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Zags' offense even better than it looks

thread
Heard a TV announcer the other night note that Gonzaga was No. 4 in the nation in shooting percentage. Which elicited nothing much more than a “Meh.”

After all, two recent Zag squads – the 2019 Elite Eight team eliminated by Texas Tech, and the 2015 team ousted by Duke in the round of eight – led the nation in shooting, at .526 and .520, respectively.

At any rate, the citation of No. 4 led me to a deeper dive into shooting percentages, and this is the inescapable conclusion: Gonzaga is right now running spectacular offense, something far more revealing than a declaration that they’re No. 4 in the country in shooting.

Let’s start here: The Zags are no longer No. 4, but tops in the nation, thanks to having shot 60.3 percent against Dixie State Tuesday night.

So they’re fattening up on tomato cans, right? Ah, not so much. Against the five Power Six schools vanquished by GU – Kansas, Auburn, West Virginia, Iowa and Virginia – the Zags are shooting .5535, or just a tick under their nation-leading figure of .557. Their shooting percentage hasn’t really depended on whom they’re playing.

Another number of note: The next-highest school in the rankings that plays big-time basketball is Illinois, which is No. 8 at 53.1. To illustrate that point, the current runnerup to GU is Murray State at 55.6. Murray’s ranking got off to a boffo start against Division III Greenville University of Illinois, whom the Racers beat by the ludicrous score of 173-95, hitting 77 of 105 shots for a .733 percentage.

Given the trend in 2020-21, you’d have to say the Zags’ number has a fighting chance of staying relatively steady around 55 percent. And a traipse through the record book reflects what a remarkable number that would be.

Not since Duke’s 1992 national champions – 29 years ago – has a national leader in shooting percentage hit the 53-percent mark. As recently as a four-year stretch from 2011-14, the national leader shot only 50 and a fraction.

Meanwhile, a broad look at history is intriguing. The best years for shooting percentage came in the 1980s, topped by the NCAA record-holder, Missouri, in 1979-80. That year, absurdly, each of their top five Tiger scorers shot no worse than .541 – and three of them surpassed .600. Oddly, the leader, big man Steve Stipanovich, the No. 2 overall pick in the 1983 NBA draft, wasn’t one of them. The team shot .572.

Through the ‘80s, the national leader never dipped below 54 percent and frequently bobbed up to 56.

But in 1986-87 came the three-point shot. And while its impact wasn’t convulsive immediately, in time it became a serious weapon. Volume shooters by proponents like Rick Pitino coaxed more teams into buying in, and while that bumped up metrics like effective field-goal percentage, it dropped actual shooting percentages.

Other factors weighed against shooters and in favor of improved scouting, like Synergy Sports Technology, a service providing instant cut-ups of opponent offenses or individuals’ tendencies.

For much of this century, freshmen have exited for the NBA after one season, often in which they were unrefined players but prized for their potential.

Shooting percentages have thus stagnated. In fact, Gonzaga’s .526 of 2019 is the highest number since Florida had the same when it repeated a national championship in 2007.

What happens now for Gonzaga? Is the rarefied percentage sustainable? One number would seem to argue that it is: Despite a couple of phenomenal individual games – Jalen Suggs against Iowa and Corey Kispert against Virginia – GU is shooting only .346 from three-point range. Surely the ceiling is higher.

With league play starting this weekend, there are competing arguments for the overall shooting outlook. GU’s percentage could rise, given that most of the teams on its WCC schedule aren’t the equal of the Power Six teams it has dispatched. Or, there’s the fact that conference brethren know each other better, and especially by the rematch games, they’ve brainstormed ways to slow down offenses.

But if that Gonzaga number hovers near 55 percent, history will tell us what we can see with our own eyes: The Zags’ offense is something else.
#zagmbb #wccsports #theslipperstillfits #unitedwezag #zagup

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If the Zags beat Virginia, cue the hosannas

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About the time Gonzaga had rained its 10th trey in the first half against Iowa the other day in South Dakota, Mark Titus of FoxSports tweeted this: “With respect to Baylor, I’m ready to officially declare this a Gonzaga-versus-the-field season.”

Dana O’Neil of The Athletic chimed in: “Not as good defensively, but remind me of Villanova, circa 2018. Dudes everywhere.”

Let's rewind. One can trace the arc of Gonzaga basketball – golden age – in half a dozen or so escalators:

-- 1999-2001: The breakthrough.

-- 2006: Adam Morrison mania.

-- 2013: First No. 1 ranking.

-- 2013: First No. 1 NCAA-tournament seed.

-- 2017: First Final Four.

-- 2020: First preseason AP No. 1 ranking.

And now, if the Zags can get through the week unbeaten – which means surviving the clutches of Virginia the day after Christmas – here comes the Adulation Phase, full-on.

Gary Parrish of CBS Sports outlined how that one sets up: “Yep, it would mean that Gonzaga would stop being talked about as just the favorite to win the national title and start being discussed as a legitimate candidate to become the first undefeated national champion since Indiana in 1976. And, at this point, it would neither be a premature or inappropriate conversation.”

That’s a mouthful. Anybody buying into that belief assumes the Zags can walk not only the inevitable NCAA-tournament minefields like Baylor, Villanova and Tennessee, but even the WCC traps like BYU, which (a) has spoiled a Gonzaga unbeaten season before (in 2017), and (b) is good enough to have throttled San Diego State on the road.

Of course, there will always be the but-they-don’t-play-anybody caterwaulers when the Zags enter the Portland/San Diego part of their schedule, but currently, that argument loses a little juice since Gonzaga has already dispatched the Nos. 3 (Kansas), 4 (Iowa) and 7 (West Virginia) teams in the nation. If today were Selection Sunday, there’s no question Gonzaga would be the overall top seed.

And remember this: Gonzaga overcame West Virginia with Jalen Suggs limited to 26 minutes and four points by a bad ankle, and the Zags pretty much boat-raced Iowa despite a Covid-caused, practice-crimping 17-day interregnum since the previous game.

Perhaps there’s a subtle, subconscious affection for the Zags for this attribute: They play a pleasing style that flatters the game – fast, purposeful, at times overpowering in its efficiency.

Not to say there aren’t concerns. Gonzaga’s inside game right now consists basically of Drew Timme. Oumar Ballo was overmatched Saturday against Luka Garza, and no shame there. Ballo could have benefitted greatly from the four “buy” games that were scrubbed during the Covid layoff.

Against Iowa, Timme and Corey Kispert fouled out, and Iowa was about a Zag turnover away from making GU's win perilous.

Moreover, since it’s 2020, it's always worth mentioning that the narrative can never stray too far from the coronavirus.

Over the years, there have been any number of teams that have entered that Indiana-1976 conversation without success – prominently UNLV, upset in the 1991 national semis to Duke; and as recently as last year, when San Diego State made it to late February before losing.

But if the Zags surmount Virginia – and that’s a delicious matchup, simply for the stylistic contrast – here come the bouquets. The national conversation about Gonzaga is going to be intense and for GU, unprecedented.

And just maybe, deserved.


#zagmbb #wccsports #theslipperstillfits #unitedwezag #zagup

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The Huskies, listing badly, put a new twist on the Gonzaga series

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Saturday, Dec. 12 was going to be the day Gonzaga renewed its basketball series with Washington. But that was back about a jillion months ago (seemingly), and several permutations of the ever-evolving basketball schedule.

Of course, that game was a fall casualty to Pac-12 dictates. And as it turns out, it likely would have fallen victim to the Zags’ decision to pause for a week while it (hopefully) shoos the Covid-19 virus out of the program.

You know how we got here – as in, the weirdness of 2020. But how we got to the fact there are currently another three games left in the Washington-Gonzaga series, takes some explaining.

And just maybe, it ought to take some reconsideration from the Zags.

Let’s backtrack. When I wrote “Glory Hounds” back in 2016, Zags coach Mark Few made it pretty clear he was less than lukewarm about some regional rivalries, in contrast to much of his fan base.

The Zags checked out of the series with Washington State after the 2015-16 season, following a squeeze play by Gonzaga that resulted in WSU’s home game in 2014-15 being moved to Spokane Arena.

The arcs of the two programs made it hard to argue with Few. The Cougars were a drag on Gonzaga’s computer rankings. They epitomized the everything-to-lose-nothing-to-gain proposition.

Few ruminated that the Huskies were falling into that same category. Remember, the last years of Lorenzo Romar’s tenure resulted in regular, double-digit beatdowns by the Zags.

Closer to home, when Few weighed in for the book, the Zags were amid an eight-year hiatus from the series with Eastern Washington. The two programs met last season.

I wrote then that the scissoring of the WSU series was justified. The Cougars went 22-68 in conference games in the five-year run of Ernie Kent, and there was simply nothing in it for Gonzaga. But the Huskies hadn’t bottomed out like that consistently, and I felt that series was worth continuing; the talent level was going to keep Washington at least on a respectable level.

Well, a couple of odd things have happened. Notwithstanding Few’s reluctance, the Gonzaga-Washington series was extended a year or so ago through the 2023-24 season.

And suddenly, it’s the Huskies who are looking like the potential anchor on Gonzaga’s profile in future years.

Meanwhile, the Cougars seem to be on a positive trajectory under second-year coach Kyle Smith, who has fit into the culture; gotten a victory in the Pac-12 tournament, something that somehow hadn’t happened at WSU in a decade; and attracted a top-35 freshman class to Pullman.

If Gonzaga is inclined to view these relationships as fluid, there’s not a lot to say right now that the Cougars aren’t more of a potential force than the Huskies.

Why do business with Washington? It’s possible one rationale for keeping a tie to the UW is that with the Battle in Seattle in limbo with the renovation of KeyArena, meeting the Huskies on Montlake every other year provides GU exposure on the west side. Another is the appearance of a warmer relationship between Few and UW coach Mike Hopkins than was the case with Few and Romar.

But right now, the UW program is teetering. The Huskies finished last in the Pac-12 in 2020 and appear a solid candidate to repeat in ’20-21. Last year, it was the academic ineligibility of guard Quade Green that torpedoed the UW. Now, swingman Naz Carter is gone in the wake of allegations of sexual assault. So, two years in a row, a player betrayed the program.

It’s instructive to look at a confounding big picture with UW basketball. This is a program planted in a city rightly renowned for its basketball talent. Yet, over a generation’s time, for all the talk about the “206,” etc., etc., the best the Huskies have done is get to the Sweet 16 (three times).

When Isaiah Stewart and Jaden McDaniels went in the recent NBA draft, it meant this: Since 2007, the Huskies have had nine first-round NBA draft picks who didn’t get to the NCAA tournament in the year they were selected. Next-highest number nationally is three (Indiana, Syracuse), and the only adjective I can think of for that is “stupefying.” No program has frittered away high-end talent like Washington. (Obviously, there was no NCAA tournament in ’20, but at 15-17, the Huskies weren’t going there.)

This isn’t a recommendation to erase any Gonzaga rivalry; fans tend to love them, for good reason.

But if GU is going to assess these rivalries periodically – and it has – the Huskies are making a good argument to reassess.
#zagmbb #wccsports #zagup #theslipperstillfits #unitedwezag

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The Huskies, listing badly, put a new twist on the Gonzaga series

thread
Saturday, Dec. 12 was going to be the day Gonzaga renewed its basketball series with Washington. But that was back about a jillion months ago (seemingly), and several permutations of the ever-evolving basketball schedule.

Of course, that game was a fall casualty to Pac-12 dictates. And as it turns out, it likely would have fallen victim to the Zags’ decision to pause for a week while it (hopefully) shoos the Covid-19 virus out of the program.

You know how we got here – as in, the weirdness of 2020. But how we got to the fact there are currently another three games left in the Washington-Gonzaga series, takes some explaining.

And just maybe, it ought to take some reconsideration from the Zags.

Let’s backtrack. When I wrote “Glory Hounds” back in 2016, Zags coach Mark Few made it pretty clear he was less than lukewarm about some regional rivalries, in contrast to much of his fan base.

The Zags checked out of the series with Washington State after the 2015-16 season, following a squeeze play by Gonzaga that resulted in WSU’s home game in 2014-15 being moved to Spokane Arena.

The arcs of the two programs made it hard to argue with Few. The Cougars were a drag on Gonzaga’s computer rankings. They epitomized the everything-to-lose-nothing-to-gain proposition.

Few ruminated that the Huskies were falling into that same category. Remember, the last years of Lorenzo Romar’s tenure resulted in regular, double-digit beatdowns by the Zags.

Closer to home, when Few weighed in for the book, the Zags were amid an eight-year hiatus from the series with Eastern Washington. The two programs met last season.

I wrote then that the scissoring of the WSU series was justified. The Cougars went 22-68 in conference games in the five-year run of Ernie Kent, and there was simply nothing in it for Gonzaga. But the Huskies hadn’t bottomed out like that consistently, and I felt that series was worth continuing; the talent level was going to keep Washington at least on a respectable level.

Well, a couple of odd things have happened. Notwithstanding Few’s reluctance, the Gonzaga-Washington series was extended a year or so ago through the 2023-24 season.

And suddenly, it’s the Huskies who are looking like the potential anchor on Gonzaga’s profile in future years.

Meanwhile, the Cougars seem to be on a positive trajectory under second-year coach Kyle Smith, who has fit into the culture; gotten a victory in the Pac-12 tournament, something that somehow hadn’t happened at WSU in a decade; and attracted a top-35 freshman class to Pullman.

If Gonzaga is inclined to view these relationships as fluid, there’s not a lot to say right now that the Cougars aren’t more of a potential force than the Huskies.

Why do business with Washington? It’s possible one rationale for keeping a tie to the UW is that with the Battle in Seattle in limbo with the renovation of KeyArena, meeting the Huskies on Montlake every other year provides GU exposure on the west side. Another is the appearance of a warmer relationship between Few and UW coach Mike Hopkins than was the case with Few and Romar.

But right now, the UW program is teetering. The Huskies finished last in the Pac-12 in 2020 and appear a solid candidate to repeat in ’20-21. Last year, it was the academic ineligibility of guard Quade Green that torpedoed the UW. Now, swingman Naz Carter is gone in the wake of allegations of sexual assault. So, two years in a row, a player betrayed the program.

It’s instructive to look at a confounding big picture with UW basketball. This is a program planted in a city rightly renowned for its basketball talent. Yet, over a generation’s time, for all the talk about the “206,” etc., etc., the best the Huskies have done is get to the Sweet 16 (three times).

When Isaiah Stewart and Jaden McDaniels went in the recent NBA draft, it meant this: Since 2007, the Huskies have had nine first-round NBA draft picks who didn’t get to the NCAA tournament in the year they were selected. Next-highest number nationally is three (Indiana, Syracuse), and the only adjective I can think of for that is “stupefying.” No program has frittered away high-end talent like Washington. (Obviously, there was no NCAA tournament in ’20, but at 15-17, the Huskies weren’t going there.)

This isn’t a recommendation to erase any Gonzaga rivalry; fans tend to love them, for good reason.

But if GU is going to assess these rivalries periodically – and it has – the Huskies are making a good argument to reassess.
#zagmbb #wccsports #zagup #theslipperstillfits #unitedwezag

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All Zags have to do in '20-21 is beat a virus and 350 other teams

thread

With a wing and a prayer, and maybe a rabbit’s foot and a stray four-leaf clover, Gonzaga launches its college basketball season this week. Not that luck is typically in the Zags’ playbook, but it’s 2020, and, well, you may have noticed, things are a little different.

The Zags, of course, open Thursday with a little-known opponent without much in the way of genealogy – Kansas. That kicks off a nine-day stretch in which Gonzaga also plays Auburn and Tennessee and Baylor. But not the Lakers.

Chief among the story lines for GU are: That the program seems ever on an ascendant arc, judging by the caliber of recruits committed verbally or in writing; and the chaotic, constantly evolving schedule that has taken shape under the persistent thumb of a pandemic.

But there’s another narrative that’s crept in over many months’ time, dating to even before the 2020 calendar year, prior to the ’20 NCAA tournament being scrubbed. It’s the one that points out that Gonzaga, for all its unlikely emergence a generation ago and erstwhile darling-ness and nationwide curiosity/appeal, hasn’t won a national championship, and is this the year, or what the hell are you guys waiting for?

Mostly we’re talking about nuance here, and maybe I’m nitpicking. But it’s been out there nonetheless, the notion that the program will be forever unfulfilled and, you know, no better than New Jersey Tech if someday it’s not Gonzaga hogging the highlights on “One Shining Moment.”

Last December, as a promising season was beginning, a Spokane TV station asked: “Is this finally the year for GU?” An editor of the Spokane Spokesman-Review termed it that “elusive” national title.

This is a second cousin, of course, to the old narrative that the Zags have underperformed in the post-season. Or, as someone writing for something called NBC Sports.com/Washington penned in referencing GU coach Mark Few, “The Bulldogs’ coach has had massive amounts of success in the regular season and in the second and third rounds of the NCAA tournament. However, it’s in the second weekend and beyond that’s been his bugaboo.”

Nothing like having a little perspective.

Few sporting endeavors are fraught with as much peril as winning an NCAA basketball title. All you’ve got to do is ford a river of menacing Dukes, Kentuckys and North Carolinas; and lying-in-the-weeds outfits like Florida State and Texas Tech; and oh yeah, the upstarts jonesing to make a name for themselves, like Loyola of Chicago and Wichita State and before that, Butler. (That was Gonzaga once, remember.)

When the Dodgers won the ’20 World Series, it broke a drought of more than three decades. In recent years, when they were denied, there were four or five realistic interlopers. In college hoops, there might be 25 or 30 outfits capable of the bonkers 40 minutes that sends you home.

Again, we’re talking nuance here. It’s not wrong to call Gonzaga’s title “elusive” – only that if it’s elusive for the Zags, it’s also elusive for a lot of other folks.

Some numbers to chew on: Twenty-three times since 2000, a program that hasn’t won a national championship in the past half-century has been seeded No. 1 and failed to win it all. Seventeen times, that school didn’t get to the Final Four. Twice that happened to Gonzaga. But it also befell Stanford three times, Pitt twice, and among others, Oregon (2014) and Washington (2005).

In other words, this winning-it-all thing ain’t easy. Never is, and that’s when we’re not turned upside-down by a virus. If you assume the Zags’ road to a respectable seed in the 2021 tournament hinges on their non-league performance, those four early games are not only pivotal, but freighted with negative implication for GU if they aren’t played.

So health, theirs and their opponents’, should be Job One for the Zags. Getting off to a fast start is No. 2, and if history holds, Few should be the right guy to make it happen. I count eight non-conference tournament championships on his 21-year watch, including a couple in Maui and three in Florida. The Zags have regularly tattooed Washington early, including in 2004, when GU was coming off a listless blowout loss at Illinois and the Huskies were ranked.

And almost without fail, when Gonzaga has stumbled in a pre-conference game – Dayton in a first-round Maui loss in 2013 – it has rebounded to scoop up valuable resume ground with a victory.

The Zags have beaten North Carolina and Duke in November. Now the goal is to do it in late March or early April.

No doubt GU players have a title in the back of their minds and don't mind saying so. Nothing wrong with that. But their fans ought not be so jaded that anything less than a championship is a failure.

You do you, as they say. Me, I’d root for health, and then a Final Four, and if that happens, talk about a title. That pretty much describes Few’s approach in 2017, when the Zags crashed through the glass ceiling to the Final Four. This time, instead of glass descending, they envision confetti.

#zagmbb #wccsports #theslipperstillfits #unitedwezag #zagup

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College basketball's latest villain (hint: The Zags know him well)

thread
Not to strike a downbeat note on a Gonzaga basketball program with a preseason No. 1 imprimatur, but we start today’s treatise with a question for Zag fans:

What’s the most gut-bombing, migraine-inducing, shivers-down-your-spine defeat in GU history?

No doubt, the 2006 NCAA-tournament loss to UCLA draws significant mention. Here were the Adam Morrison-led Zags, with a 17-point first-half lead, and a nine-point advantage with 3 ½ minutes left, all set to play Memphis in the regional final in Oakland. And it all came apart – like a K-Mart deck chair, the handicapper Greg Roberts used to say – in a torrent of mistakes, and it was UCLA that advanced all the way to the title game that year.

I might lobby for the Zags’ second-round loss in the 2013 tournament as a smidge worse. For one thing, they were a No. 1 seed as well as top-ranked for the first time, which clicks the klieg lights up to high-beam. And the Zags-as-tournament-underachiever narrative had already taken hold, so that defeat in Salt Lake City rallied the naysayers to their pitchforks and torches.

Here’s what’s off the top of my head: Wichita State blowing out to a 13-point first-half lead; Gonzaga nosing back into it, and seemingly taking shaky control with 12 minutes left on a three by Mike Hart to go up 49-41; the Shockers, not a good three-point shooting outfit, somehow hitting 14 of 28; Gary Bell, unable to play the second half on a bum ankle; and the Zags stumbling to the finish, even klutzing up an uncontested pass inbounding the ball.

If the UCLA loss was singularly devastating, this one seemed to make a broader case: that Gonzaga was never, ever going to get to a Final Four.

In a hotel bar that night, I shared beers with a writer from Wichita. Have to admit, I was a bit envious. He was, eventually, going on to a Final Four. I was going home to try to remember to put out the recycling on Wednesday morning. I wrote 20 Final Fours, but I never did cover a team that got me there, and there were several that could have.

There was a hard edge to that Wichita State team; you could feel it in its locker room the practice day before the game. Recently, we’re finding out why. Gregg Marshall, the coach, ran a remorselessly nasty ship. If we’re to believe reports in The Athletic and Stadium, Marshall at least once struck a player; he demeaned players regularly, sometimes invoking references to female anatomy; he barked racist words; and he generally made the lives of his roster miserable. He was a good enough coach to paper over the seamy stuff, until a mass exodus last spring got people to asking questions.

Nor did it start at Wichita. The Athletic detailed an anecdote from his previous coaching stop, at Winthrop, when he and his wife Lynn hosted the team for their two-year-old son’s birthday party. A player accidentally broke a plastic Wiffle ball, players said they’d get the toddler a new one, but when Marshall emerged, he grabbed a player and muscled him up against a wall before they were separated. One player involved in the incident quoted Lynn Marshall as saying, “I just hate when he gets like this.”

A lot of coaches practice tough-love. This isn’t that. This is abuse.

And this week, we learned the price-tag on abuse. Gregg Marshall lost his job at Wichita State. And he walks away with a $7.75-million buyout, which ought to keep him in Wiffle balls for a good while, until some woebegone institution introduces him at a press conference down the road, saying, “Gregg has learned from his mistake, and besides, everybody deserves a second chance.”

Nowadays, it’s impossible to scoop up all the ills of college athletics and shovel them into one bag, but the Marshall mess does its damnedest. The abuse part should speak for itself. You’d like to think we’re beyond that, but no. In some quarters – dying off, you’d hope – the end justifies the means, however repugnant.

Meanwhile, it’s the exit part of this saga that is rightly drawing attention. Gregg Marshall, credibly accused of being an abusive coach, skates off with almost eight mill. Wut?

Obviously, the school, which gets heavy support from conservative billionaire Charles Koch (his name is on the basketball arena), just wanted to be done with Marshall, which, narrowly viewed, is completely understandable. But it was also willing to throw a lot of money at him to make it happen, and in today’s college sports, that’s not uncommon. The Wichita Eagle newspaper interviewed two attorneys wise to the ways of sports contracts, and they pointed out the downside of simply firing Marshall with cause: It likely would result in a lawsuit, probably a long, messy one with dirty laundry aired publicly; and firing with cause is a dicey proposition, so it could be costly both in dollars and image.

But you find yourself wishing Wichita State would have seen it through, however risky, just to make a statement. Instead, the Shockers took the path of least resistance. Some would say that’s really the path of most expense, which is totally in sync with college sports these days.

A year ago, I recall reading, in astonishment, USA Today’s comprehensive, annual look at college-football coaches salaries. What the report focused on were the buyouts that have become de rigueur in today’s contracts. If memory serves, Gus Malzahn of Auburn, perpetually, seeming to be on the hot seat, would have been owed something like $27 million if fired for not winning enough. Lesser names like Jeff Brohm of Purdue would be due north of $20 million.

Well, guess what? Those numbers have been made to look like the change you find under your seat as you vacuum at the local car wash. According to USA Today’s last analysis a month ago, Jimbo Fisher of Texas A&M – who entered the season accompanied by some nervous coughing among Aggie donors – would be due $53,125,000 if A&M wanted to turn him loose. I count 14 coaches who would be due $20 million or more if fired without cause, and not all of them on stable ground.

Wait’ll Mark Few, the Gonzaga coach, hears about those numbers. Yes, this is basketball, not football. But he’s taken the Zags to 21 straight NCAA tournaments and five straight Sweet 16s.

Yeah, there have been bumps along the way, a notable one administered by Wichita State and Gregg Marshall seven years ago. Sometimes, you lose to titans. Sometimes you lose to scofflaws.
#zagmbb #wccsports #zagup #theslipperstillfits #unitedwezag

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College basketball's latest villain (hint: The Zags know him well)

thread
Not to strike a downbeat note on a Gonzaga basketball program with a preseason No. 1 imprimatur, but we start today’s treatise with a question for Zag fans:

What’s the most gut-bombing, migraine-inducing, shivers-down-your-spine defeat in GU history?

No doubt, the 2006 NCAA-tournament loss to UCLA draws significant mention. Here were the Adam Morrison-led Zags, with a 17-point first-half lead, and a nine-point advantage with 3 ½ minutes left, all set to play Memphis in the regional final in Oakland. And it all came apart – like a K-Mart deck chair, the handicapper Greg Roberts used to say – in a torrent of mistakes, and it was UCLA that advanced all the way to the title game that year.

I might lobby for the Zags’ second-round loss in the 2013 tournament as a smidge worse. For one thing, they were a No. 1 seed as well as top-ranked for the first time, which clicks the klieg lights up to high-beam. And the Zags-as-tournament-underachiever narrative had already taken hold, so that defeat in Salt Lake City rallied the naysayers to their pitchforks and torches.

Here’s what’s off the top of my head: Wichita State blowing out to a 13-point first-half lead; Gonzaga nosing back into it, and seemingly taking shaky control with 12 minutes left on a three by Mike Hart to go up 49-41; the Shockers, not a good three-point shooting outfit, somehow hitting 14 of 28; Gary Bell, unable to play the second half on a bum ankle; and the Zags stumbling to the finish, even klutzing up an uncontested pass inbounding the ball.

If the UCLA loss was singularly devastating, this one seemed to make a broader case: that Gonzaga was never, ever going to get to a Final Four.

In a hotel bar that night, I shared beers with a writer from Wichita. Have to admit, I was a bit envious. He was, eventually, going on to a Final Four. I was going home to try to remember to put out the recycling on Wednesday morning. I wrote 20 Final Fours, but I never did cover a team that got me there, and there were several that could have.

There was a hard edge to that Wichita State team; you could feel it in its locker room the practice day before the game. Recently, we’re finding out why. Gregg Marshall, the coach, ran a remorselessly nasty ship. If we’re to believe reports in The Athletic and Stadium, Marshall at least once struck a player; he demeaned players regularly, sometimes invoking references to female anatomy; he barked racist words; and he generally made the lives of his roster miserable. He was a good enough coach to paper over the seamy stuff, until a mass exodus last spring got people to asking questions.

Nor did it start at Wichita. The Athletic detailed an anecdote from his previous coaching stop, at Winthrop, when he and his wife Lynn hosted the team for their two-year-old son’s birthday party. A player accidentally broke a plastic Wiffle ball, players said they’d get the toddler a new one, but when Marshall emerged, he grabbed a player and muscled him up against a wall before they were separated. One player involved in the incident quoted Lynn Marshall as saying, “I just hate when he gets like this.”

A lot of coaches practice tough-love. This isn’t that. This is abuse.

And this week, we learned the price-tag on abuse. Gregg Marshall lost his job at Wichita State. And he walks away with a $7.75-million buyout, which ought to keep him in Wiffle balls for a good while, until some woebegone institution introduces him at a press conference down the road, saying, “Gregg has learned from his mistake, and besides, everybody deserves a second chance.”

Nowadays, it’s impossible to scoop up all the ills of college athletics and shovel them into one bag, but the Marshall mess does its damnedest. The abuse part should speak for itself. You’d like to think we’re beyond that, but no. In some quarters – dying off, you’d hope – the end justifies the means, however repugnant.

Meanwhile, it’s the exit part of this saga that is rightly drawing attention. Gregg Marshall, credibly accused of being an abusive coach, skates off with almost eight mill. Wut?

Obviously, the school, which gets heavy support from conservative billionaire Charles Koch (his name is on the basketball arena), just wanted to be done with Marshall, which, narrowly viewed, is completely understandable. But it was also willing to throw a lot of money at him to make it happen, and in today’s college sports, that’s not uncommon. The Wichita Eagle newspaper interviewed two attorneys wise to the ways of sports contracts, and they pointed out the downside of simply firing Marshall with cause: It likely would result in a lawsuit, probably a long, messy one with dirty laundry aired publicly; and firing with cause is a dicey proposition, so it could be costly both in dollars and image.

But you find yourself wishing Wichita State would have seen it through, however risky, just to make a statement. Instead, the Shockers took the path of least resistance. Some would say that’s really the path of most expense, which is totally in sync with college sports these days.

A year ago, I recall reading, in astonishment, USA Today’s comprehensive, annual look at college-football coaches salaries. What the report focused on were the buyouts that have become de rigueur in today’s contracts. If memory serves, Gus Malzahn of Auburn, perpetually, seeming to be on the hot seat, would have been owed something like $27 million if fired for not winning enough. Lesser names like Jeff Brohm of Purdue would be due north of $20 million.

Well, guess what? Those numbers have been made to look like the change you find under your seat as you vacuum at the local car wash. According to USA Today’s last analysis a month ago, Jimbo Fisher of Texas A&M – who entered the season accompanied by some nervous coughing among Aggie donors – would be due $53,125,000 if A&M wanted to turn him loose. I count 14 coaches who would be due $20 million or more if fired without cause, and not all of them on stable ground.

Wait’ll Mark Few, the Gonzaga coach, hears about those numbers. Yes, this is basketball, not football. But he’s taken the Zags to 21 straight NCAA tournaments and five straight Sweet 16s.

Yeah, there have been bumps along the way, a notable one administered by Wichita State and Gregg Marshall seven years ago. Sometimes, you lose to titans. Sometimes you lose to scofflaws.
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"We Are G.U." details a zany side of Zag hoops

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“We Are G.U.” is a nice piece of the Gonzaga basketball story, well crafted and well worth your investment of $24.95. It’s available at the Zag Shop, Auntie’s and Spokane-area grocery outlets.
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Against UW, Zags are the gang that always shoots straight

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I’m guessing there was no sheet cake Monday and only modest revelry. As is increasingly the case at Gonzaga, been there, done that.
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