates the distribution of tickets in “Tent City,” the encampment of 150 tents housing students, some of whom, as the narrative notes, are enjoying “all the comforts of home, from futons and heaters to TVs and video-game systems.”

Never, it seems, did the fun cease, from the days when revered Father Tony Lehmann would come to bless the pre-funk kegs; to the night in 2006 when Washington played in the last game before a Lorenzo Romar-induced interregnum in the series, and the Kennel Club reminded Husky seven-footer Spencer Hawes of a Seattle Prep relationship gone bad, chanting, “Lindsey dumped you!”; to the evening in New York, when, after a Zag loss to Duke at Madison Square Garden, Clubbers encountered ex-Dookie Chris Duhon, who bought drinks and – mistaking GU walk-on guard Andrew Sorenson for Derek Raivio – raved about Sorenson’s “crazy handles.”

The authors share a good bit of Gonzaga space in history. Hill was a student manager for GU basketball, Shields for baseball, and both were grad assistants for Steve Hertz’ baseball program. And both tended bar at Jack and Dan’s.

“We Are G.U.” is a nice piece of the Gonzaga basketball story, well crafted and well worth your investment of $24.95. It’s available at the Zag Shop, Auntie’s and Spokane-area grocery outlets.
#zagmbb #theslipperstillfits #wcchoops #zagup #zaghoops #unitedwezag

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Zag-Husky post-mortem (almost literally, for Gonzaga)

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Post-Washington/Gonzaga thoughts, also known as The Zags’ Near-Death Experience:

-- As posted here earlier, the Zags had had an uncanny streak of eight straight games against the UW of shooting 50 percent or better. The fact that ended with GU’s .429 was a tribute to the UW matchup zone as well as the Zags’ inability to deal with it – and down the stretch, their failure to connect from near point-blank range.

-- In retrospect – always easy to see things more clearly that way – maybe it’s not surprising the Zags seemed out of rhythm all night. Consider: Right now, GU’s offense is ahead of its defense. So if an opposing defense can foil timing and execution effectively, it has the potential to get in the heads of a team at both ends. That’s not to excuse GU’s defensive lapses, which at times were egregious – just to say that Washington took away what Gonzaga likes to do best.

-- Just spitballing here, but having seen a year-plus of Mike Hopkins’ matchup zone, it seems to me one prevailing theory is that it’s willing to take its chances with what offenses can produce by getting to the ball to the high post. Perhaps it’s the fact that in man-to-man offense – what teams are running 90 percent of the time -- hardly anybody takes a shot from the free-throw line in. Indeed, Brandon Clarke struggled last night and never seemed comfortable operating near the high-post. Meanwhile, the Zags didn’t seem to consistently rely on that high post. Analyst Bill Walton (when he wasn’t referencing Larry Craig), to the question of what Gonzaga would want to do to attack on a late possession, made mention that usually the solution is to get the ball to the high post.

-- Until the final, fatal strike by Rui Hachimura, the last few Gonzaga possessions were a train wreck. The capper was the hurried, off-balance shot by Josh Perkins with GU up 79-75, which led to Perkins’ (and others’) failure to get back and help prevent a Husky runout by Matisse Thybulle – defensive execution that ought to be a cardinal sin at that point in the game.

-- Perkins played 40 minutes. Never resting your point guard is not usually a recipe for success, but it speaks to the urgency of the situation for the Zags. Perkins had his hiccups, but the Seattle sports-radio operative who claimed Thursday Perkins "has regressed" should note that against a schedule including five Power 5 teams plus Creighton, Perkins has 75 assists and 19 turnovers.

-- Officiating seemed spotty most of the night – key calls going against key players, who sat for significant stretches or fouled out.

-- Filip Petrusev was a big key for the Zags, seeming to rise to the occasion and not backing down with four baskets in five attempts.

-- At least there was a corollary to the fouls in the form of a free throw-shooting clinic. Gonzaga made 19 of 19, the Huskies 14 of 15. That’s the best I can recall since that 2005 Maui Invitational triple-OT screamer between Gonzaga and Michigan State, when the Zags hit 27 of 28 and MSU 26 of 29 – 53 of 57 combined.

-- In the era of Gonzaga’s domination of the UW, the game reminded me of the last one they played at the old Kennel in 2002, won by GU in overtime. Gonzaga was widely figured to romp, Washington put up a huge fight behind a big game from guard Will Conroy – now a UW assistant – but Gonzaga won in overtime with Blake Stepp scoring 33 points.

-- Another thought on the 12-in-13 streak by GU over the UW: It could very possibly have been 13 straight, but for the fall point guard Derek Raivio took midway through the first half of Washington’s 99-95 victory in 2005, causing him to sit out the rest of the game. Freshman Jeremy Pargo replaced him and had six turnovers. And all Raivio contributed the previous year against the UW was 21 points, 8 assists, 4 steals and zero turnovers.

-- On weird and quirky happenings: By the days – first Wednesday of December – last night was exactly the night a year ago that Washington went into Kansas City and upended No. 2 Kansas. It probably needs to keep scheduling a big game for that evening.

-- Kudos to the Spokesman-Review for a nifty, story-telling package on its sports cover today, with the headline “Wait Just One Second” over Dan Pelle’s photo of Hachimura launching the killing shot. You people who aren’t subscribing to a daily newspaper, start, dammit.

-- What’s it all mean? For GU, there’s no great benefit to beating the UW – today, at least – other than you didn’t lose, something that would potentially have cost a seed line for the NCAA tournament. On the other side, there was discussion among some fans and media that it constituted a moral victory for the Huskies. I’d contend that by itself, it means nothing. But if it means that Washington will play at or near this level for the next three months, then it’s worthwhile. What would puzzle me if I’m a UW backer is why the Huskies, with a veteran team back, have performed at a generally lackluster level until the Gonzaga game.

-- Final GU thought: There’s a tendency to think of an undefeated, No. 1 team as flawless – nigh-unbeatable. And indeed Gonzaga looked that way in the second half against Creighton. But the reality is, the Zags have had long stretches of forgettable play, against Illinois, Arizona, and Washington. Still . . . when Killian Tillie went down with his injury, I (completely arbitrarily) set forth an over/under of 3.5 wins for a six-pack of games including the semifinals and finals in Maui, Creighton, Washington, Tennessee and North Carolina. Whether that was the right number is debatable, but Gonzaga has hit four wins (with the added detriment of Geno Crandall’s injury), and all things considered, if it can bag one of the last two against the Vols and Tar Heels, it would be a mammoth achievement.


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Against UW, Zags are the gang that always shoots straight

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In a mention last week of Wednesday night’s Washington-Gonzaga basketball game in Spokane, one account – we won’t mention names; it’s the holiday season – referred to it as a “showdown.”

Showdown? Does it qualify for showdown status when one team has beaten the other by 27, 27, 16 and 20 in the past four meetings, and 11 of the last 12?

There are a lot of reasons why Gonzaga keeps tattooing Washington – better players, better coaching, better cohesiveness, etc., etc. The most obvious evidence of it is how defenseless the Huskies have been for a long time against the Zags.

I wrote about this a year ago, after Gonzaga’s 97-70 victory in Seattle: The Zags have now shot 50 percent or better in eight straight meetings against the Huskies. Which is stupefying.

So I’ve set out to put that number into some sort of perspective. How often does a team shoot 50 percent? And what are the odds it can do it eight straight times against one opponent?

Shooting 50 percent is nothing new for Gonzaga. Over the previous three seasons, the Zags did it no fewer than 60 times – 20 times last year, 23 in the Final Four season, and 17 in 2015-16. But if you sift out some of the chaff and assess how many times they did it against Power Five (plus the Big East) competition, the numbers drop severely. In 18 such games other than against the Huskies, they did it six times in 18 games in three years.

But let’s take it a step further. Arbitrarily, I went back through those same three seasons to see how Gonzaga shot against the three West Coast Conference teams with the worst composite league records over that period. There was a three-way tie for No. 3 (naturally), so the teams to be assessed were Portland (12-42 in league games), Pepperdine (17-37) and San Diego, Pacific and Loyola Marymount (all at 19-35).

Gonzaga hasn’t shot 50 percent in eight straight games against any of them.

The Zags do have a run of seven straight such games against LMU. But in eight-game segments AGAINST THE SUPPOSED DREGS OF THE LEAGUE, these are Gonzaga’s successes and shortfalls in hitting 50 percent: LMU 7-1, Portland 5-3, San Diego 5-3, Pepperdine 5-3 and Pacific 4-4. In 40 games, that’s a 26-14 success record, or 65 percent. Which makes the shooting numbers against Washington even more staggering.

Shooting, remember, is much more than just a blithe, well-they-hit-their-shots-tonight phenomenon. It’s essentially three things: Having a plan, executing the offense, and hitting the shot. Clearly, the Zags have been far superior to Washington in carrying the assignment out.

You try to envision how the Huskies might scissor the Gonzaga dominance of this millennium, and they will have one important component Wednesday night: A senior-led team that is no doubt tired of getting schooled every time it faces the Zags.

But this is a Gonzaga team that’s simply nasty offensively – averaging 98.4 points a game (second nationally) and shooting .542, tops in the country. It’s going to take a lot more defense than Washington has shown in the series to get it done.
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In a couple of polls, at least, Zags get to No. 1

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Most of the hoo-ha over college-basketball rankings Monday had nothing to do with Gonzaga, and maybe that’s fitting. The Zags powered through Kansas in both the AP (media) and coaches polls to No. 1, and gee, what can you say but ho-hum?

This is the third Gonzaga team in school history to crack the No. 1 spot, joining 2013 and 2017. The three appearances were done essentially with distinctly different casts of characters. More on that later.

Most of the noise Monday was made by the initial release of the NCAA Evaluation Tool (NET) ranking, which was developed to replace the controversial Ratings Percentage Index (RPI) computer rankings. No doubt even Ohio State was shocked to learn it’s No. 1 in the first NET rankings. And generally, the part of the world that cares about college hoops was as stunned as if you’d told it no illicit cash ever changes hands in the sport.

A couple of quick thoughts on the NET, which has Gonzaga No. 5: It’s early, and making too much of the rankings would be like trying to project a marathon winner after a mile and a half. But, uh, the Buckeyes indeed seem like an odd choice, notwithstanding road wins at Cincinnati and Creighton, both of which are 5-1. The Bearcats haven’t beaten anyone of renown, while Creighton has one notable victory over Clemson, which was ranked 16th at the time.

But the rankings that really piqued the interest of Zag fans were the media’s and coaches’, each of which, ever so narrowly, allowed heretofore No. 3 Gonzaga to leapfrog Kansas to gain the No. 1 spot after its landmark victory last week over Duke in the Maui Invitational final.

I figured that margin would be razor-thin, and defensible either way. Gonzaga has the big hammer, a victory over a team some were touting as a potential undefeated all the way, while Kansas has already bagged two wins over Top 10 teams, Michigan State and Tennessee. There’s no wrong answer there.

No way to get inside the heads of voters who opted for Kansas, but what wouldn’t be the proper way to assess it is this: Kansas was No. 2, ahead of Gonzaga, and it had a marquee win, so it should naturally get the nod for No. 1. This early in the season, the rankings are something akin to a blank easel – a sketch that may not look anything like rankings once they’ve settled in a couple of months, and teams’ strength can truly be assessed relative to others. For now, it’s more of a guess, which is why it’s dubious to think that the No. 2-rated team a week ago is necessarily better than the No. 3 team.

Again, it’s early, and maybe that’s a rationale for the ballot of Jesse Newell, the AP voter who kept Duke at No. 1 (the only top vote nationally for the Blue Devils), and thus caused some observers to wonder whether he was spelunking in Nepal last week as the Zags were nipping Duke. Newell does work for the Kansas City Star, one of the best newspapers out there, and he explains that he gives heavy consideration to analytics sites like KenPom.com and Torvik and their predictive nature. Both cling to Duke as the No. 1 team; KenPom has Gonzaga No. 6 and Torvik puts it at No. 3.

I appreciate analytics as much as the next guy. But don’t the actual results matter, too?

As for putting into perspective the Zags and their ascent to No. 1 . . .

Since Gonzaga attained its first No. 1 ranking in March of 2013, a total of 13 schools have been ranked at the top in the regular season: Arizona, Baylor, Duke, Florida, Gonzaga, Kansas, Kentucky, Michigan State, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Syracuse, Villanova and Virginia.

Of the 13, only four – Gonzaga, Kentucky, Michigan State and Villanova – have been ranked No. 1 as many as three times in that period (four for Kentucky), and only GU, Kentucky and Michigan State have done it with largely separate casts (‘Nova did it the last three years, with a fair amount of overlapping personnel). For the record, the contribution by current Zags on the No. 1-rated 2017 team was by their Nos. 6-8-9 scorers, Josh Perkins, Killian Tillie and Rui Hachimura. Perkins averaged 29 minutes, Tillie 12 and Hachimura a mere 4.6.

College-hoops rankings are, of course, as disposable as the latest from the tweeter-in-chief in Washington. It all comes out in the wash in college basketball, so nobody gets too frothy about rankings. Besides, they’re notoriously fluid, and the Zags, after their game Monday night against North Dakota State, have potential landmines at Creighton Saturday, with Tennessee Dec. 9 in Phoenix and at North Carolina Dec. 15. (My fingers are having trouble typing Washington as a potential landmine.)

Besides that, the Zags are now without guard Geno Crandall for 4-6 weeks with a broken hand. Tillie is already out, and in my memory, I can't recall two key pieces being down for an extended time simultaneously.

I distinctly remember writing for my trusty newspaper back in 2013 that the Zags’ first No. 1 ranking meant nothing, and yet it meant everything. That day, there was a 21-foot sheet cake with blue icing placed on tables in the middle of campus, available to students in a celebratory mood.

I’m guessing there was no sheet cake Monday and only modest revelry. As is increasingly the case at Gonzaga, been there, done that.
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Maui wowie: Zags get one to remember over Duke

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So much was made nationally of Duke’s fabulous start against Kentucky, and its nonpareil freshman class, that it obscured the chance Gonzaga might have Wednesday against the top-ranked Blue Devils. Lo and behold, it was a pretty good one: The Zags controlled most of the game, steadied themselves in some teetering moments down the stretch, and in the Maui Invitational final, upset the team widely presumed to be the 2019 national champion, 89-87.

You can almost see it now: Deep in March, if these two teams collide again, the stage will be set for Mike Krzyzewski, maybe the greatest college coach in the sport’s history, to prove to the world how far his team has come from that November day in the Islands, and the Blue Devils will own the motivational edge.

To which Zag fans would surely say: So be it.

Victories against Duke, the unquestioned kingpin of the landscape, must be cherished, savored, burnished and placed on the mantel inside a glass case for perpetuity. This is a Duke program that in 2009 beat the mess out of the Zags so badly (76-41) that, as recounted in Glory Hounds, it sent Mark Few and his assistant, Ray Giacoletti, out into a Saturday-night snowstorm in New York for a long, long walk to ponder how to resurrect their fallen team.

Among other things, the upset broke Duke’s crazy 17-game, five-tournament win streak in Maui, which dates to the 1992-93 field 26 years ago. In the five previous finals, the Blue Devils had vanquished BYU (1992), Arizona (1997), Ball State (2001) – Ball State? – Marquette (2007) and Kansas (2012).

Assorted thoughts:

 The Zags were No. 3 entering the game, a spot behind Kansas, giving rise to some speculation that Kansas, which survived a struggle against Marquette, might be ranked No. 1 next week. I seriously doubt it. Not when so many hosannas were being thrown Duke’s way this month.

 If that happens, it’s the third time (2013, 2017) for Gonzaga to attain a No. 1 ranking, with essentially three different casts. Think about that in the context of the program’s history.

 It’s often noted that Gonzaga’s increased profile as a national player is due to its defensive chops. No argument there, but I think the biggest noticeable jump in recent years is its rim-protection capability. It now has legitimate shot-blockers. Consider this: Nobody shot better than the low 40s against the Zags in Maui, and Idaho State’s 45.7 is the opponent best in the six games this year.

 Most arresting stat in Maui: Gonzaga had 58 assists to the three opponents’ 22. When Gonzaga allowed baskets, it was getting beat off the dribble or by the three (hello, Illinois).

 Short trip, sometimes, from the outhouse to the penthouse. If Trent Frazier hits his three on Illinois’ final possession Monday night, people are wondering what’s wrong with Gonzaga. Instead, after playing three lackluster halves to begin in Lahaina, the Zags followed with three scintillating ones.

 This stands to be a nasty offensive team as long as it takes care of the ball. It shot low-50s percentages in all three games, and its lowest point total is 84 in the six games.

 Jeremy Jones was the forgotten man among the trio that sat out the 2015-16 season at GU, lost behind fellow redshirts Nigel Williams-Goss and Johnathan Williams III. But he’s blown his cover. With Killian Tillie sidelined, he played 51 minutes in Maui, with 23 points and 21 rebounds, and his double-double against Illinois – punctuated by two clinching free throws in the last seconds – was absolutely pivotal.

 When it comes to assessing NCAA-tournament resumes in March, this will be a chip of monumental proportions.
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What to expect when the Zags have high expectations

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The question, on a Gonzaga message board, got me to thinking. It asked if there was even slight concern the Zags might not live up to the considerable hype in 2018-19.

So I hit the archives, in search of any telltale signs that preseason expectations have proved too much for the Zags to shoulder. Their No. 3 preseason ranking (the current station) was highest ever at GU.

In the previous 20 seasons – the Gonzaga golden era – the Zags were preseason-ranked in 15. Three of the misses came in the first four years.

This is the fifth time GU has gone into a season ranked in the AP top 10. Maybe the most enlightening thing that can be said is that three of the previous four seasons with a preseason top-10 ranking ended in some of Gonzaga’s most crushing losses.

(It's worth noting that self-imposed pressure isn't the only potential reason for failing to deliver on the hype. It could be because of lousy chemistry or because a key player underperformed, etc.)

Surely the most herky-jerky in that group of the preseason-ranked-top-10 was the 2015-16 outfit, which started at No. 9. This was the team that had lost Kevin Pangos and Gary Bell Jr. to graduation.

It mucked through December with home losses to Arizona and UCLA when Przemek Karnowski injured his back; saw Karnowski miss the entire season after surgery; got swept in the regular season by Saint Mary’s; looked for all the world like it might finally miss the NCAA tournament; suddenly sprang up out of a casket to win the WCC tournament; as an 11th seed, blew away Seton Hall and Utah by double digits in the NCAA tournament; and finally fell to Syracuse in the Sweet 16 after losing a lead down the stretch.

Oh, and all of this for the world to see on an HBO series on the team. As Mike Roth, the athletic director, called the season: “. . . a freakin’ Greek tragedy.”

On more than one occasion, I think you can make the case that Gonzaga’s prominence – its seed in the NCAA tournament – might have had the opposition on high alert and thereby made it more difficult for the Zags. In that vein, Nevada, a 10 seed in 2004 at KeyArena, blew away No. 2 seed Gonzaga.

It’s worth throwing out this: There have been times in the past when I thought Gonzaga was overrated – not as a failing of its own, but because of the nature of the polls. The Zags don’t lose much when January hits, and if you don’t lose, you move up in the polls. It looked worse when that No. 3-ranked team lost to Nevada, simply because Gonzaga probably was overrated.

By and large, though, I would point to only one case in which the Zags might have felt the weight of the world – when they attained their first No. 1 ranking in March of 2013, narrowly slipped by a 16th-seeded Southern University team, and then fell to ninth-seeded Wichita State. Everything was new to the Zags – being ranked No. 1 was a late-season novelty, and being a No. 1 seed was a first.

In the evolution of any program, there are fits and starts and mountains climbed and lessons learned. The whole of it, the fact Gonzaga has been to a Final Four and checked most of the boxes of a high-level program, and had experience dealing with all of it, seems to argue against a significant shortfall. But hey, such unknowns are why they play the games.

A look at how the previous 20 seasons developed with regard to the AP poll (preseason ranking is in parentheses):

1999: (Unranked) Stormed to the Elite Eight.

2000: (24) . . . reached No. 22 late in December but then fell out of the rankings for good . . . barged to the Sweet 16.

2001: (Unranked) . . . was never ranked . . . made the Sweet 16 for a third straight year.

2002: (Unranked) . . . rose all the way to No. 6 by March 12 but had its first real downer in the 20-year tournament run, losing to Wyoming.

2003: (22) . . . inched to No. 20 by Nov. 26, then fell out of polls the rest of the way . . . finished with memorable double-OT loss to top-seeded Arizona in the NCAA second round.

2004: (10) . . . stayed in polls throughout and was ranked No. 3 in mid-March before stunning blowout loss to Nevada at KeyArena.

2005: (25) . . . fell out of the polls one week, got as high as No. 10 on March 15 and eventually lost to Texas Tech in the NCAA second round.

2006: (8) . . . stayed in single-digit poll rankings all season . . . lost heartbreaker to UCLA in the Sweet 16.

2007: (Unranked) . . . got as high as No. 16, but shorthanded club fell in the NCAA first round to Indiana.

2008: (14) . . . had nine-week period in mid-season unranked … re-emerged late in season at No. 24 before falling to Stephen Curry-led Davidson in first round of NCAA, the last time GU lost in the first round.

2009: (10) . . . jumped to No. 4 in early December after Old Spice championship, fell all the way out of the rankings with three-game loss streak in December, then recovered to No. 10 before Sweet 16 loss to eventual champ North Carolina.

2010: (Unranked) . . . got as high as No. 13 and was 22nd when it was ousted big by Syracuse in NCAA second round.

2011: (12) . . . lost five games by mid-December (San Diego State, Kansas State, Illinois, WSU, Notre Dame) and never saw the rankings after November . . . got Jimmered in the NCAA second round.

2012: (23) … the most in-and-out (of the rankings) team in the 20-year run, it entered and exited five times each . . . Ohio State ended the Zags’ season in the NCAA second round.

2013: (21) . . . this club was relatively unheralded early, but got all the way to No. 1 early in March and held that ranking three weeks before ouster against Wichita State in the NCAA second round.

2014: (15) … was only twice in polls after the New Year and out by March, when it fell badly to top-seeded Arizona in the NCAA second round.

2015: (13) . . . with only an overtime loss at Arizona in December, Zags shot all the way to No. 2 on Feb. 2, then followed with a defeat to BYU on Senior Night . . . ended a 35-3 season with an Elite Eight loss to Duke.

2016: (9 ) . . . after Przemek Karnowski injury, fell out of the polls by mid-December, and only bobbed back into them once at No. 25 . . . then assembled a surprise March run that ended with a heartbreaking loss to Syracuse in the Sweet 16.

2017: (14) . . . with victories over Florida and Iowa State and a title in the AdvoCare Invitational in Orlando, Zags shot to No. 1 for the second time in school history by Jan. 30 . . . they went undefeated all the way to Feb. 25 before their first loss – another Senior Night setback against BYU – then began a watershed March run all the way to the NCAA title game, ending with a loss to North Carolina.

2018: (18) . . . Zags got as high as No. 6 in a 32-5 season, including a decisive loss to eventual champ Villanova in New York in early December . . . they made their fourth straight Sweet 16 before a season-ending loss to Florida State.
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The Tillie injury: What's it mean to the Zags?

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Gonzaga’s breakthrough to the NCAA basketball championship game two years ago not only put the Zags in a new and celestial territory, it changed the way people look at them. So, as they assembled pieces for the 2018-19 season and began drawing consensus preseason top-five acclaim nationally, I found myself switching the operative question from, “What’s it going to take for them to make the Final Four?” to “What would keep them from doing it?”

Soon after, Killian Tillie went down with a stress fracture of the ankle, reminding us that the best-laid plans can go poof at the blink of a bone scan. Tillie is expected to be out until about the end of December, which is both good news and bad. If healthy, he’ll have plenty of time to be re-integrated into the lineup before the rigors of March. But he’s going to miss the games that will say a lot about the Zags’ positioning in the NCAA tournament bracket.

With the season starting next week, some notions about what Tillie’s injury means:

First, and Zag fans might want to knock wood at this, but the program has been relatively fortunate over the years at not sustaining a season-torpedoing succession of injuries. Yes, there have been severe setbacks in the 20-year run of NCAA tournaments, from Mike Nilson’s achilles tear in 2000 to Przemek Karnowski’s back injury in 2015-16, and in between, Kevin Pangos’ season-long ordeal with turf toe in 2013-14. (And for one, brutal half, Gary Bell Jr.’s ankle that denied him at the break of the Wichita State apocalypse in 2013.)

Tillie, in fact, has had it about as bad as anybody in a Zag uniform. He missed 10 games two years ago leading into the WCC tournament with a severe ankle sprain, and a hip problem took him out of GU’s Sweet 16 matchup against Florida State last season. Now this.

First thing I thought of when Tillie’s injury news broke? Corey Kispert. Not because he’s a facsimile of Tillie – he’s 6-6, not 6-10, and is a swingman, not a stretch-four – but because the trickle-down from Tillie’s injury means Kispert will get more key minutes, and let’s not forget, Kispert was playing well enough at the beginning of his freshman season to be a starter at the three spot. Indications are, he’s had a stellar fall camp. Freshman big Filip Petrusev more closely mirrors Tillie’s skills, but I’d look for Kispert to emerge.

Let’s consider the NCAA bracket implications from Tillie’s injury. As always, the basketball committee will give lip service to how a team has fared with and without the injured player. The problem here for Gonzaga is pretty simple: If Tillie indeed doesn’t return until after the real bullets have been fired in November and December, it’s going to be difficult to assess the Zags with him, because the WCC schedule is so forgiving.

Say they blow through the WCC schedule with one loss. It’s going to be easy for skeptics to write that off to a soft conference.

Some struggles before the New Year wouldn’t be a deal-breaker in March, but surely the potential is there to drop a seed line or more because of some heavyweight losses.

So let’s look at it like this: I see six big-time challenges on the schedule in November and December. (OK, this is entirely unscientific, subject to breakthroughs by other teams and breakdowns by the Zags, but hear me out.) Those would be the latter two games at the Maui Invitational (against either Arizona or Iowa State and whatever the final day brings – possibly Duke); at Creighton Dec. 1; Washington Dec. 5; Tennessee in Phoenix Dec. 9; and at North Carolina Dec. 15.

I’d set an over/under on wins for that six-pack at 3.5. (Among other things, the challenge of Gonzaga's final day in Maui will depend heavily on its results the first two days.) So in my mind, if the Zags can squeeze four victories from that half-dozen, it would be a triumph coming out of pre-conference play. And assuming no other missteps, that would curb the March-bracket damage from Tillie’s absence to one seed line – if that.


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