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Gonzaga and that troublesome final hurdle

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It was 23 years ago, in Seattle, that Gonzaga began one of sport’s all-time, improbable arcs.

But Friday, were Zags coach Mark Few to have awakened in my town, he would have been jarred by this headline: “Fair or Not, Gonzaga Men Just Haven’t Met Expectations.”

I think we just defined the term “parallel universe.”

After Gonzaga’s round-of-16 ouster by Arkansas, the Zags are consigned to the off-season. My guess is that when Few can steal away to a favorite stream and cast a fly, he’s going to come face-to-face with the question everybody else entertains: What’s it going to take? What’s the final, seminal ingredient Gonzaga needs to change the description on the boiler plate: Best college hoops program not to win a national championship?

It’s become a zero-sum game in Spokane, or so the critics have it. You either win the thing, or you’re a failure. It’s not good enough anymore to get to the Final Four, which Gonzaga has done twice in the last five years. And it’s surely not enough to be so consistent you’ve gone to seven straight Sweet 16s, a feat exceeded in history only by North Carolina and Duke. You’ve got to break out a banner, or you haven’t done jack.

Maybe this will be an inflection point for Few. But maybe it won’t, because there are mitigating factors that cloud any easy answers.

Start with the stylistic conflict going on, because I’m sure that’s prominent for Few. The Zags play an appealing, beautiful, breakneck-speed game – the antidote for which is a hit-the-brakes, physical, grabby defensive style, one that isn’t especially esthetic – just often effective. It’s how Arkansas confronted Gonzaga last week.

There’s an ongoing back-and-forth about how officials should call the game and right now, it’s trending toward handsy. If you’ve watched much of the 2022 tournament, you’ve seen an inordinate amount of flat ugly basketball, from the Illinois-Chattanooga goof-fest to a Villanova-Houston game Saturday in which neither team shot 30 percent. But the suspense of the tournament, and everybody’s focus on their bracket, has a way of masking the slog.

Add to that the custom of more physical play in the tournament, and suddenly, it’s an uphill challenge for Gonzaga.

But try telling Chet Holmgren that the zebras are more indulgent in the post-season. He incurred a couple of head-scratching fouls against Arkansas in 23 minutes. Forgive him if, on his way to the NBA, he might think he’s gotten mixed messages on what’s allowed in the college game.

Such things seem to have befallen the Zags in their most painful exits. This was how the Associated Press summed up the 2017 title game, when North Carolina nipped Gonzaga: “ . . . in many corners, this game will be remembered for these three men (naming the officials), who called 27 fouls in the second half, completely busted up the flow of the game.”

That was the night when Nigel Williams-Goss, Gonzaga’s scoring and assists leader, went down with an ankle sprain inside the two-minute mark with GU down by one, and Carolina survived. A year later, when Florida State upset the Zags in the Sweet 16, Gonzaga suddenly was without Killian Tillie – its second-leading scorer, second-leading rebounder and a 48-percent three-point shooter that year – when he injured a hip in practice.

Few has acknowledged that in 1999, when Gonzaga launched its generational run into the unheard-of, it got lucky. Minnesota, the Zags’ first-round opponent, was outed for massive academic fraud, players were declared ineligible, and GU took advantage for the school’s initial NCAA-tournament victory. Now it has 41.

It must sometimes seem to Few that the basketball gods have conspired to square accounts for that early kindness. Now he must come to grips with whether Gonzaga has endured more than its share of sour luck, or whether changes are in order.

Some observers have decided for him. A Detroit columnist cautioned the Pistons against considering Holmgren – because he comes from a place built on the path of least resistance. “I wonder about the competitive fervor of top recruits,” he wrote, “who hit the easy button and go to Gonzaga.”

When a post-Arkansas tweet compared the tease of Gonzaga basketball to Oregon football, a Portland media guy concluded, “Oregon football has far more substance than Gonzaga basketball. UO has actually won major conference titles. Gonzaga has not.”

The part about league titles is true. Far more dubious is what that has meant to Oregon’s national profile against Gonzaga’s. Since 2014, the Ducks have a Rose Bowl victory, a title-game loss to Ohio State by three touchdowns when Oregon was favored, a handful of ugly bowl losses, another 4-8 year and high-stakes, back-to-back blowout defeats four months ago to Utah. If that’s substance, the advice here is to wear gloves handling it.

That doesn’t mean adjustments wouldn’t help. Some nasty might look good on the Zags, some steely-eyed, defensive resolve. A bit of it could already be on hand in guard Dominick Harris, whom Gonzaga lost to a foot injury in the ’21-22 preseason.

Twice in person this season, before the Alabama and Memphis games, I thought I detected a casualness in warmups, a devil-may-care look that didn’t seem especially businesslike. I say that fully conceding that (a) maybe that’s how the Zags roll; and (b) maybe that doesn’t matter anyway.

At times like these, you grope for answers, nobody more zealously than the guy with the fly rod.

It probably doesn’t help Few to know that people like John Beilein, Bob Huggins, Rick Barnes and Dana Altman have never won a title. Tom Izzo, the master of March, has won only one despite a four-year head start on Few. John Calipari, the one-and-done recruiting maestro, has won one, and it took four first-round NBA picks that 2012 season, including Nos. 1-2 with Anthony Davis on top. Bill Self has won one (he’s also in this week’s Final Four) despite some pointed NCAA insinuation that Kansas is breaking rules to do it.

“All the stars have to be aligned correctly,” Charles Barkley was saying Sunday on TV. “Izzo, Self, guys like that . . . people like, ‘Why ain’t you won another one?’ It’s hard to win.”

For so long, Gonzaga had a way of making it look easy. This last part isn’t.
#theslipperstillfits #unitedwezag #wccsports #zaghoops #zagsmbb #zagup

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