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Zags flying in college hoops' turbulent skies

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On the Saturday morning of Bloomsday weekend, with the spring sun glorious, we breakfasted at Chaps, Celeste Shaw’s terrific hangout off State Rt. 195 just south of Spokane. Farmhouse feel, pastries to die for, and an overall good vibe – the place never disappoints.

That fact apparently isn’t lost on the Gonzaga basketball staff, which regularly brings GU recruits there. On this day, Admon Gilder, the transfer guard from Texas A&M, was in the house with the rest of the Zag staff as part of his visit to Spokane, and you know what happened a day or so later.

“Every time they bring a recruit here, he commits,” Celeste said, between busing outdoor tables.

Mark Few, the head coach, happened by and half-lamented how the seasons have been turned upside down. Used to be, April and May were kick-back times for coaches. Now, he said, spring is the most topsy-turvy time of the year, one that requires constant monitoring and decisions on the fly about transfers and roster-shaping.

“During the season,” he said, drawing contrast, “you get into a rhythm.”

As Few spoke, the Zags had no fewer than five players who had plunged into the NBA draft or evaluation process. Since then, Zach Norvell has said he’s full-speed ahead with it, and it wouldn’t be a shock if Killian Tillie, albeit limited by injury, goes forward as well. So they could lose four players to early entries, a Duke- or Kentucky-sized attrition. You hope Admon Gilder knows this is what he signed up for.

I called Fran Fraschilla, the ESPN analyst and sometimes Sirius radio host, for a read on Gilder. They’re both from Dallas.

“He’s a combo guard,” Fraschilla said. “More of a scorer than a playmaker. But that’s never bothered the Zags.”

One of Fraschilla’s specialties is evaluating overseas talent for ESPN, so I asked him about three GU recruits for 2019-20: 6-10 Oumer Ballo of Mali, 6-10 Russian Pavel Zakharov and 6-7 Lithuanian Martynas Arlauskas.

“The guy with the most upside is probably Ballo,” Fraschilla said. “A big monster, a baby Shaq. Very athletic, strong, raw, but has a chance to be very good. Zakharov is different, a very agile, young guy who’s already been acclimated to the States because of Montverde (Academy). Zakharov is athletic and agile but also in need of physical maturity, the other guy (Ballo) is physically mature but in need of skill development.”

Of Arlauskas, Fraschilla said, “I don’t know as much about him. If I were in the States, I’d probably give him a three-star. Not a super athlete, but a tough, hard-nosed player.”

This will be one of Few’s greatest challenges yet. He has to account for the loss of three or four veteran studs, with the backdrop of all those streaks – the 21 straight years of making the NCAA tournament, the 11 straight first-round successes, the Sweet 16s five years running.

Theres a yin and yang to it all. Gonzaga is attracting – and losing early -- guys like Rui Hachimura and Brandon Clarke because it has entered a new realm in college basketball. (What was it Fraschilla called GU, “near-elite”?)

On the other hand, that elevated status confers immediate gravitas on the grad transfer market. Ask yourself: Would Gonzaga have been able to pluck a guy like Gilder – a double-figures scorer from a Power Six school – eight or 10 years ago?

Gonzaga is now running in the fastest lane. It’s both treacherous and exciting. It seems like a tightrope time for college basketball, underscored by John Beilein’s exit from Michigan to the Cleveland Cavaliers, accompanied by some reported unease with the constant roster churn he was seeing.

Maybe I’m misreading, but the trend, even among the marginal, is toward cutting college classes and taking a flyer on the NBA draft. Not very long ago, the operative guideline was: If you can get the guaranteed first-round money, you go. If not, you stay. Now, players like Norvell and Jaylen Nowell of Washington, widely projected as sub-first-round talents, are poised to stay in the draft.

Sam Vecenie of The Athletic wrote last week that the wide-open nature of this draft pool is leading more collegians to take a shot at it. Fraschilla also points to the G League’s improved salaries and affiliations with NBA teams as an avenue that’s become more enticing for those on the fence.

“The fact you can basically get pro coaching, you’re in a pro system and your team is connected to an NBA franchise allows you to be as prepared for the NBA as if you had played another year of college,” Fraschilla says. “That has changed over the last five years.”

All this comes in an era when the NCAA’s amateurism model has never been more under scrutiny. If you’re that close to making an NBA roster, and you can’t help but notice Damian Lillard and Kawhi Leonard downing climactic shots in the playoffs, you might be persuaded that you can do this, too, and oh yeah, get paid for it.

Meanwhile, the bulldozing of Gonzaga’s roster continues. Unlike Beilein, at least Mark Few isn’t going anywhere.
#zagmbb #wcchoops #theslipperstillfits #zaghoops #zagup

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Zags lament Texas Tech, and a lot of other things

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When Gonzaga and Texas Tech advanced to the Elite Eight the other night, my mind turned to, of all people, Erroll Knight. The Zags were going to be facing a rangy, slashing off-guard in Jarrett Culver, and didn’t really have an obvious defensive antidote, somebody like Knight.

As it happened, Knight was a key figure the last time GU played Texas Tech in the tournament, in the second round in 2005 in Tucson. The 6-6 transfer from Washington went 7 for 8 from the field for 14 points, and the Zags raced to a 13-point lead early in the second half against a Bob Knight-coached team. Ultimately, GU didn’t look inside enough – it had J.P. Batista and Ronny Turiaf and a 44-32 rebounding advantage that day – and Tech scrambled back and won, 71-69.

Texas Tech. In the last 15 years, the Zags have beaten Duke, North Carolina, Indiana and Michigan State, national-championship programs all. For some reason, Texas Tech is beyond them. They also lost a game in the 2008 Great Alaska Shootout to the Red Raiders, just a couple of months before Bob Knight retired. So it’s 0-3 all-time.

Turned out, Gonzaga did fine with Jarrett Culver. It was a lot of other people who beat the Zags, including themselves. Some thoughts:

-- The pace was Texas Tech’s, except for some flashes by Gonzaga in the first half, and the Zags never seemed particularly comfortable with it. The controlled tempo seems especially troublesome to Zach Norvell, who was 1 of 11 against Saint Mary’s and 3 of 11 on this day.

-- Two junctures struck me as important, in an understated way. Strange as it sounds, one of them came when GU led 11-8 and had three straight good looks at threes, two by Norvell and the other by Corey Kispert. All three missed. Make a couple of those, and if the leads expands to say, eight, the game that never saw a margin greater than five until the last minutes might develop differently, especially if Tech had to respect perimeter shooters.

-- The other pivot point for me came with GU up 48-44. Brandon Clarke blocked a shot, Rui Hachimura got the ball and charged down the left side of the floor, head down, and took the ball into a thicket of Tech defenders near the rim. He got it stuffed and seven seconds later, Culver splashed a three for the Red Raiders.

-- A few times, Gonzaga was too casual getting around screens to contest three-point shooters. It was costly.

-- No revelation here, but the Zags’ 16 turnovers was far too many in a low-possession game – some unforced, some fumbled-thumbed against Tech’s excellent defense.

-- The Josh Perkins faux pas became almost larger than the outcome itself, partly because Perkins heaped so much blame on himself. Reality is, it should have been a footnote to the day. Still, anybody feel an eerie parallel to the late-game mistake, Wichita State, 2013, when Elias Harris and David Stockton miscommunicated inbounding the ball and turned it over?

-- One more thing on that touched-ball situation: The punishment – two free throws and choice of shooter – hardly meets the crime. Seems like a situation made for a single free throw, and possession.

-- Who knows about impact, but the Zags suffered on a couple of calls aside from the controversial, late Tariq Owens block and save. Killian Tillie’s foul on an offensive rebound was a head-scratcher (looked like Tillie could have contested the board harder, but it hardly looked like a foul), and Brandon Clarke was rightly agitated over a shot bouncing on the rim that appeared to be goal-tended.

-- Ahead might be the biggest transition in personnel in the 21 years of Gonzaga making NCAA tournaments. I’d imagine there will be a lot of hours put into jigsawing a new roster in place, with an eye to graduate transfers in the backcourt. On the other hand, incoming are three of Rivals.com's top 50 bigs nationally.

-- Among the challenges will be the Battle 4 Atlantis tournament, a home date with North Carolina and a roadie with Washington. With the Huskies losing four seniors and likely guard Jaylen Nowell, the look of the Zag-UW game will be dramatically different.

-- For all the overheated criticism of teams that don’t advance, don’t ever forget that the margin is often capriciously and cruelly thin. If Virginia doesn’t come up with a near-miraculous play at the end of regulation against Purdue, in some (lunatic) precincts Tony Bennett will always be a bum whose teams choke before the Final Four.

-- What adds to Mark Few’s melancholy is the fact this looked to be Gonzaga’s best chance to win a national title. And maybe it was. But let’s not be so certain. The bracket tends to have a mind of its own.

#marchmadness #zagmbb #wcchoops #theslipperstillfits #zaghoops #zagup

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Haters gonna hate, and some still dog the Zags

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My late father had an expression for those drivers who didn’t meet his standards, who were going too fast or who made an ill-advised turn.

“All the idiots are out today,” he would say.

Decades later, it occasionally still holds true. Some days, the idiots seem to collect on the roads. When they’re not on Twitter bashing Gonzaga.

So here are the Zags, in another Elite Eight in advance of their Saturday matchup with Texas Tech for a second Final Four in three seasons. And they’re still batting away barbs from naysayers mad at Gonzaga’s seeding, mad at the fact the Zags lost to Wyoming in the first round in 2002, mad, from all indications, at the world.

Duke probably is the most polarizing team in college hoops, by virtue of dominating the sport for three decades. Second in dissenting opinion might be Gonzaga, for reasons only the Twitterati can fathom.

Probably, Gonzaga’s rush onto the tournament scene from 1999-2001 – two Sweet 16s and an Elite Eight – set the whole thing up. There was considerable blowback when, from 2004-06, GU had early, sometimes unseemly, exits from the tournament. So the Zags became the outfit that always choked in the tournament.

Now the narrative has shifted. Gonzaga is the NCAA basketball committee’s favored child, somehow getting undeservedly high seeds, which, of course, guarantees advancement straight to a Final Four interview podium.

Truth be told, I think there’s room for debate on whether Gonzaga should have copped a No. 1 seed in this tournament; its resume is thinner than some power-conference heavies. But on the side of the Zags is a basketball committee now giving considerable weight to advanced metrics and Gonzaga’s portfolio there sparkles.

One Seattle sports-radio jock dogs Gonzaga on the seed issue. So should the Zags have gotten a 3 or a 4? No, the other day he said he would have given them a 2.

Like it would matter. If the Zags have proved anything over the years, it’s that seeding is vastly overrated. In its 21-year run of making the tournament, GU is 18-3 in the first round, and it’s won multiple times as a 7, 8 and double-digit seed. It went to the 2016 Sweet 16 as an 11.

But by all means, let's obsess over something that's maybe 10th on the narratives around Gonzaga basketball.

Mike DeCourcy of the Sporting News tweeted the other day, “They built their program to what it is out of nothing. Just some tiny mid-major in an isolated part of the country. It’s the most amazing story in the history of college basketball.”

DeCourcy conceded that any mention of the Zags in his dispatches seems to inspire fury from a segment of the populace.

“Amazing how many people keep insisting this success is all a matter of their league,” DeCourcy added.

Of course, it’s amazing 30-some percent of the country believes the leader of the free world is just an all-around admirable figure.

“Three Elite Eights in five years,” tweeted Seth Davis of CBS Sports. “One of the most amazing stories in all of sports.”

That missive Thursday night after GU’s victory over Florida State unleashed the predictable torrent of critics, as always well-informed and well-spoken. Herewith, some of the snarling, with comment.

“Seems like an exaggeration. They’ve been on the national scene 20 years. Made 1 Final Four.”
And of course, when they stepped onto the national scene two decades ago, they began on the same footing with Duke, Kentucky and North Carolina.

“Seth, they don’t play anyone.”
Indeed, Gonzaga’s been dodging Golden State and the Oklahoma City Thunder for years.

“But not bigger than Butler, back-to-back title games.”
Great story, Butler, and surely one of Gonzaga’s kindred spirits. It made the title game in both 2010 and 2011. But it has missed the tournament three times since then, and the breadth and consistency of the Zags would outstrip the Butler saga.

“Why is this an amazing story? The one and done era in college basketball has allowed small schools to develop strong programs cause they are the senior laden and transfer laden (sic) so I think that amazing story is not a story no more.”
Yeah, all around the country, from Missouri-Kansas City to Stetson to Texas-Rio Grande Valley, the same upstart programs are busting brackets every year.

“That’s a bit hyperbolic, Seth. Good for the Zags but that’s not THAT impressive. It’s not even all that impressive for college basketball let alone ALL OF SPORTS”
Whatever you say. But it’s at least impressive for teams in Spokane County.

“Could be the year they finally make a Final Four”
True. The wait since that last one in 2017 has been interminable.

“(Expletive) that team should’ve not be number 1”
Relatively cheaply, you can find English classes on-line or through junior colleges near you.


#marchmadness #zagmbb #wcchoops #theslipperstillfits #zaghoops #zagup

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Zags: Late bloomers in an old game

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On the occasion of another NCAA tournament, I decided to take a dive into the NCAA Final Four record book, which is full of great information (you can find it on www.ncaa.org, go to statistics and follow the links). With Gonzaga’s tournament success in recent years, I wondered how its all-time record in the event – 31 wins, 21 losses – stacked up nationally.

I already knew this: It’s hard to compile a glittering record in the tournament, simply because you’re guaranteed a defeat unless you win the whole thing. So if you get to the round of 32 – precisely what GU did from 2010-2014, you’re going .500.

Here’s the big takeaway from a perusal of the numbers: As if we didn’t already know it, they’ve been playing college hoops a long time. On the victory list, Gonzaga is only tied for 34th. Of course, the Zags didn’t break through on that list until 1999, and though I didn’t have time to compute this, you can bet they’re top-ten in wins since then.

Have to admit some surprise at the distance between some of those schools and Gonzaga. Obviously, the others had a big head start. But remember, the 64-team tournament didn’t come into being until 1985, so that’s just 14 years of that format before GU began to win.

Before that, it took five wins, four, and – going way back – just three to win the NCAA tournament. In other words, there were far fewer wins to go around. (The first NCAA tournament was in 1939, and Gonzaga didn't playing Division 1 hoops until the 1958-59 season.)

Below is a list of the teams with more victories than Gonzaga’s 31. Thirteen have lesser winning percentages, so Gonzaga ranks 21st among that group. Note that they're listed in order of victories, not winning percentage.

Kentucky, 128-52, .711; North Carolina, 124-46, .729; Duke 111-37, .750; Kansas, 107-46, .699; UCLA 106-42, .716; Louisville, 76-43, .639; Syracuse 68-39, .636; Indiana, 66-34, .660;

Michigan State, 65-31, .677; Villanova, 64-36, .640; Michigan 59-27, .686; Connecticut 59-30, .663; Ohio State, 56-31, .644; Arizona 56-34, .622; Georgetown 47-29, .618; Florida, 46-19, .708; Cincinnati 46-31, .597; Arkansas, 42-32, .568;

Maryland, 41-26, .612; Oklahoma, 41-31, .569; Marquette 41-33, .554; Illinois 40-31, .563; Purdue, 39-30, .565; Wisconsin, 38-22, .633; Oklahoma State, 38-27, .585; Utah 38-32, .543; Notre Dame, 38-40, .487;

NC State, 37-26, .587; Kansas State 37-34, .521; Texas, 35-37, .486; Memphis 34-26, .567; Temple 33-32, .508; UNLV 33-19, .635; Gonzaga 31-21, .596; West Virginia, 31-29, .517.

Some observations:

-- The first 19 schools on the list have won a national title.

-- It’s striking that both Notre Dame and Texas have sub-.500 records in the tournament.

-- West Virginia, the school Gonzaga is tied with, has a pretty rich basketball history, dating to Jerry West.

-- FYI, Washington’s NCAA-tournament record is 18-17. Its first-round opponent this week, Utah State – with a pretty good tradition of its own – is just 6-22.

-- It continues to amaze me that Nebraska, a Power Five school that has pretty solid fan support, is 0-7 in the NCAA tournament.

-- Also 0-7: Boise State.

-- Most wins among Big Sky teams? Surprise, it’s Idaho State, at 8-13.

-- Only Ivy League school with a winning NCAA record is not Penn or Princeton, but Dartmouth, at 10-7.

-- BYU, another school recognized to have a fairly healthy basketball tradition? It’s 15-32 in the tournament.
#zagmbb #wcchoops #theslipperstillfits #zaghoops #zagup #marchmadness

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Zags need to be a virtuoso at versatility

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However Gonzaga’s basketball season ends – raining confetti or forever lamenting a shot that wouldn’t drop – this much is certain: The Zags have taken their fans on a hell of a ride.

Only part of has anything to do with 30 victories.

At its most alluring, Gonzaga has elevated its hoops to an art form. The Zags have been a symphony as much as a basketball enterprise.

Cue the visuals: Josh Perkins, floating a little lob pass to a soaring Rui Hachimura. The fast break, lanes filled, inevitably to end well. Zach Norvell splashing wanton threes. Brandon Clarke standing sentinel over the hoop. Geno Crandall, going behind the back -- French pastry, Al McGuire used to call it – for an assist. They lead the nation in scoring (88.8 a game) and in field-goal shooting (.532).

In their best moments, they’ve played beautiful basketball, probably the most pleasing in Gonzaga history. Mark Few, the coach, has always been wired that way, seeing the game not as slugfest, but a measure of skill, and recruiting to that ideal.

You could say he grew up that way. Fifty-five miles from where he came up in Creswell, Ore., was Oregon State, No. 1-ranked for weeks in 1981 under Ralph Miller. Few's senior year, Creswell too was No. 1 in the Oregon Class AA polls, and for teenage kids, it was impossible not to notice the Beavers, who were also one of the most esthetic outfits around. They made the game simple, pressing, pushing the pace and executing half-court offense with great facility.

More than one person has told me the Bulldogs – the Creswell Bulldogs – saw a little of themselves in Oregon State, a high-scoring high school version of the top-ranked team in the land.

But that was then and this is now. The Zags are coming off an almost unthinkable loss to Saint Mary’s, casting a disquieting note over their fandom on the eve of the NCAA tournament. Not only didn’t GU exhibit any of the artistry that has marked its game, it didn’t win.

And that’s the flip side of appealing basketball. There are days you have to grind, and that seemed beyond Gonzaga’s inclination, or at least its capability.

In the moment, I doubt that players have any sense for how esthetic their team’s play might look. But surely something tells them when the rhythm is disjointed or when the opposition is mucking up the preferred pace.

You can see how it might be difficult for a player; you have to find that sweet spot between speed and discretion. Everything (including maybe the coaches) is telling you to quicken the tempo, yet the failure to make the extra pass or to probe just a couple of seconds longer before hoisting a shot is often exactly what the defense desires.

Few was impatient with the media in that Saint Mary’s post-game session. I wasn’t there, but I can infer his frame of mind: This is a team capable of winning a national championship. He might never have this stacked a roster again. Gonzaga had just played nowhere near that level, and everything between that night and Thursday’s game (with Fairleigh Dickinson or Prairie View A&M) must be focused on ensuring that the next time the Zags get beat, it won’t be because of such extreme shortfalls in execution -- but more than that, perseverance.

Sometime in the NCAA, the Zags are going to have to grind to win. In fact, it’s probably going to come as soon as Saturday, when they could line up against Syracuse, the club that ousted them in 2010 and 2016. They’re going to have to get dirty. It can’t all be high-flying. Sometimes, it’s hammer-and-tongs, jam the ball inside, get in a defensive stance and prove your will is greater than the guy with the ball.

My mind drifts to that memorable 1981 Oregon State team. It went 26-0, then on senior day in Corvallis, was rudely brought to earth by a talented Arizona State team in a blowout – the psychological equal of the Zags’ loss to Saint Mary’s. You can imagine what consternation that wrought on the Beaver believers.

Five years before a shot clock, OSU faced Kansas State in its first game of the NCAA tournament. It was an exercise in drudgery. The Beavers led 26-19 at halftime, K-State kept spinning its control web, and never was OSU’s gorgeous game of that season in evidence. It was 50-50 with two minutes to go. OSU missed a one-and-one, K-State held the ball the rest of the way and Rolando Blackman finished it with a jumper, the most devastating moment in Oregon State basketball history.

Shortly, the Zags will see somebody bent on extinguishing the rhythm from their game. They need to make sure that if the poetry isn’t there, the resolve is.
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Zags-Huskies in the NCAA: It could happen

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So … might it happen this March? Might the Gonzaga-Washington series, previously truncated and occasionally tortured, resume in the NCAA tournament?

And would Gonzaga want that?

OK, I get it: It’s way premature and there are other bigger fish to fry. Gonzaga is licking wounds applied by Saint Mary’s Tuesday night. Washington is still doing business in the Pac-12 tournament. But hey, in the days leading to Selection Sunday, let’s speculate. It’s not just whistling in the wind, it’s a real possibility as a second-round matchup. Don't anybody get overly lathered about it, but file it away, just in case.

It appears there’s more than a passing chance that the two could line up in the second round. The Zags’ WCC-finals loss either leaves them as a No. 1 seed, or, depending on other results, drops them to a 2. So if Washington rates from a 7-10 seed, the possibility is live. Gonzaga is going to be placed in the West, and Washington would need to join GU there, and they'd each have to advance.

Remember, a good many bracket analysts through January and February have had the UW as an 8 or 9, and the Zags a 1, in the same region.

Here is probably a good place to insert the disclaimer that we don’t know with certainty that Washington is in the tournament, but its quarterfinal win over USC Thursday in Vegas surely helped. And its fate Friday night (and Saturday, potentially) will have a lot to say about its seed. My guess is that even winning the tournament wouldn’t kick them higher than a 7 seed.

Let’s dig deeper:

THEIR LAST MEETING

On Dec. 5, the two teams met in Spokane, and in an expected sizzler, Gonzaga pulled out an 81-79 victory on Rui Hachimura’s elbow jumper inside the final second. It was the Huskies’ first competitive effort against GU in well, years and years (owing partly to the nine-year hiatus in the series exacted by ex-UW coach Lorenzo Romar).

I reviewed that game tape and came away with several impressions, probably the most prominent that Washington seemed comfortable running its offense against the Zag defense. Indeed, the Huskies shot a healthy 47.5 percent to GU’s 42.9, and as noted in this space a couple of times, Gonzaga had historically shot the lights out against Washington – eight straight times of 50 percent or better.

The biggest problem for GU was Jaylen Nowell, who had 26 points and six assists. The Zags tried Corey Kispert, Zach Norvell and Josh Perkins on him at various times, mostly without success. Kispert isn’t quick enough and Perkins, needing to conserve energy for the other end of the floor, isn’t ideal. So if it happens, it’s probably going to fall largely to Norvell.

Essentially, the Husky offense flourished because of slashing drives by Nowell and Matisse Thybulle (18 points, four assists), and when they didn’t have openings themselves, they flung it out to the perimeter for teammates’ threes.

Other takeaways:

-- Filip Petrusev was hugely important for Gonzaga, with nine points and three rebounds in 14 minutes.

-- This was one of Brandon Clarke’s poorer games; he went 4 of 11 from the field and had five turnovers. He never looked comfortable on offense, including on scoring opportunities from the high post. (An aside: The Huskies seem oddly willing to concede damage from the high post, almost as if to say the shot is something opposition big guys can’t convert. And indeed, a couple of times, Clarke obliged with leaning attempts, trying to make a 13-footer an 8-footer.)

-- When Washington elevated its matchup zone defense – collapsing its bigs farther toward the foul line to confront penetration – the Zags hurt the Huskies a few times by getting the ball to the corner for baseline drives.

-- My guess is, upon review of tape, the Zags saw several cringe-worthy moments down the stretch, when they were, frankly, horrible. Perkins got caught at the end of a shot clock taking an off-balance mid-range attempt that misfired, GU didn’t get back and Washington pushed the ball and hit Thybulle for a dunk with 35 seconds left. Then Norvell, with 17 seconds showing and 13 on the shot clock, drove the baseline and missed a three-footer, not using the backboard, to give the UW a final possession on which it tied the game.

-- With 4:50 left and GU ahead 73-62, Kispert missed an open three that very likely would have turned the lights out on the Huskies. Instead, they returned fire with their own three, so a potential 14-point lead quickly became eight points.

WHAT'S CHANGED IN THREE MONTHS

For one, the presence of Geno Crandall and Killian Tillie, unavailable in the first game, would help GU. Crandall is a good match for UW guard David Crisp, who has shown the ability to get hot. Tillie, coming off his foot injury, should be ready for perhaps 20 minutes a game the first weekend, and he was a key figure when GU throttled Washington 15 months ago in Seattle.

Probably the biggest imponderable is this: How much has each team improved since Dec. 5? The Huskies made significant advancement, then struggled down the stretch before the USC victory. Perhaps the biggest strides have been made in Gonzaga’s defense, which was spotty early but is now top-20.

THE PSYCHOLOGY

My sense is that the rivalry has cooled. For one, Gonzaga has dominated the Huskies for a long time. And there’s that long interruption in the series from 2006-15. Too, Romar is out now, so there’s no immediate connection to the ruffled feelings of years past, although Cameron Dollar is on the UW staff. Mark Few and the UW’s Mike Hopkins seem to have a healthy relationship.

For two reasons, I don’t think it’s a good game for Gonzaga. First, Washington’s defense is a curveball for anybody it plays, and the last thing the Zags need after the schooling by Saint Mary’s and its possession game is curveballs. Having seen the zone this season probably would help Gonzaga, however.

Second, to whatever degree the rivalry provides a sideshow, there’s that amount less focus on the task at hand. Gonzaga would have to entertain off-day questions about the rivalry, about how much attention they pay the Huskies, etc., etc. For Washington, the nothing-to-lose element might be deepened by the chance to get back at a rival (a one-time rival, anyway).

I’d give it maybe a 25-30 percent chance of happening. Obviously, the selection committee has to comply. And each would need to win a game in the tournament to get there. At the very least, it's something to watch as the bracket is revealed Sunday.

Yeah, it would create a stir. But for Gonzaga, I suspect the thinking is: Who needs it?




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Zags: So is the sky falling now?

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Actually, no, it isn't, although a lot of Gonzaga fans could swear they heard some ominous rumbling above them Tuesday night.

They never would have believed that the Zags, a huge 14.5-15-point favorite over Saint Mary’s, could have stumbled, 60-47, in the West Coast Conference tournament, an event they’ve virtually owned in recent years.

Some thoughts:

-- The instant reaction among some GU fans is: Well, now there’s a blueprint out there on how to beat Gonzaga. Which, to me, is ridiculous. The biggest factor in this game was Saint Mary’s ability to control the tempo, or conversely, Gonzaga’s inability to speed the Gaels up. I’d bet at least 80 percent of Saint Mary’s possessions resulted in shots taken with single digits on the shot clock. As of Tuesday night, SMC is No. 347 in Ken Pomeroy’s adjusted tempo rankings. That’s what it does, and does very well. Unless a future Gonzaga opponent is similarly adept at massaging the ball
-- and hardly anybody is -- it shouldn’t be a major consideration.

-- Having said that, I agree with analyst Dick Vitale that Gonzaga’s defensive intensity didn’t seem overwhelming. GU never could apply enough heat to make Saint Mary’s uncomfortable.

-- Zach Norvell has had games where he starts out 1 for 6 from the field. That’s when he usually goes 4 for his next 5. This was the night he kept shooting, and kept missing.

-- Saint Mary’s had a 34-27 rebounding edge. Rui Hachimura had five boards in 34 minutes. He seemed to be without urgency.

-- Josh Perkins has had a marvelous senior year, but when analysts look at the Zags, he’s often the one questioned, and 4-for-14, five-turnover nights don’t dissuade them. He has the NCAA tournament to prove them wrong.

-- From Gonzaga’s standpoint, Saint Mary’s big guys did far too much damage down low, especially in the first half. I was surprised GU didn’t double more, although SMC’s facility with floor spacing might have discouraged Gonzaga from doing so.

-- Now the debate will be whether Gonzaga is worthy of a No. 1 seed. There’s a lot of sentiment that it remains so, but I suspect that will be contingent on the Power 5 conference results. Even if it slips to a No. 2, the damage probably is minimal. It will stay in the West and either begin in Salt Lake City or San Jose.

-- Typically, the days between the end of the WCC tournament and Selection Sunday have kind of a celebratory, anticipatory feel for the Zags. The guess here is that re-calibration and resolve will now be the operative elements.
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Do the Zags deserve a No. 1 seed?

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I think this is where I came in.

About three years ago, piecing together a work on Gonzaga hoops, “Glory Hounds,” I opened with an anecdote about how Kentucky fans in 2015 had their panties in a tangle about the Zags, owing to the notion that GU’s prospective seed could put the beloved Wildcats in the same region as a potent Wisconsin team.

Now, as Yogi was fond of saying, it’s déjà vu all over again.

One of the hot topics of Gonzaga’s week (since there’s nothing much to discuss as regards the West Coast Conference) suddenly concerns Kentucky, which trounced No. 1 Tennessee Saturday. That has bumped up the onrushing ‘Cats in the national narrative – deservedly so.

In fact, Seth Davis of CBS and The Athletic nudged Kentucky into his group of four No. 1 seeds. Jerry Palm of CBS Sports told Sirius radio Monday that he could see Kentucky nabbing that No. 1 seed over Gonzaga, even if the Zags win out.

Which would be novel. Remember, Gonzaga was a No. 1 seed – officially – in the NCAA basketball committee’s early-February read on where the top 16 teams lay at the moment. It would be quite the notion that an early-projected No. 1 could win nine straight games – that would be Gonzaga’s path from the Feb. 9 reveal through the WCC championship game – and drop in the seeding. And the Zags have been abusing WCC teams by record margins.

Having said that, let me say this: I don’t have a problem with either Seth Davis’ or Jerry Palm’s reckoning.

First, let’s back up. When Gonzaga lost at North Carolina Dec. 15, there was a lot of talk about how little chance existed for GU to claim a No. 1 seed, so bereft is the WCC of real, meaty chances to impress. My take then was that it was possible for the Zags at least to be in the discussion come March.

It was a surprise to me, then, that Gonzaga so quickly made up that ground. Essentially, by the end of January or thereabouts, the Zags had sprouted on the top line.

Bottom line, risking pitchforks and torches outside my house from Zag fans: I don’t think Gonzaga’s resume is necessarily deserving of a No. 1 seed, pending what may take place around it (from Kentucky, et al).

The Zags have a thundering resume victory-on-steroids with the win over Duke in Maui. It’s the loudest statement Gonzaga has ever made to the basketball committee with a single triumph. (Meanwhile, Kentucky was thrashed in November by Duke).

And there’s no quibble here with Gonzaga’s scheduling intent. You don’t have to apologize for taking on Arizona or playing Creighton in front of 17,000 on the road, or meeting a Power Five team in Illinois in Maui.

It’s just that: Illinois is 10-16 (even as it’s proven to be nobody’s stooge in the Big Ten, having beaten Minnesota, Maryland, Michigan State and Ohio State). Creighton is a disappointing 13-13, having lost nine of 12 in the new year. Its season went south with consecutive home losses, and blown leads, to Marquette and Villanova early in January.

And Arizona is a mess. A team that was good enough to beat Iowa State on the eve of the Gonzaga loss in Maui, good enough to be 13-4 and 4-0 once, has now lost seven straight. It hasn’t won in a month.

Texas A&M, another Gonzaga victim, is tied for 11th in the SEC – after a Sweet 16 appearance last spring.

Yeah, Gonzaga beat Washington, and the Huskies’ season helps the Zags. But Gonzaga won by two, and it was at home, and that’s the kind of result the committee expects if you’re going to be a high seed.

None of this is Gonzaga’s fault, it’s just the way it played out. Reminds me a little of 2002, when Gonzaga had a sort of coming-of-age experience with NCAA seeding, falling to a No. 6 seed when Mark Few had toyed with the idea his team could be a 3 or even a 2. Teams like Fresno State and Saint Joseph’s – Zag victims -- were projected to be Final Four threats and when they came up disappointments, Gonzaga paid the price. Then it really paid the price with a first-round NCAA loss to Wyoming.

I’m not going to try to weigh Kentucky’s 21-4 record and recent 10-game winning streak in the SEC against Gonzaga’s chops. There’s time enough for that later.

Besides, you can get plenty of that on a Kentucky message board, where the opinions occasionally touched charitable (“I’d prefer a rematch with Duke to playing GU in the Dance. They’re a nightmare”) to the delusional (“I have no idea how this Zags team beat Duke. It almost seems like K gave them the win just because he thinks they’re the next media favorite. Of the four games I’ve seen from Gonzaga in the WCC, there’s nothing to make me believe they’re anywhere near even the top 15 teams in the country”).

Thankfully for some, registration for a fan card carries no requirement for being of sound mind.

Like a lot of mid-season debates, this one may descend to a faint murmur by March. The Zags may well end up a No. 1 seed. If so, they won’t be thanking Arizona or Creighton.
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Without Tillie, Zags will try to keep humming

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A lot of sympathy is due Killian Tillie for his latest injury at Gonzaga, and for all the constituencies that might feel aggrieved over it, his own well-being is the most important.

You name it, he seems to have had it in his three years at Gonzaga – sprained ankle and a month out during the Final Four year; serious hip injury that truncated the Zags’ run with the Sweet 16 in 2018, and likely caused Tillie to postpone his immediate NBA plans; stress fracture of the ankle and surgery last November; and now, a partially torn foot ligament that imperils the rest of his season, and possibly, his career at GU.

I’ve always believed Gonzaga has been fairly fortunate with injuries during its golden age (with exceptions such as Przemek Karnowski’s serious back ailment in 2015-16). But Tillie seems bent on upending that narrative all by himself.

So you feel badly for him, and in a sport where the opportunities tend to be transient, you also feel a pang for his team and its chances in March/April. In the month since his return from surgery, Tillie hadn’t yet been Tillie, but we know what he can do. His coach, Mark Few, long ago characterized him as as a guy who quickly understood things, who gets it, somebody whose instincts make the machine run more smoothly.

Which brings us to today’s question: How much more of a sweet purr could anybody bring to the Gonzaga apparatus right now? What the Zags did to poor Saint Mary’s the other night was almost criminal, hanging a 94-46 defeat on the Gaels. This is hardly a vintage SMC team, but, in the words of a football coach I covered once, it isn’t Squawhockey Canyon, either.

From the outset, the Zags were lofting Cirque du Soleil lob passes to crashing bigs and banging threes off behind-the-back feeds. It was something to see, a performance as much as it was a victory, and it’s lamentable to think that Tillie’s absence might chip away at the chance of watching such theater.

To me, it’s become obvious that the front line the Zags are unloading on the WCC is something the league has rarely, if ever, seen. Think of the good bigs that have come out of the WCC in the last 15-20 years (outside Gonzaga) – Omar Samhan, Jock Landale, Brandon Davies, John Bryant, Eric Mika, Stacy Davis, Brad Waldow. Almost always, they’ve been marginal NBA talents. Now, in Rui Hachimura and Brandon Clarke, the Zags are showing off two guys projected to be first-round draft picks.

The league is being overpowered by these guys, along with a cast that has Gonzaga, at 1.28 points per possession, far ahead of the field in KenPom’s offensive-efficiency rankings.

So far, in what was touted as a better WCC, it’s not a fair fight. According to Pomeroy, the Zags’ composite margin of 311 points through 10 league games – or a 31.1-point average victory – is tops through that period since 1998. Second on that list was the ’17 Zags with 280 points. The most impressive of the top five is No. 4, the 1998 Kansas team, playing in a far tougher league, with a 241-point margin of victory over 10 games.

Looking for a comp to judge the Zags’ dominance of the WCC, I hit upon Jerry Tarkanian’s UNLV teams that once laid waste to the Big West Conference. He had three clubs unbeaten in league play (1987, 1991, 1992), and the one that sticks out was the fearsome ’91 team, led by Larry Johnson (he averaged 22 points and 10 rebounds), Stacey Augmon, Greg Anthony and Anderson Hunt.

This was the team mentioned as among the best in history, coming off a 30-point thrashing of Duke in the 1990 championship game – and unbeaten until it met its end against the Blue Devils in the national semis in Indianapolis. The ’91 Rebels ran up a 316-point margin through 10 games, just a touch higher than the current Zags. The pace slowed slightly, however, and UNLV finished at 29.6. (The Rebels did it in style in nine of their 18 games, eclipsing the 100-point barrier.)

How does GU stack up against the best previous Gonzaga teams? That ’17 Final Four team that’s second on Ken Pomeroy’s list had a 28.1-point average margin through 17 WCC games, but the winning streak came to an end in the season finale against BYU.

The ’14-15 Elite Eight club had a more modest 16.1-point margin of victory before BYU also ended that streak on Senior Night at the Kennel.

Aside from the ’19 and ’17 GU teams, maybe the most comparable club – in terms of potential – was the 2013 squad that was upset by Wichita State in the NCAA second round. That team, which surely looked to have Final Four chops, ran the table over 16 WCC games, with an average margin of 19.4 points – more than 11 behind the current team’s pace.

Now the 2018-19 Zags have to try to fulfill their dreams without Tillie, at least for a while. For one night, at least, they seemed to be trying to say it's doable.
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The Zags and running it up (whatever that is)

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Happened to catch a Seattle radio segment the other day on which CBS sports bracket specialist Jerry Palm appeared. (Yes, occasionally sports-talk radio here veers dangerously from assessing what Seahawks mini-camps will look like in May and realizes we’re well into college-basketball season.)

The subject of Gonzaga’s 98-39 boat-racing at Santa Clara came up, and with it, the fact that the NCAA’s new NET rankings recognize margin of victory – but only out to 10 points. Never was it specifically alleged that the Zags’ clocking of the Broncos represented running it up, but still, I sensed an undercurrent in the conversation that Gonzaga might have treated the game differently than it would have without that NET factor.

Which, if that’s what Palm and/or his host believes, is ridiculous. I suppose if you want to split hairs, you can argue that with 14 minutes left, Gonzaga led 66-25 and it was going to be virtually impossible for five guys plucked out of Jack and Dan’s at closing time to lose the game with a lead like that, and the GU starters could have come out then. Or even earlier.

As it was, if memory serves, Gonzaga had all its starters out of the game for good at around the nine-minute mark, which is about as early as you’ll ever see. True, that left Killian Tillie, Geno Crandall and Filip Petrusev to wreak more indignity on the poor Broncos, but them’s the breaks.

Indeed, the most minutes by a Zag was Josh Perkins’ 26. Brandon Clarke played only 20 minutes and Rui Hachimura 18.

I bring this up because in a year in which Gonzaga is clearly the class of the WCC – by a bunch -- the subject is likely to arise again.

At 10 points, the scoring-margin component of the NET is almost so negligible as to be moot. If you win by nine or 10 points, it’s often the case that it was a one- or two-possession game inside the last minute. Example: Gonzaga’s 13-point victory over USF a while back was anything but comfortable.

Putting aside the NET, and looking at the subject from the sportsmanship angle, I’m often intrigued by discussions of running it up. There are so many gray areas that it’s become a silly topic. What’s running it up to one person isn’t to the other. Case in point: I was watching one of the football bowl games in December, and a team that was blowing out its opponent had the ball with a fourth down on the opponent 15- or 20-yard line in the fourth quarter. The team leading eschewed the field goal and went for it on fourth down, causing a cry of consternation from the play-by-play guy. How dare they?

Well, in many quarters, kicking the field goal with a five-touchdown lead is considered bad form – worse than simply lining up and running the ball and giving the defense a chance to stop you. But in either case, it’s stupid to get worked up about it when there’s no agreement on what either act signifies. Over the years, I’ve pretty much come to subscribe to the drawling dictum of the old Florida State football coach, Bobby Bowden: “It’s not mah job to stop mah offense, it’s yo’ job to stop mah offense.”

Funny, but “running it up” even carries two different connotations. At its most innocent, it means scoring a lot. Taken at its most nefarious, it means pouring it on to embarrass your opponent.

A final thought on it: Some fans think a game is only about who wins and who loses – end of story. Coaches don’t look at it that way. They coach against the game. They want to see improvement with certain combinations. They want to see how certain vulnerabilities are addressed.

Mark Few wants to see Tillie’s timing on certain ball-screen sets, he wants to see Crandall’s advancement with Perkins playing off the ball. He wants to see things that suggest his team is on an upward arc toward March. It isn’t about giving gratuitous minutes to the guys at the end of the bench – though they certainly deserve their run -- so the crowd can repair to the nearest bar to discuss the night.

The Zags face a four-game stretch with BYU, San Diego, USF and Saint Mary’s. Don’t look for them to beat any of those outfits by 59 points. But down the road, there will be a good many moments when the question isn’t winning or losing, but far more esoteric matters.
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