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Zach Collins, We Hardly Knew Ye

Well, Zag fans, you’ve hit the big-time. You’re now part of the “in” crowd in college basketball, part of a high-rolling, high-wire act just like Kentucky and Duke.

Congratulations, I guess.

When Zach Collins declared Tuesday for the NBA draft, he became the first Gonzaga player in history to do so after putting in a single freshman season. The Zags have had a handful of others leave early, but never after a freshman year.

Have to admit, I never thought it was a given that he’d declare after one year -- even with a productive NCAA tournament. He seemed to enjoy the year greatly, and there’s no doubt he’s not ready for the NBA, not needing weight and strength, not having accounted for seven of GU’s 15 total player disqualifications on fouls this year. Indeed, the understated nature of his year is obvious in the fact he wasn't even a starter, averaging 17 minutes.

But readiness is not the NBA yardstick, and no doubt, Collins’ potential is immense. So, too, are NBA paychecks. Here are some for 2016 draftees in the neighborhood of Collins’ projected draft slot: Domantas Sabonis (No. 11), $2.44 million; Taurean Prince (12th), $2.32 million; Denzel Valentine (14th), $2.09 million; Caris LeVert (20th), $1.56 million.

This is the first of what I expect to be a one-two blow. I’m anticipating Nigel Williams-Goss to follow suit -- even as his NBA prospects are far cloudier -- leaving Gonzaga with some rebuilding on its hands. The departure of NWG, in combination with Collins and the exits of Przemek Karnowski and Jordan Mathews, would strip the Zags of four of their top five scorers.

At the very least, Collins’ decision seems to render the possibility of a repeat run like 2017 highly unlikely.

From what I’m gathering, Zag fans are conflicted. There’s obvious disappointment in forfeiting what-could-have-been scenarios for next year. But some are speculating that Collins’ college drive-through makes the Zags elite and augurs a new era in which they can flourish in recruiting because they’ve now shown themselves to be capable of getting a one-and-done talent to the League.

Of that, I’m skeptical.

Old standards tend to be almost immutable in recruiting. Precedent dies hard. I suppose there might be the random case in which a decorated prep player picks Gonzaga over UCLA because of the aforementioned proposition. More likely, that recruit chooses Gonzaga or UCLA for the same reasons a prospect has always selected Gonzaga or UCLA.

Perceptions affecting recruiting tend to happen glacially. In my research of “Glory Hounds,” Zags coach Mark Few told me he was surprised at how slowly the initial burst of NCAA-tournament success -- seven wins in three golden post-seasons in 1999-2001 -- equated to recruiting gains. It wasn’t until later that the accumulated success began to pay dividends.

Similarly, look at Gonzaga’s recruiting in Seattle, a subject I explored in detail in Glory Hounds. We’re now a generation into the Zags’ golden era -- 19 years straight of NCAA tournaments -- and candidly, it’s had very little impact in inner-city Seattle.

More than Collins’ case, I’d expect the Zags to profit by the increased spotlight through the ’17 tournament run on their success with transfers. And in the wake of Collins’ departure, GU coaches will doubtless have a keen ear to the ground on such prospects in the next couple of months.

Other riffs on the Collins decision:

-- Someday, we may look back on the NBA’s 19-and-under rule as a bizarre aberration of the pro-sports labor market (in fact, if you’re so inclined right now, feel free), a stricture that invites a seven- or eight-month stopover at a university between high school and the NBA. I’d favor a baseball-style revision: Be allowed to go out of high school, or wait two seasons (rather than baseball’s three) to be drafted.

-- I regarded Collins as a stealth candidate for college player of the year, had he returned for his sophomore season. He likely would have been a preseason All-American.

-- The Zags’ deep run might have impacted Collins -- as in, they accomplished everything they could accomplish, short of winning the national title. Also of possible relevance, as he weighed staying: While Gonzaga schedules are demanding, they lose punch in the WCC outside Saint Mary’s and BYU. It isn’t unreasonable to wonder how much Collins would gain by dominating Pepperdine and San Diego.

-- Collins’ move shifts the focus to a couple of returnees -- 6-11 Jacob Larsen of Denmark, who redshirted after a knee injury; and fourth-year junior Ryan Edwards. The train may have already left the station for Edwards, who played mop-up minutes this year (48, fewest of his three seasons on the floor) and would seem to fit the profile of a potential grad transfer.
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Zags, Monkey-off-Back Edition, Part II: Few and the Hall of Fame

I can’t tell you a lot about the Naismith Hall of Fame selection process; only by describing its renderings can we begin to interpret its thinking. But I would suggest that with Gonzaga’s recent run to the NCAA championship game, Mark Few ought to have done himself a major favor in someday gaining entry into that lodge.

The HOF’s proceedings are notoriously clandestine. Back when I was U.S. Basketball Writers president in 1992-93, I recall being on an advisory committee. We had a conference call, and representatives from organizations like the NBA and USA Basketball weighed in on candidates. I think we took a vote on them, but it may have been merely advisory. And that was that. I don't think we even knew ahead of time who had been selected.

To my knowledge, there are no hard-and-fast markers to aid in consideration of college coaches, and perhaps that’s the way it should be.

What we do know is that annual classes have expanded, both to accommodate the growth of women’s and international basketball. There also seems to be a trend of recognition of “contributors,” those who gave something considerable to the sport apart from playing or coaching it.

The coaching landscape has certainly changed, and not necessarily for the good of Few’s argument. Of the last 13 Division I coaches to be named, dating to 2002, 12 have won national championships. That statistic is in itself a little chilling, because it seems to say that the committee isn’t looking deeper, at circumstance and setting.

But go back from 2001 to 1985, the year former PLU, Washington State and Washington coach Marv Harshman was selected. There were 15 Division I coaches in that group, and seven didn’t win a title, including Harshman or Oregon State’s Ralph Miller. In fact, neither of those two made a Final Four.

Thus, it’s a moving target, or at least a developing one.

Total victories help, but they’re not a guarantee of anything. In fact, look at Nos. 13-15 and 17 on the all-time total wins list at any NCAA level entering the 2016-17 season: Thirteenth is Eddie Sutton at 806; 14th is Rollie Massimino (793); 15th is West Virginia’s Bob Huggins (791) and 17th is Lefty Driesell at 786. And Massimino has Villanova’s stirring 1985 championship (but a checkered record elsewhere, including his last six ‘Nova teams, which were 48-50 in the Big East).

I’d expect retired Bo Ryan (747 wins at three schools) to find a way in soon. You’d also like to think the committee would have been considering somebody like Mike Montgomery, who was pretty much spotless over 32 years, with 677 wins -- an average of 27 in his last seven years at Stanford -- and a worthy antagonist of powerful Arizona in Lute Olson’s best years.

So . . . Few?

With Gonzaga’s dazzling 37-2 season, he jumped the 500-win mark and is now 503-113, a win percentage of .8165. That leapfrogs him two spots to No. 4 all-time among NCAA coaches at all levels, behind two legendary figures, No. 3 Adolph Rupp and No. 2 Clair Bee. (No. 1? Wait for it -- Jim Crutchfield, who just resigned as head coach of your Division II West Liberty, W.Va. Hilltoppers to take the job at Nova Southeastern in Florida. His win percentage of .855 might get bruised as he rebuilds Nova’s 6-20 team this season.)

But let’s not get consumed with total victories or win percentage. The West Coast Conference is a victory waiting to happen, at least when you’re not playing Saint Mary’s or BYU.

Here’s what should matter: That Few has been the driving force in a long, sustained, organic movement of Gonzaga from college-basketball nobody to national player, a phenomenon the extent of which hasn’t happened in recent decades in the game. And maybe ever.

It should matter that Gonzaga has now gone to 19 straight NCAA tournaments, tied for sixth on the all-time list. And that in winning games in nine straight tournaments, the Zags sit at No. 10 in history in that metric.

As I wrote in the book “Glory Hounds,” it might take a deeper look at the Gonzaga story than mere win-loss records and percentages to assess Few’s impact. The committee did just that in naming John Chaney in 2001, minus a Final Four but with a major contribution to African-Americans in his job at Temple; and Princeton’s Pete Carril (1997), a figure who never came close to a Final Four but forged an indelible stamp on the game with his strategic concepts.

A Final Four will only help Few’s case. There’s work still to be done. But it seems ever more doable.

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Zag logistics this week: A labor (a lot of it) of love

If you’re the average Gonzaga basketball fan, this Final Four is either about preparing for that long-awaited trip to Phoenix, or perhaps just figuring out where the TV is that you’ll be wedded to Saturday at 3:09 p.m.

And you figure the team . . . well, the team will go on the road, like it always goes on the road, and everything will be per usual, save for the momentousness of the surroundings.

Chris Standiford will tell you it’s not quite like that. He, and other operatives in the Gonzaga athletic department, have the bags under their eyes to prove it.

“I don’t think anybody on our staff has probably gotten more than six hours of sleep in any interval,” he told me Tuesday morning. “You’re living on adrenalin and loving every minute of it.”

Simply put, when a school makes the Final Four, the logistical crush is immense with things you’d never think about -- especially for a non-football-playing school with a smaller athletic staff. At power-five schools, more people can be diverted from their regular gigs to address the demands of a Final Four.

Here’s how it works: The day after teams make the Elite Eight, there’s an hour-long “transition meeting” staged by the NCAA for staffs of the two regional finalists. It’s essentially a primer for what to expect if your team wins the next day.

In “Glory Hounds,” the book I recently released on Gonzaga basketball, GU athletic director Mike Roth laughingly recalled his first of those, when the Zags had upset Florida in 1999 and were about to face Connecticut. The Huskies showed up at that meeting en masse, represented by about a dozen suits.

The Zags, well, you were supposed to bring an AD, sports-information director, travel coordinator and a ticket manager.

“Well, guess what?” Roth said. “We had two of those.”

It was different last week in San Jose. This was GU’s third such transition meeting and GU was ready. Except, Standiford says, if you believe at all in omens, you don’t want to be too invested, too presumptuous. So it’s hard to be all-in.

All-in happened just about the time Standiford had finished hugging a couple of coaches on the floor after GU’s 83-59 victory over Xavier the next day.

“As soon as I turned around,” says Standiford, Roth’s long-time wingman as deputy AD and a Zag alum, “a couple of the NCAA staff were there, saying, ‘Here’s some things to work on right away.’ They know what we don’t know.”

What they don’t know is contained in a “giant binder,” Standiford said, and that’s the staff playbook for this week.

After a 6 a.m. rise Sunday, the work began for Standiford and others in the GU athletic department, people like Kim Vore, associate AD for business operations, whom Standiford calls “a rock star that holds us together.” They christened the week with a 16-hour work day.

Gonzaga serviced about 750 boosters for the regional in San Jose. For this weekend, there are more than 3,000, all taken care of via the athletic department’s priority-points system based on annual giving. Hotel space for boosters is partly funneled through travel packages, but the athletic department has a finger on that pulse and must provide continual updates to hotels to hold or release rooms.

Players’ families also score this weekend. For the third straight year, the NCAA has in place a pilot program that allows for $3,000 per player family to attend the Final Four, $4,000 for the teams making the final game.

Gonzaga compliance staff is administering those parent/family logistics, including credentialing them for a salute event Thursday night, a brunch Saturday, and a slick system whereby they get choice seats for their team’s half of the Saturday doubleheader, then swapping with the other two teams’ family seats.

Coordinating for the band and cheer units is Chris Johnson, associate AD for external operations. Todd Zeidler and Barrett Henderson are heading up media requests, and trust me, there are a ton of them. Friday on site, there are podium interviews with head coach Mark Few and players, and a period of open locker room. Teams have a scheduled “workout” at University of Phoenix Stadium, but it’s not much more than a shootaround; they’ll go off to a gym someplace and do the hard, private business of preparation.

Then there are university-related events, socials, pre-game events. In keeping with Few’s hosanna to the guys who built Gonzaga, there’s a Thursday-night get-together for ex-players.

Standiford sees Few as establishing a businesslike mindset in advance of South Carolina. But at the same time, he says, “He has put a lot of thought and effort into being inclusive and making it a family event.”

Over the years, Standiford has had multiple opportunities to go to a Final Four. But, with the Zags annually in the thing since 1999, and occasionally playing the second weekend, he’s never had a yearning to get on another plane to attend one.

“I’m gonna go as a participant,” he always told friends.

It took a lot of years, but he was as good as his word.

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The Day That Pointed Zags, Oregon to Final Four

Saturday was the most momentous day for Northwest college basketball since, well, when? The afternoon in 1958 at Louisville’s Freedom Hall when Kentucky won the national title over Elgin Baylor-led Seattle University? Maybe March 27, 1939, when Oregon’s Tall Firs claimed the first NCAA championship over Ohio State?

When first Gonzaga marched to its initial Final Four, and then Oregon waylaid Kansas, I couldn’t help but recall what provided the foundation for the entire improbable Saturday. In 2009, the Ducks’ pursuit of Gonzaga coach Mark Few came up empty, Oregon decided to keep struggling coach Ernie Kent (for the time being) and a year later, after a protracted search, the Ducks hired Dana Altman.

“They ratcheted up the pressure hard on that,” Brad Williams, Few’s attorney/agent, told me in “Glory Hounds.” “They had Phil Knight calling. Mark had been on their radar for a long time.”

It’s unlikely either of the 2017 Northwest Final Fours would have come about without Few’s decision to stay put after a meeting with then-Oregon AD Pat Kilkenny at a rather bizarre location. For those who don’t know the story (what, you haven’t bought your copy of “Glory Hounds?” For shame … ), below is the excerpt of the whole scenario:

On an early-spring day in 2009, Mark Few had a mission. He had an important business meeting at an unlikely venue. In fact, it’s safe to say it’s the only time in the history of a nondescript rest stop off Interstate 84 in north-central Oregon that the place has hosted a negotiation that would materially affect the trajectory of two college athletic programs in the Northwest.

Few’s Gonzaga basketball team had just lost to North Carolina in the Sweet 16 and now the routine of postseason housekeeping was upon him. For Few, that frequently has meant entertaining inquiries about vacant jobs. They seem to be nothing he cultivates; the approaches are made to him, by athletic directors – in recent times, more commonly by middlemen – interested in seeing if they could pry Few from his comfortable roost at Gonzaga.

More than half a dozen times, Few has been romanced by programs that have hung national-championship banners. It’s difficult to know definitively how many times he has been those suitors’ No. 1 candidate, but those occasions have been multiple.

By 2009, a decade into Few’s head-coaching tenure, this had become a rite of spring. Front men for Arizona, Indiana, Stanford and UCLA had nosed around, and somehow, Few had rationalized staying at Gonzaga. But now a different force loomed, one with assets unequaled by the others, and this might just be the one to shake Few loose.

The University of Oregon had been trying for some time to uncouple itself from Ernie Kent, in a relationship that reflects the fragile nature of coaching. Kent had been a beloved Oregon player in the Dick Harter era of the 1970s. In 2007, Kent had taken Oregon, a school with a sparse basketball history, to a second Elite Eight in five years. But he had surrounded that latter burst with some fruitless seasons, capped by a last-place, 2-16 finish in the Pac-10 in 2009, and the wolves were baying ominously in Eugene. Through those uneven years, Kent had exhausted capital with boosters in the lingering innuendo related to some personal issues off the floor.

To the northeast, there was another Oregon alumnus who looked like a prime candidate to replace Kent. Few grew up in Creswell, just 10 miles south of Eugene, he had graduated from Oregon, playing pickup games on the courts and ballfields on the UO campus. His parents, Barbara and Norm, had lived in Creswell for half a century.

And then there was the Pat Kilkenny factor. Kilkenny, who made himself a millionaire in the insurance industry in San Diego, was the Oregon athletic director. But he had taken a booster’s route to that chair, and by chance, he had also formed along the way great friendships at Gonzaga, owing to its several coaches with Oregon connections. Kilkenny was sufficiently beneficent to donate to their salaries, and so steadfast that when Zag assistant coaches departed the program to begin their own head-coaching careers, he donated significantly to them, too.

“He’s just an unbelievably benevolent guy,” Few says. “If he didn’t have a cent, he’d be a great friend.”

Behind the scenes, of course, there was Phil Knight, the Nike founder, who had long since befriended Few, and of whom Few says, “Phil, and Nike, really propped this program up. They’ve treated us like the national program it was long before other people came around.”

Even head-slapping happenstance seemed to argue for Few to be headed to Oregon. His Gonzaga team, a No. 4 seed in the 2009 NCAA basketball tournament, was sent to Portland for first- and second-round games, where the host school was none other than Oregon. So as the Zags were toppling Akron in their first game, there at one end of the scorer’s table as one of the regional’s hosts was Kilkenny, stationed close enough to the Gonzaga bench to hear Few mapping instructions during timeouts.

It all seemed perfect, too perfect not to happen.

Until it didn’t.

This wasn’t like many of the advances on Few by other schools, which don’t get past Brad Williams, the Spokane attorney who acts as his agent. This was Kilkenny, and he deserved a more personal hearing.

So they drove, Kilkenny and Few, to meet at a predetermined spot. For Few, it was a four-hour haul, west on I-90, down State Route 395 and then west on I-84. It was as clandestine as clandestine gets – “sunglasses and hats on,” Few says.

At a turnout off the freeway, Few had his come-to-Jesus meeting with Kilkenny. They talked and they talked some more – three hours’ worth, as Few recalls. In front of them, the Columbia River surged to the sea, flush with the winter’s record snowpack.

Kilkenny tried. Oh, how he tried. But in the end, what seemed so right . . . just wasn’t right.

The Fews’ fourth child, Colt, was only three months old. The other kids were settled in their schools. Marcy Few, his wife, was busy with a prominent role in the local Coaches Versus Cancer campaign. But more than anything, the way Mark Few viewed Oregon was the same as he viewed all those other opportunities. He had a better gig.

“I just wasn’t feeling it,” Few says.

Few couldn’t pull the trigger. In his mind, it just never lined up. Yes, there was a new arena on the way at Oregon, but it was going to be a 12,000-seat-plus hulk difficult to fill to capacity, a factor with its own pressures.

Yes, Oregon was fueled heavily by Knight’s largesse. But as a basketball force, it could get lost among other Pac-10 schools like Arizona and UCLA. There was no consistent talent pool in the lightly populated state.

“I never, ever felt that job was better than this one,” Few says, sitting behind his desk at the McCarthey Athletic Center. “Still don’t.”

In the end, Oregon, the place that was finally going to lure Few, became like all the other schools that approached him. In the end, Few made the decision to live in a place where his rustic home on 10 acres has mountain views to the northeast; where the drive to work is a skosh over 10 minutes; where rivers and lakes abound for his fishing jones; where, every year, you go to the NCAA tournament; and where your public obligations to boosters are under control.

The money could be greater elsewhere. But what can you do with four million dollars that you can’t do with two?

It seems inescapable: Dude’s got it figured out.
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Zags and Few make magic

Final Four. Gonzaga’s Final Four. It seems so incongruous, such a non sequitur.

But there they were late Saturday afternoon in San Jose, the Zags body-bumping, slipping on celebratory T-shirts and ball caps, wearing grins as wide as Hamilton Street in Spokane, where the hoo-rayin’ at Jack and Dan’s must be over the moon right about now.

Gonzaga 83, Xavier 59, which, among other things, was an affirmation of the work Zags coach Mark Few did to reach the program’s first Final Four, which will silence the naysayers at least until Sunday, at which point they’ll begin to cackle that he hasn’t won a national title.

All the fretfulness, all the fits and starts of the first three games of the tournament -- the early deficits against South Dakota State, the late-game officiating controversy against Northwestern, the bar fight that was the West Virginia victory -- suddenly were flushed away in shockingly torrential fashion against Xavier.

That Gonzaga could play so well, not seize up with the magnitude of the moment in such an apocalyptic game, has to spring from Few. In a year in which he has picked up a couple of national coach-of-the-year awards, it was the latest in a lengthy series of victories.

Think about the makeup of the team that a year ago lost to Syracuse in a disheartening, late-game breakdown in the Sweet 16. That club was dominated by Kyle Wiltjer and Domas Sabonis, with a load of athleticism from Eric McClellan and some glue from Kyle Dranginis.

At that point, Nigel Williams-Goss was in a boot, recovering from ankle surgery midway through a redshirt season. Johnathan Williams III, also redshirting after transferring from Missouri, was amid strength coach Travis Knight’s school of tedious body-shaping sessions in the weight room.

Jordan Mathews wasn’t even a rumor yet. The Cal transfer didn’t visit until Hoopfest weekend in late June.

Ultimately, Few melded all those abilities. He persuaded Josh Perkins, whom Few had personally recruited tirelessly, that he could still flourish with Williams-Goss dominating the ball. And he squeezed some rogue tendencies from Williams-Goss’ game, leftovers, perhaps, from his free-lancing days at Washington.

He orchestrated those spokes to revolve around the hub of Karnowski, who sat out almost the entire 2015-16 season and eventually required back surgery, so he didn’t hit a basketball floor to play in his new surroundings until sometime well into summer.

And yet, Few, aided by assistants Tommy Lloyd, Donny Daniels and Brian Michaelson, made it all look seamless. The Zags strode to an unbeaten non-league record, therein beating Florida (now in the Elite Eight), Iowa State (Big 12 tournament winner) and Arizona (granted, without Allonzo Trier).

Before long, as the Zags were smothering the outclassed West Coast Conference, they were ranked No. 1, which, of course, augured a whole ‘nother level of national scrutiny. Nobody seems to inspire as much derision as these guys, typified by CBS’ Wally Szczerbiak’s Selection Sunday observation: “I don’t trust them.”

Surely, Gonzaga’s trek through the first four games of the NCAA tournament weren’t always artful. It shot sub-40 percent against South Dakota State, and after a blistering first half against Northwestern, retreated as the national-darling Wildcats menaced in the second half. Then came West Virginia, and a game of survival pocked down the stretch by Mathews’ memorable three-point dagger and a Gonzaga defense that choked off the Mountaineers on their last possessions.

That brought Gonzaga to Xavier, which had swatted aside Maryland, Florida State and Arizona. Yeah, the Musketeers were an 11th seed, but that’s a four-month portfolio. The real-time snapshot was a team that had bludgeoned third-seed Florida State by 25 and taken out Pac-12 champion Arizona in the Sweet 16.

The pressure on the Zags was thus immense, no matter that they had reached a second Elite Eight in three seasons. This would be labeled choking, of course, if they didn’t advance. One Seattle radio host on Friday staked out what remaining anti-Zag turf could be found: They were meeting a No. 11 seed, after having disposed of a 16 and a 4. So the naysayers could have it both ways: If they lost, they were folding again. If they won, well, it was a primrose path.

It would have been possible for Gonzaga to freeze in the moment, and indeed, when Perkins threw a lazy bounce pass on GU’s first possession, hijacked and dunked by Xavier, it was briefly ominous. But shortly, Perkins threw in a couple of threes, and his teammates joined him, and Gonzaga seemed to be playing free and easy and mostly enjoying the whole afternoon.

They didn’t defend much in the first half, getting beat off the bounce, which caused their big men to get in foul trouble. So Few and Co. dusted off a zone defense, which the Zags had employed rarely this year (but had also trotted out against West Virginia). And it seemed to work.

Along the way, Gonzaga limited one of the tournament’s sensations, Trevon Bluiett, to a mere 10 points on 3-of-14 shooting.

In the end, the Zags made 12 of 24 threes, when they were just 16 of 56 in the tournament’s first three games. They looked a lot like the team that was the rage of January and most of February.

It was a credit to a lot of people, none more than Mark Few. After all the brickbats, he's due a few bouquets.

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Zag NCAA notions, doorstep edition


So this is it for Gonzaga: A stone-cold, straight-up golden opportunity to get to the Final Four. Awaiting the Zags Saturday at 3:09 Pacific is 11th-seeded Xavier, which took down Arizona Thursday night in San Jose, just after Gonzaga had out-steeled West Virginia, 61-58.

Given how persistent the narrative that the Zags haven’t yet attained a Final Four, the prospect is tantalizing -- yet fraught with peril. Playing a No. 11 seed almost makes it look too easy, but it cannot be, not when Xavier has taken out three power-conference programs to get this far, not when it blew to pieces third-seeded Florida State in the second round, not when it denied Arizona, a team a lot of folks figured would be too much for Gonzaga in the Elite Eight.

But it’s right there for the Zags, a weighty eight-point favorite against the Musketeers, who have their own formidable history in the tournament in the last generation.

Random thoughts, notions and factoids in advance of the Zags’ second round-of-eight appearance in three seasons:

-- It’s hard to overstate how gutty was the victory over the Mountaineers, who have to rank among the hardest teams in the country to overcome in terms of sheer ability to force opponents into a style far removed from their comfort zone. For instance, foul trouble Gonzaga prompted the Zags to play multiple possessions of zone defense in the waning moments of both halves, and I can’t immediately remember any zone GU has played all season. This must be the least zone-dependent Zag team in 19 years of NCAA tournaments.

-- Jordan Mathews’ late three takes its place in a small pantheon of famous Gonzaga shots, perhaps just behind Casey Calvary’s renowned tip-in that sank Florida at the same juncture of the tournament in GU’s initializing run of 1999. This one, ironically, was set up by WVU’s pressing, overplaying style -- and Nigel Williams-Goss’ determination to push the ball up the floor after a rebound. Without the Mountaineers’ hounding concentration on Williams-Goss, there likely would never have been a clean perimeter look in those telling late moments, because they weren’t there most of the game.

-- Gonzaga has simply owned West Virginia and Bob Huggins, going 4-0 in the past five years, including a 23-point demolition in the first round of the NCAA tournament in 2012 -- in Pittsburgh, just 78 miles from the WVU campus.

-- It was a bar fight of a game, probably not surprising given the top-five defensive prowess of the two teams, and while WVU’s frenetic defense gets headlines, it was Gonzaga’s half-court defense that produced the big number. Against its Big 12 foes both in league games and the conference tournament, West Virginia shot .441; it hit 26.7 against Gonzaga. And in the four West Virginia-Gonzaga games since 2012, the Mountaineers shot a combined, skimpy .311.

-- I recall a conversation with GU assistant coach Tommy Lloyd many weeks ago, in which he said of freshman forward Rui Hachimura, “We think he can help us,” meaning late in this season. The athletic Hachimura’s development has been slow, but sure enough, he played four minutes of the first half. The contribution was negligible, but on a night when Gonzaga committed 26 fouls (including four by all three starting guards), Hachimura was able to spell Johnathan Williams III when he sat in the first half.

-- In three NCAA games, the Zags have only sporadically shown the stuff that propelled them to the top of computer rankings and the polls -- haltingly, in the second half of the South Dakota State game and the first half of the Northwestern game. But nobody said this was going to be Swan Lake.

-- Given the late-season struggles of Josh Perkins (whose late block of Nathan Adrian was huge), it’s more than a little surprising Gonzaga has flourished despite a sub-par tournament from Williams-Goss. His numbers: 12 for 42 from the field (.286), 10 assists, nine turnovers, but 22 rebounds.

-- Some Xavier numbers: In KenPom analytics, the Musketeers are No. 29 in offense, 67th in defense and 229th in tempo. They shoot 46 percent (88th nationally), allow .449 (230th), and have a healthy 6.2 rebound margin. They foul a lot, ranking 309th in fewest fouls, and at .691, don’t shoot free throws particularly well. Their season took a bad turn Jan. 29 with a knee injury to point guard Edmond Sumner, and they had a six-game losing streak in latter February.

-- Assuming the payout per “unit” -- one game’s advancement in the tournament -- is similar to last season (about $260,000) the Zags have banked some $4.8 million for the West Coast Conference over the NCAA’s rolling six-year window, split among the league members. Combined with Saint Mary’s at-large berth and victory, that number comes to about $8 million, so people around the WCC ought to be pleased. The four WCC victories in the NCAA is the most by the league since San Francisco’s national-title runs in both 1955-56.
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Inside the Zags' secret sauce . . .


A few days before Christmas, on a mostly deserted Gonzaga campus, I ran into Ken Bone, the former Seattle Pacific, Portland State and Washington State head coach. In a brief chat having to do with his special assistant’s role to GU coach Mark Few, Bone stopped me with an observation about the Gonzaga program.

He talked about chemistry and cohesiveness and camaraderie.

But it didn’t have to do with the players.

Most such discussions deal with the roster -- whether players get along, whether they’re unselfish, whether they’re focused first on getting their allotment of shots, whether they’re apt to want to be together off the floor.
Those are vitally important questions. But Bone -- essentially observing and advising in his year with the GU program -- was talking about something entirely different: Chemistry among the coaches.

“From what I’ve seen at Gonzaga, you have a group of coaches that know and accept each other’s roles,” he said, volunteering the thought without prompting. “There are different roles that need to be played, whether it’s on the practice court, or in a timeout, or in recruiting. They support each other. You can see the respect they have for each other. It’s really critical.”

Interesting thought. And no doubt an underrated one. There’s a natural inclination to examine closely the relationship players have with each other, and with their head coach, but we tend to accept as a given that the coaching staff has no hidden agendas -- that it naturally purrs along like a Ferrari.

To hear Bone tell it, we shouldn’t take it for granted.

“I don’t see any competition between staff members,” he said. “That can easily creep in there, too, sometimes.”

Makes sense. Assistants might be trying to carve out their own territory, bent on buffing their resume for their own head-coaching future. They might be trying to curry favor with the head coach to wedge out a more favorable position for a job recommendation.

The dynamics may be subtle, but the effect can be profound. Bone talked about the ways a fragile staff chemistry can infiltrate the team culture.

A given assistant usually has primary responsibility on a particular recruit. Once those players are infused into the program, an upwardly mobile assistant might try to argue for his player against that of another assistant “and try to manipulate certain conversations,” Bone says. “I’ve seen it happen.

“For example, we might be sitting with the staff before a game, talking about individuals, who might start, who might get X amount of minutes, do we need to get the ball inside. There’s opportunities for guys to manipulate those conversations.

“It appears to me there’s absolutely no hidden agenda. I just feel it’s all about what they need to do to win the game. I know that sounds simple, but I’ve seen the other side of it, and heard many stories -- like in any business. Certain people have their own agenda.”

When those agendas take hold, says Bone, the schism becomes apparent to players. If they sense that one assistant’s voice resonates more loudly and another’s isn’t respected, they pick up on it.

“That’s something that can splinter teams,” Bone says.

I remember something Tommy Lloyd, the longtime Zag assistant, told me while I was interviewing him for “Glory Hounds.” In the course of asking him about how involved he was recruiting specific players on the roster, he said, “We don’t keep score.”

Bone views the coaching collegiality as a natural extension -- or perhaps the progenitor -- of the player chemistry for which Gonzaga has been renowned.
“I feel it’s Mark’s decision in hiring the right type of people,” Bone said.

Referring to recruiting, he adds, “I’ve heard them talk about certain kids: ‘We’re not going to touch that kid; he doesn’t fit our culture.’ Or, ‘He’s a Zag.’ “

A couple of other components in the shaping of Gonzaga culture have become obvious to Bone. Few, he says, is deft at keeping a finger on the pulse of player emotions and feelings, knowing how to keep them engaged. Sometimes, that means just telling them to stay away from social media, which might be obsessing with the player’s recent shooting slump.

“They’re in continual communication with these players,” said Bone.

Another element that plays into the tightness of the enterprise is the sheer proximity of players to the nerve center of their existence. The campus is small, and just about every player lives within walking distance. There’s not a lot of need for a vehicle. They can usually get into the gym when they want. By contrast, Bone has been around programs where some players actually lived in different cities.

It calls to mind a conversation I had with Dan Dickau when he decided to leave Washington. Everything was so stretched out, every trip to Hec Edmundson Pavilion a production. He couldn’t get there on a whim. And because of that, basketball couldn’t be as important as it needed to be for him.

None of this, of course, will help the Zags bring the ball up the floor safety Thursday night against West Virginia in the Sweet 16. Still, it’s part of the formula, and it’s hard to argue Gonzaga hasn’t made it work.
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The new UW hire and Seattle city hoops


So the University of Washington has hired longtime Syracuse assistant Mike Hopkins, which is, at the very least, a provocative hire. Among other things, it tells me that UW athletic director Jennifer Cohen had been working this transition for awhile. You don’t just decide to fire Lorenzo Romar after the Huskies’ 13th straight loss in the Pac-12 tournament, and then commence a national search which lands on somebody other than a head coach.

At minimum, Cohen was working back channels days and weeks ago. Maybe about the time Gonzaga’s Przemek Karnowski rumbled down the floor and got behind the insouciant Husky defense for a layup in the Zags’ easy victory early in December.

Although Hopkins had been a candidate for other jobs on the West Coast, it’s an out-of-the-box hire. I went back through half a century of UW basketball appointments (six of them), and in every case at least since Mac Duckworth coached in the ‘60s, Washington always named a sitting head coach to the position. So it’s a bold move on Cohen’s part, and she deserves props for not doing the rote, pat thing, which is hiring the coach who happens to be making a hot NCAA-tournament run in front of millions of TV viewers who normally couldn’t tell you what state Purdue is in.

Still, it’s fraught with questions, partly for the same reason. There are major unknowns about any assistant coach.

To me, one of the most intriguing ones is the long-term fate of the abundant talent pool in Seattle. Of course, that’s a dynamic that directly impacts Gonzaga.

As I documented in “Glory Hounds,” (chapter 10), the Seattle inner-city market has remained mostly closed to Gonzaga, except on the rebound with transfers from Washington like Dan Dickau, Erroll Knight and Nigel Williams-Goss. It’s a confounding fact that the Zags have done more business in Chicago (Jeremy Pargo, Zach Norvell) than they have in recent years with high school kids in Seattle.

The Zags, and others, explain it as: Only a percentage of the available talent fits what Gonzaga does. And only a percentage of that group is interested in Gonzaga.

I can’t guess what goes through the minds of 18-year-olds, but my sense is that to most Seattle kids, Gonzaga is still an outlier in their world, no matter that the Zags have far outdistanced the Huskies as a basketball program.

Casey Calvary, the productive Gonzaga forward from Tacoma on teams that started this 19-year, NCAA-tournament streak, told me for Glory Hounds, “Dragging a Seattle kid away from the UW . . . they’ll go to the UW even though they know it’s a bad basketball decision. Like, ‘This is my town, all my buddies are around here, I’m a Seattle guy.’ ’’

I think Calvary hit the nail on the head. Yes, the UW is a powerful force in Seattle. Yes, the Huskies have put a flock of players into the NBA. And yes, Romar was a role-model figure skilled at recruiting.

In some cases, to choose the UW became the path of least resistance. After two waves of success keyed by people like Brandon Roy and Isaiah Thomas, the Huskies weren’t winning big (and in recent years, weren’t winning at all), but a recruit could rationalize: I can change that losing. And I can get to the NBA. And, at the very least, I’m with my homies.

The culture is thick, and dare I say, occasionally suffocating.

Years ago, Washington State got a summertime commitment from Mark McLaughlin from suburban Inglemoor High. Within a month, McLaughlin -- who would go on to an itinerant career that landed him briefly at Washington -- had bailed on the commitment. WSU’s staff, then under Tony Bennett, believed McLaughlin’s AAU buddies had dogged him for choosing a place that wasn’t hip.

Gary Bell Jr., who had a rock-solid career at Gonzaga, used to say that he got the same inquisition from AAU teammates and rivals in Seattle.

When Daejon Davis decommitted from Washington for a period and began canvassing other schools, one of the places he visited was Gonzaga. The Zags’ staff was of the opinion, gained either from Davis himself or by impression, that Washington was out of the picture. It wasn’t; he recommitted to the Huskies.

Under Romar, the trend of gaining recruits -- both local and national -- and losing games became almost unfathomable. Earlier this season, I researched the past 10 NBA drafts and discovered that Markelle Fultz will become the seventh Husky in that timeframe to be a first-round pick and not play in the NCAA tournament in the year in which he was drafted. Incredibly, no other school in the country had more than two.

Until Romar was cashiered last week, I was ready to forecast that Corey Kispert, the Gonzaga wing recruit from King’s High just north of Seattle, would leave a greater mark on his college program than Michael Porter Jr. would at Washington. Wherever Porter ends up, whether Missouri or elsewhere, let’s ride that proposition out.

Now it’s Hopkins’ job to retain the local talent. He has a reputation as a good recruiter, albeit minus Romar’s godfather persona in Seattle. The guess is, he’ll succeed with city kids. And Gonzaga will keep being Gonzaga.

Old habits die hard. If it does happen, maybe Hopkins will actually win with those guys.
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That old national sport: Hating on Gonzaga


Ah, it's that time of year. Brackets, buzzer-beaters, chaos.

And of course, hating on Gonzaga.

Now, everybody who finds his name on the 68-team bracket can talk himself into a perceived slight. There’s so much buzz and blather over the tournament, it’s inevitable that in some form, just about everyone can convince himself he's been wronged.

But nobody seems to get bruised in this arena quite like the Zags, and to a certain extent, they have only themselves to blame. By working themselves into a position of national acclaim, by gaining their second No. 1 seed in four years, they’ve exposed themselves to scrutiny, which is eminently fair.

And the fact they haven’t attained a Final Four only adds to the microscope under which their credentials are parsed.

“I just don’t believe in this team,” said Wally Szczerbiak, the ex-NBA player analyzing for CBS Sports Network. “I don’t trust them.”

We’d never have known, Wally. Referring to Arizona’s draw in the West Region, with Gonzaga as the top seed, Szczerbiak said, “That’s a break. (‘Zona coach) Sean Miller is, I think, ecstatic with this draw.”

Szczerbiak’s sidekick, another former NBA forward, Danny Granger, is similarly skeptical. Referring to possible roadblocks to the Zags’ bid for a first Final Four, he said, “It could be anybody that’s playing well.”

How deep-seated is the anti-Gonzaga burn? Listen to what Mike DeCourcy, Sporting News college basketball writer, said (a bit bemusedly) on a podcast late in February:

“People hate them more . . . people hate them like they hate big oil, big banks and the Dallas Cowboys. Gonzaga has become college basketball’s most prominent target.”

About then, CBS analyst and Sports Illustrated writer Seth Davis penned a few paragraphs on the Zags, touching it off with this: “Every year, the Zags seem to steamroll their way through something called the West Coast Conference, only to get bounced early from the NCAA tournament.”

Really? A year ago, Gonzaga, an 11th seed, took down Seton Hall, tournament winner of the Big East (which produced the 2016 national champion), by 16 points. And then it demolished No. 3 seed Utah. This, a year after Gonzaga went to the Elite Eight before losing to eventual champion Duke.

(Davis went on to temper that sentence, but still, it was a strange thesis statement.)

On Feb. 24, USA Today chimed in on the Zags: “Sure, there’s room for skepticism, considering the Bulldogs have famously underachieved in the NCAAs.”

True, Gonzaga has left wins on the table in the NCAA tournament, especially as a high seed. It’s also true the Zags are 15-3 in first-round games since 1999. And since the 2010 tournament, they’ve been a No. 7 seed or poorer five times, and won at least a game in every case.

Except for Szczerbiak’s and Granger’s, the aforementioned commentary came when Gonzaga was still undefeated, and with the tournament revving up in earnest Thursday morning, it reinforces to me that the defeat to Brigham Young Feb. 25 was indeed a good thing, bitter as it was at the time for GU. This week’s endless analysis – bracket shows, analytics, prediction chatter, Boeheim vs. Greensboro – only underscores how glaring the spotlight would have been on Gonzaga had it been advancing through the tournament with 33, 34, 35 victories without a single loss. It would have been the surpassing national story, with nothing else even close, at least until LaVar Ball opens his mouth again.

Now the Zags are a mere garden-variety No. 1 seed, absorbing potshots.
So this is the week, it says here, they can begin answering.

I think there are perhaps three reasons why this is Gonzaga’s best team, and the third one has to do with all the daggers aimed its way. My sense is, this team has been hauling around a massive chip on its shoulder – a direct result of the doubters. You can see it in player comments and on the floor.

Unrelated to that, it has a greater overall level of talent than any previous Gonzaga team. It can bring two NBA-level (at some point, at least) players in Zach Collins and Killian Tillie off the bench.

And it’s Gonzaga’s best defensive team, ranking No. 2 in KenPom’s advanced analytics.

Will all of that matter? We’ll see shortly. Either the Zags perform, or they face a lot more March Meanness.
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Zag fans want the whole enchilada

So I was listening to a Seattle sports-talk radio show a couple of weeks ago, and the host posed a hypothetical question to his audience about Gonzaga men's basketball and the NCAA tournament.

Two options for GU fans: One, you could choose a guaranteed run to the Final Four, but only with the stipulation that you'd lose in the national semifinals in Glendale, Ariz. Or, the second option is, you roll the dice, take your chances and try to win the whole ball of wax -- knowing that you might not even make it to the second weekend.

I was surprised at the choice of the show's co-hosts, who were in agreement. Before spoiling the outcome for you, let me relate a story from last week.

I spoke to the Spokane County Bar Assn. on Friday, and, curious about how those luncheon attendees might weigh in on the subject, I ran the proposition by them: Take the bird in the hand (the guaranteed Final Four) or go for the gusto and a shot at winning it all.

There were 50-60 people in the audience. At the mention of the first proposition, one fellow sort of half-raised his hand, looked around and then lowered it, seemingly a little sheepishly.

On the latter proposition, maybe 30 people raised their hands readily. (As for the disparity between that number and the total attendees, I had stipulated it should be a matter for Zag fans and supporters.)

Fair to say, I was pretty shocked. If I were in the shoes of a Gonzaga fan, I would take the guaranteed Final Four. Obviously, the Zags have never accomplished that, and there's so much nasty narrative about it nationally, I'd view it as a first-things-first approach. I think when Gonzaga finally does get to a Final Four, it will not only puncture the criticism on that front, but enhance the appreciation for what the program has accomplished. And no, I don't necessarily see this season as one in which it's as good as it will ever get at Gonzaga.

Having said that, I understand the let-it-ride philosophy and the belief that if this is a special team, it needs to be allowed to try to fulfill a dream. One of those luncheon attendees told me later the vote was a sign that people don't care about that segment of national dialogue that questions Gonzaga.

By the way, the radio hosts on that show I mentioned were in accord with the folks at the luncheon -- go for the gold.

So mine would apparently be the opinion of a small minority. That ain't the first time.
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