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Back in 2010, before Final Fours, before Sweet 16s on demand, before NIL, Gonzaga turned in one of its most forgettable basketball performances of all time, losing 76-41 to Duke at Madison Square Garden. When I wrote Glory Hounds, Zags coach Mark Few and his assistant, Ray Giacoletti, recalled a glum, introspective walk afterward through the streets of New York in a snowstorm amid the incongruity of Christmas lights, trying to get a handle on their team.
Few and his coaching cronies have a name for it: Season-on-the-brink moments.
“You have ‘em every year,” Few told me.
Well, since the 2022-23 season is now over, there are no season-on-the-brink moments. But Connecticut’s evisceration of the Zags the other night in the Elite Eight probably would have qualified (and what better place to have lost yourself in thought, or blackjack, than the Las Vegas Strip?).
Gonzaga finished a season that was by turns alarming and then satisfying with a performance against UConn that was perplexing. Not that the Huskies won, or even that they won convincingly, but that the Zags, once the wheels started to come off, never mustered so much as a whimper of response. They were like a rotting second floor, which looks OK one minute and then collapses into a pile the next.
After all, this was an even game 14 minutes in, nothing to indicate UConn would later lead by 33. But the Zags then couldn’t make a shot – a lot of them in the lane. Offense affected defense and defense affected offense.
They didn’t help themselves by playing unintelligently. They botched the last possession of the half, pushing the UConn lead to seven, and Drew Timme’s third and fourth fouls, each early in the second half, simply weren’t smart, a contrast to his brilliant career.
So yes, the margin, 28 points, was a shock. Yet – easy to say now – perhaps there was a bit of inevitability to the defeat, even as there was talk of Gonzaga going all the way in a tournament memorable for its anarchy.
This was never one of GU’s best teams, less than imposing on the perimeter and without the defensive chops necessary. The Zags were an ominous No. 73 in KenPom’s defense numbers, and if you need perspective, the No. 72 team was Washington State, a .500 outfit.
An Elite Eight push was thus, if not overachievement, at least a mark of fulfillment.
Not that you’d know it by some of the reaction. For some reason, maybe because that national-title banner remains unhung, the Zags seem to rally critics to pitchforks and torches faster than you can get a beer from the fridge during a timeout.
Of course, there was an old standby, that the West Coast Conference doesn’t prepare Gonzaga for the NCAA tournament. So, I Twittered, that must mean the WCC hurt them when they lost in the eight straight Sweet 16 years, but not in the nation-best 25 victories they ran up in that stretch.
Somebody said they don’t see teams in the WCC that can extend and take away the three-pointer like they encounter in the NCAAs. Hmm, that sounds a lot like the Alabama team the Zags solved in Birmingham just before Christmas.
One media type alleged the Zags have had a “manageable to downright easy road” getting to the second weekend over the years. True that the UCLA injuries aided Gonzaga’s path this March. But in every one of those other Sweet 16 advances, the Zags faced a single-digit seed in the second round. We should want them to play the Milwaukee Bucks?
Ask Kansas how easy it is to get to the round of 32; three of the past four tournaments, it hasn’t. Ask Virginia, which has won games in only one of the past five tournaments. Ask Baylor, which has pushed into the Sweet 16 once in five tournaments.
The difference, obviously, is that those schools have recently won NCAA titles. USA Today, noting that vacancy in the Gonzaga trophy case, wrote, “So what is preventing this program from finally cashing in and winning a championship? If not already, at some point Few will be defined by his inability to get Gonzaga over this last hurdle.”
Pretty bold stuff, as opposed to the LA Times’ reference to Gonzaga as an “NCAA tournament Goliath” and a description of GU as a “blueblood” on a Westwood One national radio broadcast. The Zags don’t have a national championship, but they’re runaway leaders in inspiring polar reaction.
During its tournament run, for what it’s worth, Gonzaga (44-25) nosed into a tie for 19th nationally in total victories in the event, with Maryland (44-28) and Purdue (44-33). The Zags spotted the field a pretty good head start.
What’s next? Spokane Arena hosts first- and second-round games in 2024, and even without Timme, it would seem a proper goal to try to wrangle the kind of protected seed – No. 4 or better – to stay home. Gonzaga’s best teams have never quite lined up with that facility’s years of hosting, notably in the pandemic-scrubbed tournament of 2020.
Never has the college game been so infused with the transfer/NIL chaos, but you’d guess established programs with a solid culture – raise your hand, Gonzaga -- would be the ones holding the trump cards. This would be a good time for that culture to assert itself, to kill off those season-on-the-brink moments.
Not so long ago, there was a time when Gonzaga couldn’t seem to make March Madness’ Sweet 16.
Now the thing can’t seem to go on without the Zags.
When they gnarled their way past TCU Sunday night, they crashed their eighth straight Sweet 16. That’s third all-time in college hoops, and to underscore the then-and-now of that streak, Gonzaga’s starting guards when it began were Kevin Pangos and Gary Bell Jr., and they're both 30 now. When the streak started, we were still five years removed from a worldwide pandemic.
Longtime Gonzaga watchers will recall some of the growing pains after the initial burst onto the college hoops scene – the ugly second-round 2004 meltdown at KeyArena against Nevada, the squandering of a double-digit lead to lose in the second round to Bob Knight’s Texas Tech team a year later.
In 2007 and 2008 came the first-round ousters (how quaint) to Indiana and Steph Curry’s Davidson, followed by a Sweet 16 breakthrough in Portland in 2009 thanks to Demetri Goodson.
But then came the Great Plateau, five years straight, when Gonzaga won first-round games but couldn’t convert 48 hours later to get to the Sweet 16. Looking back, GU turned in some terrific first-round performances – Florida State (2010), St. John’s (2011), West Virginia (2012) and Oklahoma State (2014) but their advances stopped right there.
Suddenly, getting to the second weekend is like second nature, and it begs for perspective.
Yes, Gonzaga will always be something less than complete until it hangs that big banner. But some of the numbers tell you what a heater the Zags have been on since 2015.
It began at KeyArena, and since then, Gonzaga is 24-7 in NCAA-tournament games, tops in the nation.
Some other tournament victory totals in that span:
North Carolina 21.
Michigan State 13.
Thing is, those are cold, hard numbers, apart from caterwauling about the WCC being a second-class league, discussions about tournament preparedness, etc., etc. You win games or you lose games, and there’s not a lot of room left for debate.
How do we wrap our heads around those 24 wins? Well, the NCAA tournament began outpacing the NIT as the sport’s event of relevance about 1950 or so. Until then, the NIT was held in equal or greater esteem (apologies to Oregon’s Tall Firs, who won the first NCAA tournament in 1939). So in the near 75 years since then, the last eight tournaments represent between 10 and 11 percent of that stretch, and Gonzaga is the nation’s winningest post-season program for that period.
Or this: The sport really blossomed in the post-John Wooden era, when TV became enthralled and Bird and Magic dueled in Salt Lake City in the championship game of 1979. If we establish that period at, say, the past 45 years, Gonzaga claims the last 18 percent of that era of booming interest in the game as the nation’s most irrepressible NCAA-tournament program. It’s all a little mind-numbing.
Yes, the absence of that elusive banner is still a big thing.
But no, it’s not the only thing
Prisoners of the moment, we are. That’s a truism reinforced by the fact that Gonzaga hoops graduated from a collective national ugh earlier this season to the notion that, who knows, might have six more games in it.
Such was the rush created by the Zags’ ruthless 77-51 dispatch of Saint Mary’s the other night. Gonzaga treated the Gaels like somebody propped up in a “buy” game on a Wednesday night late in November, leading by 37 before SMC trimmed the deficit with its starters against Gonzaga subs.
Even so, 26 was the largest margin either of these WCC strongholds have inflicted on each other in their long history in the league tournament.
Sunday, Gonzaga earned a No. 3 seed opposite WAC winner Grand Canyon, with TCU, UCLA and high-upside Connecticut also lurking in the West Region.
Following the woodshedding of Saint Mary’s, the bouquets rained in for the Zags, except for this one from Brian Rauf, a writer at HeatcheckCBB.com:
“Seen a lot of talk about Gonzaga being a national-title contender because of how it blew out Saint Mary’s. To me, the game says more about the Gaels’ offensive struggles vs. athleticism than anything Gonzaga. Zags are still a solid team but I don’t see that ceiling . . . some issues – perimeter shot creation and rim protection chief among them – haven’t gone away. WCC opponents just couldn’t exploit them to the same extent.”
Rauf’s is a point worth examining. There are some warts with this Gonzaga team, and the question is: After a long, sometimes-bumpy season, have the Zags managed to chip away those weaknesses in advance of a long March run, or did they just do what they almost always do, which is shame the rest of the WCC?
Gonzaga’s performance against the Gaels was beyond dominating. Most impressively, its defensive rotations were terrific, its help almost unerring.
“Our defense was as good as it’s ever been,” said GU coach Mark Few. “It wasn’t just 10 minutes, 20 minutes, it was 40.”
The way it unfolded, Saint Mary’s was never going to win this game. But it also must be said that this was one of those nights for the Gaels, one in which they fluffed shots at the rim and threw passes to people in the seats. By themselves, apart from the Zags, they were horrendous.
Rauf’s observation about perimeter shot creation is valid. The Zags don’t have much of that. They do, however, run such exquisite offense – tops in the nation, per KenPom.com – that it helps mask that deficiency.
I’d be more concerned about that No. 75 defensive number in KenPom, and whether the Saint Mary’s evisceration is evidence of a defense finally getting it, or merely a one-off.
Zag fans who needn’t have a long memory might counter Rauf by pointing out that better Gonzaga teams have stumbled against Saint Mary’s – late season, and in the 2019 WCC-tournament final, when GU was top-ranked.
If you’re Zag-centric, you could argue the three games against Saint Mary’s this season summarize neatly Gonzaga’s ascendant arc. In Moraga early in February, the Zags led most of the way before Aidan Mahaney stole the game from them with a brilliant few minutes.
In Spokane, Gonzaga controlled throughout and won decisively but not in one-sided fashion. Then in Vegas, the Zags made Saint Mary’s look like the East Bay Irregulars.
This week, the Zags will truck some glitzy luggage into the NCAA tournament. They’ve won 13 straight first-round games, fifth all-time and trailing only a collection of royalty named North Carolina, Kentucky, Kansas and UCLA.
They’ve been in seven straight Sweet 16s. One more gets them undisputed third all-time, behind North Carolina and Duke.
Win it all? I doubt it. Even in a year of parity, that mountain is a sheer one for a team without great margin for error against the requisite array of opposing styles. What seems failsafe one night can be MIA the next. Last year, Andrew Nembhard was nails against Memphis, helping push the Zags into the Sweet 16. Against Arkansas, not so much.
But maybe with a break or two, the Final Four isn’t necessarily a bridge too far. For Zag types who would dare to dream, the Saint Mary’s game was a nudge into dreamland.
On a trip last week to southern California, we ventured up the coast to Malibu to take the temperature of a Gonzaga basketball program that in 2023 seems to defy definition. But first, I can report that LA traffic is still awful, and the Pepperdine campus is more odd than it is stunning, notwithstanding the beauty just to the west.
Give me brick buildings and ivy adorning them and leaves that turn red, yellow and orange in the fall, and snow in December, and if that makes me lunatic, so be it.
Oh yes, basketball. Gonzaga is either going to do a face-plant in the NCAA tournament or it’s priming for another big run, and it’s either going to bolt to the Big 12 Conference or the Pac-12, or just maybe, nowhere. These days, GU isn’t easily pigeonholed.
More later on that last part, the future. The Zags’ present seems promising enough. They’re positioned to tie for the WCC title if they can beat Saint Mary’s at home this week. Before the trip to Pepperdine, they went to the gym of the first team to beat them in league, Loyola Marymount, and pretty much vandalized the place. It’s one thing to punk a team by 40; it’s another to lead by 40 at halftime.
There are nights when I think Gonzaga is headed for an ugly crash in the NCAA tournament, mostly due to a defense ranked No. 87 by KenPom. Rim protection isn’t there, and it’s far too easy for opposing guards to turn the corner, creating all sorts of grim outcomes.
Other games, they look capable of a march to, or through, the second week of the tournament. The uptick recently has a lot to do with Julian Strawther’s offensive breakout. He’s averaging 27 points over the past three games, shooting in the 50s both overall and on threes.
His explosion, if it continues, does a couple of things: It creates a dilemma for defenses that want to help inside on Drew Timme. And it at least poses the possibility that on a night when Gonzaga can’t stop the other guys, it could still win a shootout.
NBAdraft.net has pushed Strawther into the first round of its mock draft, which probably means he’s as good as gone. His matchup the other day against Pepperdine’s Maxwell Lewis, whom that website ranks No. 12 to Strawther’s 24, was choice viewing. (About that Waves team: It’s a mystery how it’s in the WCC basement with Lewis and a representative cast around him.)
Bubbling beneath the surface of the games and rankings, of course, is the looming question of realignment. Gonzaga is popularly thought to be on the Big 12’s short list of possible invitees, and perhaps the Pac-12’s. Inevitably, that choice will come down to money, as in, what’s the value add for the Big 12 if it beckons Gonzaga, and what sort of financial bump the Zags get for plunking their primo basketball program into the mix of the best hoops league in the country.
That’s assuming challenges like Gonzaga not having football, and how the rest of its programs would compete in a new league, can be worked out.
I think there’s something more to be considered, and that’s Gonzaga’s identity. And ultimately, what that’s worth (if anything).
The Zags made their bones by dominating a lesser conference. They divided and conquered, and built to better things. They stood out in a small kingdom, and layered every success on top of that. When TV networks line up a marquee matchup in December, there’s always the implied subplot that this was the program that rose from nothing to become something.
Does that go away if Gonzaga enters the Big 12 and joins teams like TCU and Iowa State and Texas Tech in the eternal chase of Kansas, in a league in which it would begin no better than No. 2 or 3? Would it just be one of the guys in that conference, losing the uniqueness that underwrote its candidacy in the first place?
You assume scheduling would be easier – no need to atone for a relatively soft schedule after the new year by loading up in November and December. But would that also feed into a loss of identity -- a mushier schedule early, creating less appeal to the networks, followed by two months in which the Zags are essentially unrecognizable from the rest of its new power-conference compadres?
Finally, pursuant to realignment and the Zags, the question has been posed: What happens to the program, post-Mark Few? Does it recede into irrelevance and thus offer its new conference bupkis?
Can’t see it. For Gonzaga, the last 24 years has been about upgrading its portfolio. That meant a new arena, charter aircraft for the road, a new building with a practice facility and other related amenities. The program’s prominence has earned it unqualified support from its administration. And it mined a fervent fan base, which today equates to NIL opportunities.
Those things don’t go away with a new coach. Every program makes mistakes in coaching hires, and Gonzaga is no more or less susceptible. At some point, a downturn is inevitable. But all those aforementioned features – and a rich history among the very best since the turn of the century – combine to make it an attractive job.
But that’s then. This is now, and as they say, let’s live in the moment. Awhile back, it occurred to me that the Zags were exploring new territory, that this season seemed different from every one since 2014. You have to go that far back, nine years ago, to find a time when Gonzaga’s outlook appeared so limited, to recall when the Final Four seemed out of reach.
The smart money would say that remains the case. But the Zags may yet have something to say about it.
I’ll have to admit, I’m not much for advanced analytics in college basketball. My expertise in numbers tends to become strained somewhere just past the old maxim that a good free throw shooter will hit 70 percent.
So it was a bit of a relief for me – if not for Gonzaga – when I stumbled across a number that goes a long way toward describing the Zags’ uneven 5-3 start entering Monday night’s game with Kent State.
What gives with this Gonzaga team, you might wonder. How do you get destroyed at Texas, how do you get schooled shamelessly by Purdue? How, in a grinder where converted baskets are like gold, do you surrender an 8-0 run in the last 90 seconds to lose to Baylor?
When I was researching Glory Hounds, I recall being around Zags coach Mark Few during some fretful times early in the 2015-16 season. That was when Josh Perkins was a not-ready-for-prime-time redshirt freshman, and the guard play was unsteady, and Gonzaga dropped winnable home games against Arizona and UCLA, and suddenly found itself needing to win the WCC title to keep its NCAA-tournament streak alive.
To be clear, this isn’t that. Even lurching through the first month of the season, the Zags have collected three quality wins, against Michigan State, Kentucky and Xavier. They won’t be sweating Selection Sunday.
But a lot of other things, well, those seem very much on the table – like the Zags’ remarkable string of seven straight Sweet 16s. Dare we even think that a Washington team playing better could be a threat to win at Gonzaga Friday night, for the first time since, what is it, 1937?
Back to that telling statistic. The Zags have an assist-turnover ratio of 1.03, which is territory visited only by the irredeemables of college basketball.
Something up around 1.20 is a good number. Anything threatening 1.40 is very good. And anything beyond that is elite, a number that bespeaks a team that shares the ball well, knows how to get a good shot, knows how to pass up a good shot for a better one and generally beats the opponent into submission simply by its precision.
I suspect the number 1.03 drives Few crazy – not the number per se, but what it represents, which is the absence of all those attributes.
For perspective, the four Gonzaga teams from 2019-22 never dipped below a 1.49 assist-turnover ratio, topped by the insane 1.695 turned in by the 2019 team – Perkins as a senior, Zach Norvell, Geno Crandall off the bench – that lost to Texas Tech to go to the Final Four. Those guys threw a lot of profitable passes to Rui Hachimura, Brandon Clarke and Corey Kispert.
In Gonzaga’s gilded history, you have to go all the way back to 2010 to find a poorer number than 1.03. It was 1.027 then, with Matt Bouldin’s less than 2-to-1 ratio weighted down by some big turnover numbers from Elias Harris and Robert Sacre.
To date, the Zags don’t really have a complementary front-court scoring piece to go with Drew Timme. Anton Watson is a valuable player, but not a scorer. That’s why the emergence of Ben Gregg should be important going forward, especially in light of the back problems that have derailed Kaden Perry.
Essentially, when teams overplay Timme – and they’re likely to do more and more of that – the Zags are reliant on outside shooters as a means of retaliation. Julian Strawther has had his moments as a version of ’20-21 Kispert but he’s also committed 20 turnovers, compared to 26 all of last year.
The overshadowing factor in all this, of course, is the fact the Zags are breaking in a new point guard in sophomore Nolan Hickman. That’s an unusual strait recently at GU, which has become accustomed to Nigel Williams-Goss and Perkins-as-vet, and the dynamism of Jalen Suggs, and the joystick control the past two seasons of Andrew Nembhard, now in the NBA beating the Lakers with buzzer-beaters.
So here were the Zags last week against Baylor, suddenly down one in the dying seconds with Timme having fouled out. During a timeout, coaches peered at some notes and then sent players back onto the floor. As the sequence began, somebody appeared to shoo Hickman out on top.
There was an exchange of turnovers. In the last seconds, Rasir Bolton drove and put up a shot that wasn’t close.
The whole thing wasn’t Gonzaga’s finest look. And it reinforced another frailty of this team: There’s really nobody who can create his own shot.
Big picture, the profile of the program has become associated with Elite Eight or Final Four runs. The Zags have established an awfully high bar, and anything less seems unworthy. And even as out of sync as Gonzaga has sometimes looked, there they are with KenPom’s No. 2 offensive rating.
Last week, it was almost laughable when Peacock TV's announcers underscored the notion that a loss to Baylor might scuttle Gonzaga's chances at a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament. What snow-globe world was this they were visiting?
Perhaps, though, it’s a reminder that every season can’t be cherries jubilee for dessert.
Some years are going to be more like pudding. Absent some big improvement, this could be one of those.
Gotta say this for Saint Mary’s: True, most of the time it plays a distant second to Gonzaga in the hierarchy of West Coast Conference basketball. In their two-decades’ jousting history, Mark Few has a 44-12 edge on Randy Bennett.
But when the Gaels get the Zags, they get them good. They upended a top-ranked GU team in the WCC-tournament championship in 2019, and Saturday night, they did it again, pulling down the shorts of the nation’s top-rated team, 67-57.
If you’re a Zag fan, the images are disquieting: Drew Timme, unable to buy a basket, barreling down the lane with multiple defenders in his way. Chet Holmgren, flummoxed, trying to do too much.
Gonzaga, without answers and on that night, certainly without poise.
Of course, the magnitude of these Saint Mary’s wins is partly a credit to Gonzaga. They wouldn’t be monumental upsets if the Zags weren’t sufficiently monolithic to reach the top of the polls with some regularity.
If you’re thinking the loss to the Gaels leaves Gonzaga needing a reset, the good news is, this is a time of year that’s traditionally been very good to the Zags. No, just not March, though the month is frequently seashells and balloons for Gonzaga.
The nine-day interregnum between the end of the regular season and Gonzaga’s first game of the WCC tournament has almost without exception been productive for the Zags, who usually hit the “refresh” button profitably right now.
To wit: It’s been a quarter-century, 25 years, since the Zags failed to make the final of the WCC tournament. Even allowing for the sometimes-flaccid nature of the conference – not the case now, certainly – that’s a mind-bending number deserving of a place alongside the other Gonzaga streaks – those of making the NCAA tournament and winning games in it.
The streak of consecutive years in the NCAA tournament – about to become 23, or 24 if you recognize the fact Gonzaga had already qualified for the scrubbed 2020 event – remains a numbing accomplishment, borne of consistency, the willingness to schedule hard and the chops to win those games.
Getting to WCC finals for a quarter-century without a hitch reflects a different path, one that doesn’t brook the lapse in mental readiness or the night you happen to shoot 33 percent.
Right about now, Gonzaga usually comes out fresh and guns a-blazing. And it carries over to the NCAA tournament, exemplified by the Zags’ crazy 19-3 record in first-round games since the 1999 breakthrough.
Not that there haven’t been some sweaty palms during the WCC streak. Back in 2004, as a conference top seed, the Zags white-knuckled it past Santa Clara in the semis, 63-62. Two years later, in the only time Spokane hosted the tournament, Gonzaga needed overtime to subdue San Diego in a 96-92 semifinal screamer.
Since 2011, there have been four GU four-point semifinal victories. And over the past 15 years, nothing was more harrowing for the Zags in early rounds than the 2014 77-75 quarterfinal victory over No. 9 seed Santa Clara, when David Stockton wove around Sam Dower’s high screen and made a reverse layup with two seconds left.
Gonzaga’s record in the WCC tournament since losing to San Diego in the first round of the WCC in 1997? It’s 52-6.
This would be a good time for that other gear.
Brainstorming how possibly to make sense of the John Stockton lightning bolt of a few days ago, I was alerted to my latest incoming e-mail.
The Minneapolis Star-Tribune wrote that hospitals in that area have suspended a long-standing program of diverting ambulances from their emergency departments when they’re overcrowded. ER closures, something that used to be a random occurrence, are now so routine because of Covid-19 that some ambulances were changing course multiple times during one transport.
Stuff like this must somehow have escaped Stockton during his professed “thousands of hours” of research into Covid-19 and its auxiliary issues.
In a detailed interview with the Spokesman-Review of Spokane the other day, Stockton sought to explain his side of the impasse that caused Gonzaga to suspend his season tickets at GU basketball games because of his refusal to comply with the school’s mask mandate. He had touched on these views in a Utah-based anti-vaccine video project last year.
At the end of the S-R interview, the paper posted this italicized editor’s note, in itself rather remarkable: “Many of the claims made by Stockton regarding Covid-19 and vaccines are not backed by science nor deemed credible by medical professionals . . . “
In other words: “We don’t know what would cause the NBA’s all-time assists leader to go rogue and spew out such chunks of cockamamie horse pucky, but take them with a grain of salt, kind of like you would if the One America News Network claimed Rand Paul’s ancestors discovered America.”
Good for Gonzaga for making an uncomfortable call on this, but the right one.
Poor Chris Standiford. All he’s had to do in his first five months as athletic director is mete out discipline for a DUI incurred by his future hall of fame basketball coach Mark Few, and then confront Stockton’s flights of fancy.
Stockton alleges that “over 100” vaccinated professional athletes “in the prime of their life” have dropped dead, “right on the pitch, right on the field, right on the court.”
He also insists there are “20,000 deaths from the vaccine that the CDC acknowledges from their VAERS (Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System), which they acknowledge accounts for only one percent of actual.”
I believe this is the first time I’ve heard the number 20,000 invoked by an athlete since Wilt Chamberlain, the NBA great, claimed to have slept with 20,000 different women. Wilt’s assessment appears more credible.
Stockton says he has spent “well over 1,000 hours” researching Covid-19. Who knows, that could be true. He also referenced “thousands of hours” spent on this. Just know that 1,000 hours works out to about six months of 40-hour weeks, or a full-time job for half a year.
We can glean insight into Stockton’s mind-frame with his statement to the Spokesman-Review that he gravitated toward a “holistic” approach to healing partly because he had a negative experience with anti-inflammatory drugs when he was a player.
From there, apparently, he grew sufficiently entrenched in his beliefs that it became too much of an imposition to wear a piece of cloth on his face at a Gonzaga basketball game. What for many of us is worthy of investing only an eye-roll became a position paper for him.
I’m guessing this is not entirely a shock to people around Gonzaga, because the school has known for a long time he’s a little different.
I’ve had a few moments around Stockton, all of them, well, odd.
In 1999, the year Gonzaga burst onto the national stage, the Zags had just beaten Florida to crash the Elite Eight, and, for an off-day story, my paper was gathering reaction from prominent alums. I took on the challenge of finding Stockton, and was proud to discover the hotel in Charlotte where his visiting Utah Jazz were about to play the Hornets.
They rang his room. Stockton might have been napping, and if that’s the case, I’m sorry. I identified myself and asked if I could get his response to the Zags’ improbable run.
“I don’t do interviews on game day,” Stockton said.
This wasn’t going well.
“I understand,” I said. “Could I just get a sentence from you on their run?”
“No,” he said. End of conversation.
In other words, “The Zags are a win over UConn today from a trip to the Final Four. Reached in Charlotte, John Stockton had no comment.”
In 2002, I wrote “Bravehearts,” a book on the rise of Gonzaga basketball. I wanted to see if Stockton might write the foreword. I went through a administrator friend at Gonzaga, who forwarded this reply: “Why should I do something for a guy who’s just trying to make money off the program?”
Hmm. Apparently, once you have the germ of an opinion, it becomes very hard to knock you off that opinion.
About 2014, I was writing about David Stockton, the overachieving guard who is John’s son. It seemed to scream out for an observation or two from the dad (or at least an attempt to get one). At this point, I had covered probably 75 Gonzaga games over 15 seasons.
I approached GU’s sports publicist. He didn’t handle Matters Stockton. He referred me to another longtime operative in the athletic department, whom I knew pretty well, and I made the request. Days passed. Nothing. I got back to my contact. Still nothing. The campaign died a slow death.
Maybe I didn’t miss that much.
“Just put a quarter in me,” Mike Roth would say self-deprecatingly, in reference to his facility for waxing long in answer to media questions.
Well, Roth just announced his retirement after 24 years as Gonzaga athletic director, and it would take a lot of quarters to describe properly how GU has changed since he came to campus.
If 24 years sounds like a long time, it actually shorts Roth. He’s been at the school in various athletic capacities since the mid-‘80s, and he pretty much knows every paver on every walkway around every athletic facility in the place.
The continuity at Gonzaga – unparalleled nationally for the combination of athletic administration and men’s basketball – is slowly being chipped away, victim both of its own excellence and the years that brought it about. First, Tommy Lloyd, a 20-year basketball assistant, to Arizona, and now Roth, who did three and a half decades at Gonzaga. But nothing is forever, not Roth’s vision, high standards or simple willingness to call you back.
Born in Easton, Pa., he grew up in Moses Lake and followed a sister to Gonzaga, where he played JV basketball briefly when Adrian Buoncristiani was varsity head coach.
“I went in and sat down with Adrian at my request,” Roth told me several years ago as I researched for my Gonzaga book, “Glory Hounds.” I said, ‘Adrian, I want to play. What are my chances? Am I going to get to play?’ “
“No,” Buoncristiani replied.
That set Roth toward Willamette University and a college experience he relished. He would end up back at Gonzaga to get a master’s degree in athletic administration before a short stint as a grad assistant to basketball coach Jay Hillock. But his first real apprenticeship to his current job was director of the newly refurbished Martin Centre in 1986.
One can only marvel at the GU landscape then. The school played at the NAIA level in all but basketball and baseball. Only a couple of sports even had full-time assistant coaches – baseball and women’s hoops not among them.
Roth came to wear a number of different hats in athletics. One of those was compliance, and in that role, he assumed a tortured position when Dan Fitzgerald, the basketball coach and athletic director, was whacked for NCAA violations over mismanagement of department funds. Fitz was a dynamic figure with diehard supporters, and some of them were convinced Roth, initially replacing him as interim A.D., had to be complicit in Fitzgerald’s demise.
“There was a very, very small, vocal and aggressive group,” Roth told me. “I took some heat, more than I would have liked, to be quite honest. There were some personal attacks that were really painful.”
At basketball games, Roth would sometimes try to start a conversation with one of those Fitz loyalists and be met with stony silence.
Summer of ‘98, he and athletics survived a financial crisis at the school, during which there was a push to de-emphasize sports to NCAA Division III.
(Yeah, this is the same program that in the past five years, played in two NCAA basketball championship games.)
Basketball hit the mother lode in 1999, stayed steady and – unlike other one-hit wonders – found a way to build on it, brick by brick. Mark Few’s perseverance was paramount, but Roth proved an able steward of the enterprise, even if sometimes you wondered if he could be fully simpatico with a train roaring downhill. If ever that was the case, Roth could point to GU’s routine department-wide APR success in the classroom.
Around Roth, the landscape evolved dramatically in program advancements and facilities upgrades. GU has constructed two basketball-related buildings in the last 17 years and a top-of-the-line baseball park.
If some of the glory fell to Roth, it also became his purview to rationalize the athletics boom to wary Gonzaga trustees; you could almost feel the eye-rolls over the phone when Roth would reference such meetings on his calendar. Imagine the crossfire at one of those the weekend in 2007 when Josh Heytvelt got busted for drug possession.
Roth had another role as well. Few guards his privacy zealously and slips into a bunker, not to be rousted even during some basketball-related issues. In those times, it was frequently the Tommy Lloyds or Mike Roths offering up Gonzaga’s public face.
The Zags’ “hunt” for Roth’s replacement was a short one. If ever there was a no-brainer, this was it. Chris Standiford has been at the school since the early ‘90s, starting with his time as an undergrad. He’s been a low-key, behind-the-scenes stalwart.
About that Gonzaga continuity: There’s a fine line between the value of institutional knowledge and the danger of becoming stale. The Zags, with Mike Roth having overseen their transformation, seem to get that as well as anybody.
Apparently without a heart, the year 2020 just keeps dealing out haymakers. Two more came the other day, in less than 24 hours, with the passing of two iconic figures whom I knew well – Tom Jernstedt and Bob Robertson.
(This space normally is about Gonzaga basketball, but many Zag followers were inevitably familiar with Bob-Rob’s immense contribution, while Jernstedt affected them in ways they might not even realize.)
For most of the 38 years he worked at the NCAA headquarters, Jernstedt’s role was the guardian of March Madness. In the early years – back in the mid-‘70s -- that didn’t mean so much, but he shepherded the event to its larger-than-life status of the late-20th century and beyond. I won’t bother here to unearth the figures – the uptick in TV revenue, the sonic boom in fan interest – but it was colossal. The tournament went from cozy little curiosity to mega-happening.
Close to home, the tournament got a significant shove forward in 1984 when Seattle’s Kingdome hosted the Final Four. Jernstedt ramped up the hospitality, visitors noshed on salmon and cruised Puget Sound, and the weather cooperated spectacularly. The weekend took March Madness up another notch.
Jernstedt came from Carlton, Ore., near Salem, to the University of Oregon. I first knew him as a young events manager at the UO in the early ‘70s. In 1972, when the Ducks hosted an NCAA track meet, he found himself in the middle of a kerfuffle between the body’s track and field committee and Bill Bowerman, the legendarily gruff UO track coach who doubled that year as Olympic coach.
It seems an NCAA official was alleging that the lane markings for the relay handoffs were measured incorrectly, and it fell to Jernstedt to inform Bowerman of the breach. Only in his mid-‘20s, Jernstedt recognized that telling Bowerman something was amiss with the track at Hayward Field would be like impugning his first-born son.
“I was fearful of him,” Jernstedt told me in an aside when I interviewed him in 2017 for a book due out next month. “I was with the NCAA 38 years, but I never felt the kind of pressure I felt with Bowerman over that.”
Jernstedt withstood a fusillade of spittle and F-bombs, and went on to what he assumed might be a relatively short stint with the NCAA, a waystation on returning someday as Oregon athletic director. But Oregon’s clumsy chain of command to the president discouraged him, and instead he built a sterling career at the NCAA. That ended a decade ago when NCAA president Mark Emmert launched his reign of error by offing Jernstedt from the organization’s rolls, not face-to-face but with a phone call.
Jernstedt was one of those people whose style makes you check your own hole card – low-key, even-tempered and perpetually guided by common sense.
It was other qualities that distinguished Bob Robertson. The man was unfailingly convivial and kind. In some extended conversations I had with him, I always had the feeling he wanted them to go longer. He liked people that much.
Much has been made of the range of Bob-Rob’s microphone, from Notre Dame football in the mid-1950s to Seattle Totems hockey to roller derby to soccer – and of course, his five decades watching Washington State football, much of it not very memorable. But you don’t know the half of it.
Bob’s love for the mike was absolutely immutable. I was driving in Spokane in late winter maybe 15 years ago, flicking the radio dial, and here came Bob-Rob, describing a State B basketball game at Spokane Arena. You know, Pateros, Curlew, St. John-Endicott, those schools.
Similarly, I’m in Phoenix 15 or 20 years ago, headed out to dinner. The car radio gives voice – Bob-Rob’s – to a high school state-tournament game. An Arizona state high school tournament.
You never knew where Bob Robertson might track you down. Motoring toward Pullman late one night in August about a decade ago for WSU’s football fall camp, I picked up Bob-Rob, doing a Spokane Indians game with Tri-City, Class A Northwest League baseball. The game was scoreless, and, swear to God, it would go 19 or 20 innings before somebody pushed across a run.
I figure Bob-Rob was 82 then.
Mount Rushmores make for trendy debates these days, and if you carved one for Washington State – not just athletes and coaches, but presences – wouldn’t Bob Robertson have to be on it?
It’s what we argue in 2020, the year without a conscience.
The first date that unsettled the stomachs of Gonzaga basketball fans was Aug. 3, when they sweated out the return of NBA-explorer Corey Kispert.
Surmounting that crisis, they look with trepidation to Wednesday, Aug. 26. And the 29th. And Sept. 1. And truth be told, sleep could be fitful any night thereafter.
New student orientation and a phased move-in is next Wednesday at GU. The 29th brings a phased move-in of returning students, who might be inclined to fete the fact they’re coming back to a semblance of their old lives. And Sept. 1 marks the start of fall-semester undergrad classes.
Cue the breath-holding by Gonzaga officials, from the president’s office to the athletic department. They’ve heard the alarm bells clang in recent days over Covid-19 at North Carolina, Notre Dame, Michigan State and Syracuse.
“It really comes down to a question of, if our students are part of the solution and not part of the problem,” says Mike Roth, Zags athletic director.
According to Roth, only two schools in the West Coast Conference, Gonzaga and Brigham Young, have opted for something other than remote classes only. GU chose a hybrid approach, offering both in-person and remote learning.
“We have a chance of being successful,” Roth says. “We just need students to buy in.”
When I asked Roth earlier this week how often athletes are getting tested, he said: “Thus far, we haven’t been testing, other than for symptoms or exposure. If student-athletes are showing symptoms, we get them tested, or if they’re exposed, we get them tested.”
Meanwhile, college sports’ fretful piece of the coronavirus response continues. Football is iffy, and the consensus is, basketball’s start date of Nov. 10 will be pushed back – to Thanksgiving, to Jan. 1, 2021, to . . . who knows? NCAA senior VP in charge of hoops Dan Gavitt says they’ll offer a more definitive date by mid-September.
This much we know, and it’s good news for Zag fans lusting to see the logical progression of a loaded roster: Everybody around the game, including the NCAA, is hell-bent to ensure that we don’t have a repeat skip of the NCAA tournament. That doesn’t mean a tournament is guaranteed to happen, only that people in power are going to move heaven and earth to try to see that in some form, it does.
To that end, we give you the Zags, who might be the busiest program in the country right now. You know already that, seemingly out of the blue the other day, Gonzaga and Baylor announced they had brokered a deal to play this season. Sometime.
If you’re Gonzaga, with visions of a second Final Four (and beyond), there’s a big need for a backup plan to its original schedule. By my reckoning, it’s bigger than anybody else’s.
Already, the Pac-12 scrubbed all schools’ athletic competition through the rest of the calendar year. That included Gonzaga’s games with USC, Arizona and Washington.
Now, introduce the possibility that the NCAA waves off its start until Jan. 1. If you’re Duke – where Mike Krzyzewski underscored the other day that a return of the tournament is a dire necessity – you can still build a resume against North Carolina, Virginia and Florida State, teams from your own conference.
In that scenario, if you’re Gonzaga, your opportunities to shine are limited to BYU, Saint Mary’s and perhaps San Francisco. If it all ended there, Gonzaga might be the most underseeded national-title contender in NCAA history.
Ergo, Mark Few’s fishing this summer has included trolling for big-name opponents willing at the 11th hour to engage his team.
“Fewie’s been talking to a lot of coaches,” Roth says, “and a lot of coaches have been talking to him.”
Were it not for the Zags’ considerable national brand, and TV’s thirst for sports programming, the possibility would be out there for a skeletal GU schedule. Roth is convinced that won’t happen.
“TV is still going to be a real major player here,” he insists. “Especially with the unknown of attendance. What TV wants is great matchups and great games. I don’t have any fear of Gonzaga being left at the curb.”
What of all those November-December non-conference screamers, not only involving Gonzaga, but others? Roth broaches the notion that ESPN might want to consolidate some of those events it owns – more games at one site, more teams, less travel.
“We don’t know what ESPN might be thinking right now,” he said.
Nor the NCAA for its tournament. Some form of pod seems likely, but could it handle the usual 68-team kaleidoscope? Perhaps 32? Baked into that discussion is the reality that the fewer the teams, the fewer the games, and the less cash CBS and Turner are going to pay for it.
At least there’s reason for hope that the run-up to the tournament – the regular season – could be achieved in some form with pods. Remote learning helps cover the “student” part of student-athlete, and Roth waxes enthusiastically about the Zags having three available courts – the McCarthey Athletic Center, Martin Center and the practice floor in the new Volkar Center.
“One of the concepts Mark and I talked about the other day is, if we don’t have fans, it actually makes things easier, that you could come to a single location,” Roth says. “You could have two or three games going on at the same time.”
But, as everywhere, the students must be willing. Gonzaga’s campus will be armored with the usual safeguards – signage, plexiglass, sanitizer – but this seems more about will.
Courtesy of the GU enrollment office, through senior director of community and public relations Mary Joan Hahn, this is the student breakdown on in-person/remote learning: Of 4,837 undergrads who responded to a questionnaire, 15 percent will be online only. Some 84 percent will do it both on campus and online. And, compared to most years, when on-campus residents number more than 2,500, about 1,930 will live on campus.
Meanwhile, the scattergun, helter-skelter messaging from the White House has sabotaged the national response in at least two ways, on campus and off: It made self-discipline seem unimportant to some. And a long, ineffective campaign – such as it is -- has been accompanied by Covid fatigue. Some are just sick of dealing with it, so they won’t.
In basketball terms, Gonzaga long ago established itself as a little bit different. Here’s another chance for its students to prove it.
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