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Roth exits, leaving a totally different Gonzaga


“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.
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Tom Jernstedt, Bob Robertson: Twin towers of a different kind


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.
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Zags' path to the promised land will begin at home


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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Handicapping Gonzaga's NBA explorers


Wrote recently here about how the NBA “tournament” in Orlando later this summer (and fall) will affect collegians exploring the league’s draft Oct. 15.

So here’s what I’m hearing about the three Gonzaga players – Corey Kispert, Joel Ayayi and Filip Petrusev – who have entered their names in the draft, plus a handicap on whether they’ll stay or go:

Kispert – He’s popularly seen as the most likely of the three Zags to be drafted, probably in the second round. GU’s second-leading scorer in 2019-20 (13.9 ppg), he can shoot from deep (.438 on threes) and has a strong, mature body. His athleticism is a mixed bag; he’s a fairly explosive leaper but struggles with lateral quickness.

Kispert has conducted himself well in Zoom interviews with NBA teams.

I’m told he has let it be known he’s seeking an assurance from an NBA team of a guaranteed contract. Normally that means being selected in the first round, but there are cases of some second-round picks who get guarantees.

Here’s the problem with that scenario: Kispert will have to decide by Aug. 3 whether he’s staying in the draft, which at that point, will still be 10 weeks distant. In normal times, that gap would be only about three weeks. So it’s highly unlikely an NBA team would commit to a guaranteed contract 2 ½ months before the draft.

I’m thinking Kispert is a four-year Zag. I’d put his likelihood to return at 85 percent.

Ayayi – Word is, when Ayayi declared, he told the Zag coaching staff he was coming back. In other words, this would be a fact-finding mission.

That makes perfect sense. He’d be unlikely to be drafted.

Ayayi, as a redshirt sophomore, made a quantum improvement, and if he takes another significant step next season, he has a chance in the NBA. As it stands, his chief asset – he’s an excellent rebounding guard – wouldn’t be enough to excite the NBA. While he hit some big shots, his three-point percentage of .345 is only average. He had a three-week, six-game stretch in February when he hit double figures only once.

I’d make his chance of returning 80 percent – only that low because he’s from France and the possibility of playing in Europe might enter in.

Petrusev – Of the three, Petrusev is the wild card. He’s given varying signals as to his intentions, alternately indicating his return to GU is likely but also holding out the possibility of playing in Europe.

He averaged 17.5 and 7.9 for the Zags and was the WCC player of the year. My sense, though, is that some of that pre-eminence stemmed from the fact the conference doesn’t have a lot of players who are physical matches for a 6-foot-11 player with some skill. I saw him get his career-high of 31 points at Santa Clara on 14-of-18 shooting, when the Broncos simply couldn’t find anybody to match up with him. That goes away at the next level.

If Petrusev is destined to be a perimeter threat as a pro, he has yet to prove it; he attempted only 11 threes last season.

He’s the toughest call of the three, and I wouldn’t be surprised if it goes either way. Let’s call it 55 percent likely to return.
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Among others, Zags will hurry up and wait for the NBA


When the NBA burped up its plan to restart its 2019-20 season the other day, one of my thoughts was: Hell of a way to prepare to win a national championship.

The League is planning on taking its sweet time in the restart, and of course, in doing so, it isn’t beholden to any college team like Gonzaga, which has designs on emerging from this nether world with its first NCAA title banner next April.

I’d kind of assumed that we might get a scaled-down version of the NBA playoffs, much like the coronavirus has scaled down everything. Silly me, forgetting there’s too much money in those televised playoff games. The League isn’t poised for a restart until July 31 and playoff series will be per-usual, seven games. The thing could actually go until Oct. 12. Good thing the Minnesota Timberwolves aren’t part of it; they might have had to call in the locals from ice-fishing.

You'd think you could dispense in pretty short order with the regular season, since, when they stopped playing March 11, some teams had completed 66 of their 82 games. That's 80 percent.

(Meanwhile, the 2020-21 NBA season is due to begin Dec. 1. Can’t wait for the load-management controversies, starting about Dec. 4.)

July 31 seems a long way off, in a world living day-to-day. But the NBA still has to work out details for use of Walt Disney World Resort for use of the Orlando plant for all games, housing and practices.

For Gonzaga, the immediate impact of the NBA reboot is that the great muddled future just became more muddled.

The pushed-back NBA agenda now calls for an Oct. 15 draft. All the run-up proceedings have been delayed as well, and the NCAA has declared the deadline for player withdrawal from the draft to be Aug. 3, or 10 days after the NBA draft combine, whichever comes first.

Aug. 3 is exactly two months later than when it was scheduled to have been. And, you surely have noticed, NCAA schools aren’t planning a two-month delay in starting fall classes.

In Gonzaga’s case, that means – potentially, anyway – that in the same month some of its players are beginning ’20-21 classes, they’re deciding on whether to leave the place for good and play pro basketball.

Now in reality, I suspect Corey Kispert, Joel Ayayi and Filip Petrusev will pretty much have landed on a decision by sometime in July, once they’ve gotten more input from NBA teams. They’ve probably already got an inclination, and it could be confirmed or reversed by whether they get an invitation to the combine.

No doubt, the GU staff is well piped-in on those inclinations. But things can change, or intentions can be misread; the Zags didn’t think Zach Collins was going to be outbound after one season, and he surprised them in 2017.

Bottom line, if you’re crafting a roster you hope capable of winning the 2021 national championship – and a lot of people believe Gonzaga is one of those candidates – you’d like to have a little more certainty. A little more routine. You’d like, for instance, to know how about Ayayi’s future, and how his potential departure would affect the incoming freshman class, including guards Dominick Harris and Jalen Suggs, the most heralded recruit in Zag history.

But this is the way of the world in 2020. In a way, the compressed timeline takes us back to an era when transfers (grad transfers, in particular) weren’t so prevalent on the landscape. Back then, if a player bailed unexpectedly for the NBA draft, you were hard-pressed to dial up a replacement. You couldn’t hit “accelerate” on the grad-transfer market. You might be pretty much relegated to combing the junior colleges, and that’s often risky business.

No doubt, in Mark Few's ideal world, this is not how he would have envisioned launching a national-title contender.

Oct. 12 for the NBA championship? That’s two days after Texas and Oklahoma meet in the Red River Rivalry, a day after the Seahawks host the Vikings. The NHL could still be dropping pucks in October. Maybe by then baseball will have wedged out a piece of the playoff sports calendar.

Maybe. That’s a word that comes up a lot these days.
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Zags yearn for normalcy, whenever that might be


Had a long conversation late last week with Mike Roth, the Gonzaga athletic director, about the unsettled state of affairs in college athletics.

And while he never addressed it specifically, I find myself wondering if not just one, but two legitimate shots at a Gonzaga men’s national championship could be scuttled by the coronavirus.

Already, one went by the wayside in March with the cancellation of the 2020 NCAA basketball tournament. As we speak, the particulars of the 2020-21 season are no better than murky. As Roth says, in reference to the confused overall picture for college athletics in ’20-21, “My crystal ball looks like a bowling ball. I have no idea what’s going to happen next.”

It has to be a wailing siren to college administrators that the outlook for a vaccine to combat COVID-19 may be 12-18 months away. Could that mean basketball games without fans? Could it even mean – if the virus is persistent and testing continues hit-and-miss, or if there’s a dreaded “second wave” – no games?

In ways more subtle, the ’20-21 season is already being affected. In normal times, spring is when coaches can work individually with players. Think the Zags would want to have time right now with “Baby Shaq,” 6-10, 260-pound Oumar Ballo? That’s not happening, although GU’s foreign athletes have stayed in Spokane.

The much-anticipated Zag freshman class – Jalen Suggs, Julian Strawther, Dominick Harris -- would be due in town sometime in the summer for the usual academic/athletic acclimation. Obviously, that arrival time could be impacted.

To the good – for Gonzaga fans – I’d guess that fence-sitting players who might have opted for the NBA draft would be more apt to return to school because the player-evaluation process is so muddled. Just spitballing here, but if you’re known to be a first-round pick, you probably didn’t change your plans. But if you counted on workouts by pro teams as a way to raise your stock, that’s not happening.

Mostly, Roth can only paint possible scenarios. It’s the world we live in.

From his home, he talks “multiple times a week” to other athletic directors. Some head up football-playing schools, and, Roth says, “Those poor people are panicking.”

There is great determination to shoehorn in a football season because the sport drives the bus financially. Basketball makes money – a lot at GU – but apparently, only when we know more about football can we be assured of basketball’s landing spot on the ’20-21 schedule. A possibility is a delayed football season, one that might put football and basketball on roughly parallel tracks.

“If college football wants to push back a couple of months, what does that do to basketball?” Roth asks. “All of a sudden, all the ESPN basketball games are going to be out the window. What about the (November) tournaments, the big ones, the ones the Gonzagas of the world play in? They’re all TV-related. If TV has a football game instead, what does that do to the tournament?”

Most of those tournaments – Maui, Orlando, the Bahamas – where Gonzaga goes are mid-week affairs that ESPN theoretically could accommodate. But a lot of others have Thanksgiving-weekend dates that might conflict with football games.

Comprehensive coronavirus testing, and confidence in it, figures to dictate. If time is tight, might college hoops consider a truncated schedule of, say, 22 games, with teams opting out of many of their early non-league games – activating the “force majeure” provision common to contracts?

“That hasn’t popped up in any of the conversations I’ve heard with basketball,” Roth said. “But it has with other sports. West Coast schools are already hearing from schools on the East Coast, saying, ‘We’re not coming,’ because it costs too much money. But I haven’t heard that with basketball. The difference is, there’s not going to be any revenue with those other sports.”

On two scenarios, Roth seems convinced: Students must be back on campus before athletic competition can restart. And when they are back, he doesn’t foresee a provision that would discourage fans in large gatherings.

“I personally wouldn’t see that,” he said. “If you’ve got kids living in dorms and in food service (dining halls), how can you say they can do that, but you can’t have fans in the building?”

Absent a vaccine, so much will hinge on progress in testing. And the guidance of the coalition of West Coast states headed by governors Gavin Newsom, Kate Brown and Jay Inslee.

“I’m guessing our group (the governors coalition) is going to be pretty conservative (in veering back toward normalcy),” Roth said. “That’s just a guess. Now that they can in some ways lean on each other, I could see where they just say, ‘We don’t want to get over our skis’ – especially our guy (Inslee). We (in Washington) were at ground zero. If there’s another outbreak, it’s not going to look good.”

Roth is only one of many GU officials who will be riveted to university-wide consequences of the virus. He broaches the idea that even if the student body is allowed back in the fall, some may be reluctant to return. On the other hand, if students aren’t back on campus, “that’s a significant part of the university budget,” he says, referring to room and board.

Gonzaga will honor the NCAA-mandated rule allowing senior spring-sports athletes eligibility in 2021. But some early returns on a GU survey of those affected are intriguing. A lot of kids, especially those who aren’t getting significant scholarship aid, are ready to get on with their lives.

“So far, we’ve had very few definites: ‘Yes, I’m coming back,’ ‘’ Roth says. “More maybes. But actually more no’s than yesses.”

Some of what you’re reading may sound alarmist. But Roth says GU president Thayne McCulloh made reference recently to a school, unnamed, and at a level unknown, that has already decided not to have campus classes in the ’20-21 school year.

There’s obvious momentum now toward “reopening” commerce. The results of that push no doubt will affect what happens in the fall. But what happens if, in September, the football player at Ohio State or the basketball player at Santa Clara tests positive? What sort of ripple might that create?

As for the Zags and a quest for a 2021 national title, here’s the good news: There will be considerable push for an NCAA tournament; it was the first really big event to be extinguished in March, and it’s a serious money-maker for NCAA schools. The insurance-fueled payout to member conferences was about 30 percent of normal.

And you can argue that even as Gonzaga’s routine is affected, so will be every other school’s chasing a championship banner. It’s just that when you appear poised to make the mother of all runs, you’d prefer not to deal with disruption. You’d rather have as much time as possible on the odometer with a freshman point guard like Jalen Suggs.

But that’s for normal times. Garden-variety, pedestrian, ho-hum normal. Looks pretty good right now.
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Zags line up Jayhawks, a blueblood in a black hat


When news broke the other day in the Spokane Spokesman-Review about a home-and-home series between Kansas and Gonzaga in the 2022-23 and 2023-24 seasons, it was met with predictable huzzahs from Zag fandom.

Kansas. While Zagnuts debate the qualifications for blueblood status, there’s no question Kansas has it. You can make a strong case that the Jayhawks have the longest, deepest tradition in college basketball, a place dripping with history and lore, and never mind UCLA, Duke or North Carolina.

Dean Smith went to school at Kansas. Before him, so did Ralph Miller. Before Miller, Adolph Rupp. After all of them, in the 1950s, Wilt Chamberlain.

Phog Allen coached there. James Naismith began there as a physical education instructor and later coached basketball at KU. He invented the game.

And of late, there aren’t a lot of streaks more impressive than Kansas’ run of 14 consecutive conference titles.

So on one level, it’s a signal achievement to snare Kansas for a home-and-home. Over time, the Zags have run through several stages in their scheduling. Once, they were a basketball nobody, consigned to playing cannon fodder in one-off games in opponents’ big arenas. Then, early in this century, they graduated to darling-but-dangerous, and even when they moved into McCarthey Athletic Center in 2004, they couldn’t immediately bag big-time home-and-homes. They weren’t enough of a “name,” and even for a "buy" game, they were hardly the definition of a sure victory.

But then they inched to the periphery of the game’s royals, and they marched through a virtual home-and-home who’s-who that included Michigan State, UCLA, Arizona, and the crowning touch last December, North Carolina.

On the nobility scale, that doesn’t leave too many more worthwhile pelts.

Meanwhile, not to be the skunk at the garden party ... but doesn’t something about this feel a little odd right now?
Gonzaga takes pride in believing it has built a nationally prominent program “the right way,” without running afoul of NCAA rules. It doesn’t trumpet that ostentatiously, but I’ve heard it at booster events. And so far as we know, it’s true.

And here’s Kansas, which right now is one of the programs in the crosshairs of the NCAA as a result of the FBI investigation of college basketball. Earlier this month, Kansas responded vigorously to NCAA allegations of major violations at KU, including the dreaded lack of institutional control. KU alleges that coach Bill Self has promoted an atmosphere of compliance (insert laugh track here).

The FBI case weaves a tangled web in which it’s difficult to tell the perpetrators from the victims. However we parse that, we do know some things from the U.S. District Court trials, among them that Kansas dealt at least occasionally with Adidas bagman T.J. Gassnola, a former AAU-coach operative with a rap sheet including larceny, bad checks and tax fraud; that Self and longtime assistant Kurtis Townsend exchanged texts with Gassnola about recruits; that Gassnola testified to having paid about $90,000 to the mother of ex-Kansas player Billy Preston; and that Townsend, on a wiretapped call with another Adidas rep who told him that (future Duke star) Zion Williamson’s father was sniffing around about a job, money and family housing, responded, “I’ve just got to try to work and figure out a way, because if that’s what it takes to get him here for 10 months, we’re going to have to do it some way.”

Now, we know that the FBI has delivered less than it promised when it announced thunderously that it was going to pull back the curtain on college basketball. Some of that owes to the fact that it’s the college programs alleged to have been defrauded, and the trials have resulted in only low-level sentences. But the trials have also shone a light on some programs, none more unflatteringly than Kansas.

Yes, the NCAA case is pending. Innocent until proven guilty, yes. But in recent years, there were other KU players implicated with NCAA issues, declared ineligible while Kansas sorted it out, etc. Usually, if there’s smoke, there’s fire, and right now, Kansas is a five-alarm conflagration with units from three counties responding.

When, in trial testimony, an allegation surfaced that Kansas forward Silvio DeSousa’s guardian was paid $20,000, the Jayhawks suspended DeSousa while the matter was investigated. Sports Illustrated’s Michael Rosenberg questioned why DeSousa and not Self was suspended, writing, “Kansas knows as well as anyone how this works. The school seems to go through some version of this game every year. Players get held out of competition as a laughable show of ‘good faith’ that the school is serious about following the rules. Kansas is sacrificing a pawn (DeSousa) to save its king (Self) because that’s what the NCAA implicitly encourages schools to do.”

Perhaps you can’t turn the oily world of college basketball into a morality play. If you refused to play any school suspected of cheating, you argue, you might find yourself playing a nine-game schedule. Indeed, the Zags have had a relationship with Arizona, whose coach, Sean Miller, is under the gun as a result of the FBI probe. At least with that one, Gonzaga can say it scheduled games with the Wildcats, under Miller, almost a decade ago. So there's some history.

I suppose Gonzaga might make a case that the only thing that matters is what’s best for Gonzaga. And for some, at least, the fact Gonzaga has grown relevant enough to be able to schedule Kansas home-and-home makes a statement about GU that could be helpful in recruiting. And that its fans see too many high-profile games played on neutral courts, and deserve an occasional Kansas.

I would only ask: At what price?
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In a March without Madness, the WCC squirms

As I’m writing this, between sessions of thatching the lawn, the first basketballs of the NCAA men’s tournament were to be bouncing in Spokane. Thursday and Friday, the best two days of the sporting year, were upon us.


If you love college hoops, you can’t help but be a little wistful. But it’s safe to say, nobody is feeling more of a tug this weekend than the members of the West Coast Conference. (I’m referencing only the sporting side of the world, not the real-life victims in a perilous time, and hats off to the heroes of any stripe fighting the good fight.)

This was going to be a coming-out for the WCC, a statement that the league was blossoming, that there was more to the conference than Gonzaga. Between the Zags, the supercharged BYU attack and the wizardry of Saint Mary’s Jordan Ford, this could even have been the league’s brightest March/April since Bill Russell and K.C. Jones led San Francisco to back-to-back championships in 1955-56.

You can make the case that no conference suffers more in the gap from its 2020 tournament ceiling to its usual station than the West Coast Conference. Sure, the Big Ten was going to get 10 or 11 teams in the tournament, but it often gets seven or eight. This was going to be just the third time the WCC landed three teams in the bracket, and collectively, this trio was much more imposing than either of the threesomes of 2008 and 2012.

In these troubled times, pain is relative, but where it’s really going to bruise the WCC is in the pocketbook.

It’s still murky, the financial hit that colleges are going to take as a result of the cancellation of the 2020 tournament. The big dance, supported by a massive TV contract with CBS and Turner Broadcasting, is by far the largest moneymaker for the NCAA, which distributes most of the booty to the conferences. The tournament is insured against events such as we’re now enduring, but USA Today reports it to be for less than full value. How much less, we don't yet know.

Here’s what we do know: Each conference’s members would have earned about $290,000 per game in the tournament, and those units are banked over a rolling six-year window for each league. Let’s say Gonzaga had been the only WCC entry this year and the Zags bowed out in the second round. The WCC would gain two units – one for the automatic berth, and a second for the GU victory, each totaling about $1,740,000 over the six years ($290,000 times six), or $3,480,000 overall, to be thrown into the six-year annual-payout window from 2021-2026.

We can only speculate what might have been this year, but let’s speculate. Let’s give No. 1-seeded Gonzaga three victories and say that between them, BYU and Saint Mary’s earned two wins. (ESPN did a simulation based on Joe Lunardi’s bracket and its Basketball Power Index, and – cue the catcalls from Zag fans – came up with Wisconsin besting BYU in the final.)

Five wins total seems reasonably conservative. That’s six units (including the automatic berth by Gonzaga). At $290,000 each, that’s $1,740,000 for one year’s take. Multiply that over six years, and you have $10.44 million – the six-year yield from ’21-26 merely from this year’s tournament (and seven mil more than our example of a single-entry Gonzaga going to the round of 32).

That would have been a handsome return to couple with what most of us expected to be the good repute and exposure the league would have gained.

And think about this: In 2017, when Gonzaga went to the national-title game, the league earned seven units, including the auto berth. At about $270K per unit then, that poured some $11.34 million over six years into league coffers, the most in history for the WCC. So the ostensible haul in 2020 would have been a nice complement to that ’17 bounty over three years of the six-year window.

Why does it matter, you ask? Well, Zags coach Mark Few made a point a few years ago that WCC members needed to be investing some of that NCAA-earned cash into facilities upgrades to improve play in the league and thereby enhance the possibility of more teams making the tournament. Obviously, the more bread to each league member, the better fed they are, and the more likely to upgrade their programs.

Earlier this week, USA Today outlined the fiscal picture without a tournament, and its piece included this ominous quote from Barbara Osborne, a sports administration professor at the University of North Carolina: “All schools will be having huge belt-tightening because of this. This is going to affect higher education as a whole and school budgets overall. That’s going to impact the institutional subsidy for athletic programs. Athletic budgets will be smaller because conference payouts will be smaller. A lot of mid-majors desperately rely on these dollars. It’s not a pretty picture.”

If you take the optimistic view, you might argue that the league is “trending,” that, notwithstanding 2020, the signs are positive at programs like Pacific and USF. True enough. But the personnel losses are significant next season for BYU and Saint Mary’s. While the Zags will be preseason No. 1 in several precincts, Saint Mary’s will have to replace Jordan Ford, and BYU loses Yoeli Childs, T.J. Haws, Jake Toolson and Zac Seljaas.

As the arenas are silenced in this strange March, those aren’t the only losses.
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Zags: Requiem for a remarkable season

My last dream on the night before Selection Sunday went like this: The office called and proposed doing a story on how the tournament might have looked, were it not wiped out. When I woke up, I realized that not only was there no tournament, there was no office, either. I left newspapering a few years ago.

Of course, the dream was no more tortured than the finish of the 2019-20 college basketball season. It was like the pari-mutuel window at the racetrack at post time, boom, that’s it, no more wagering, leaving us only to speculate – at a healthy six-foot distance, minimum.

Sunday, some on the Twitterati were incensed that the NCAA didn’t “release a bracket,” as if the selection committee was holding out, depriving us of one final morsel for conversation. Folks, when 72 hours’ worth of conference tournaments are scrubbed, there is no bracket. Go home.

CBS, I thought, missed a bet in not gathering its studio analysts for a proper sendoff to the truncated season, in the space usually allotted for the bracket reveal. They could have reviewed the unprecedented succession of events last week; discussed how the tournament might have unfolded; debated the impact of a proposed NCAA waiver that would return seniors to their schools next season; and shown highlights of the season. Perhaps that was seen as superfluous in a time of national crisis.

Ultimately, it took a global pandemic to keep Gonzaga out of an NCAA tournament. A question, admittedly of minuscule import: Does the Zags’ string of years making the tournament inch to 22, or stay at 21? Technically, they were in the field as of last Tuesday night, and the schools in front – Kansas (30), Duke (24), Michigan State (22) – still had business to sort out.

Another one: Does the grad transfer market change this spring? If, as widely forecast, a widespread societal shutdown continues for 2-3 months, do prospects freely get on airplanes and take visits, per custom? Or will it be recruitment-by-Tango? And for those on the fence about an early entry to the NBA, does that league's uncertainty in the months ahead in any way tilt such a player toward a return to school?

For Zag fans, the far bigger imponderable is how far their team might have barged through the ’20 bracket.

Mea culpa: I wasn’t especially sanguine about a deep run by Gonzaga. There were continuing defensive issues; the .422 field-goal percentage allowed is the worst at GU since the 2006 Adam Morrison-led outfit. Besides that, the Zags, using a tight, seven-man rotation, were one sprained ankle away from curtains.

On the other hand, you can argue this team was so good offensively – tops in the nation in scoring (87.4), scoring margin (19.6), second in field-goal percentage (51.5), fourth in assist-turnover ratio (1.49), that it could obscure the weaknesses at the other end. We’ll never know.

TV announcers would talk about the Zags’ depth, as a compliment. They must have been referencing six double-figures scorers, and close to a seventh, because GU wasn’t deep.

All of which, flipped on its head, underscores what a fabulous season it was at Gonzaga. On the first weekend of May 10 months ago, I ran into Mark Few in Spokane, when the Zags were hosting Admon Gilder. At that point, Gonzaga didn’t have Gilder, it didn’t have Ryan Woolridge, and it had no conclusive evidence Joel Ayayi would become a productive force. All that was, was the entire backcourt.

Gonzaga lost three guys who have played in the NBA, two prominently, plus its career assists leader. Freshman big Oumar Ballo was declared ineligible in October. A month later, touted guard Brock Ravet left the program. In and out of shoulder problems, freshman Anton Watson kept playing before yielding to surgery in mid-season. Killian Tillie’s ankle would occasionally render him unavailable.

A team I thought was overrated at preseason No. 8 got ranked No. 1 again and was headed for its fourth No. 1 seed. Looking back, it was preposterous, off-the-charts stuff. It was a testament to culture. This team won 31 times and lost twice, tying the 2017 Final Four team for fewest defeats in a season at GU.

Maybe the message in a March without Madness is that nothing is promised, that the journey is worth celebrating as much as the destination. For GU fans, that would mean the “smaller” triumphs – the Thanksgiving Day tightrope act against Oregon; the grit that shook loose a victory at USF; a rollicking 30-point win at Saint Mary’s – merit their own special attention.

Meanwhile, I’m scrolling ESPNU for today’s showings of classic college basketball. It's about to air the Cal State-Bakersfield/Georgia Tech NIT semifinal of 2017.

It’s come to this.
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For longtime Zag fans, it just gets weirder

So you’ve wondered about those funky, end-of-October closed scrimmages that college basketball teams stage at neutral sites? The ones unfettered by media coverage, fans or fanfare? What must the atmosphere be like?

Well, I guess we’re about to find out, to the deep chagrin of Gonzaga fans and the Spokane business community. Like a snowball rolling downhill from high on Kilimanjaro, the concern over the coronavirus claimed another victim Wednesday, as NCAA president Mark Emmert decreed that tournament games would go on only with “essential staff and limited family attendance.”

(That’s if there’s a tournament at all. I wouldn’t bet your 401K on it.)

So, Zag fans, unless can vouch for your tight relationship with Killian Tillie or Martynas Arlauskas, you’ve got no shot of getting into Spokane Arena next week.

Moments before Emmert weighed in, I heard a well known hoops analyst on Sirius radio say that he thought what was happening – at that time, attendance bans on conference tournaments – was overreaction. I think that’s a rash statement, tantamount to saying, “We know better. This isn’t that serious.” Well, we don’t know better. We don’t know what we’re dealing with, and when experts like Dr. Anthony Fauci, head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, issues sobering warnings, we’d be foolish not to listen.

Basketball is a pretty small slice of life right now, let’s be honest.

Still, Zag fans can only shake their heads at a numbing irony. For all the serendipity that has kissed them over the years with a ludicrously successful program, it’s seemingly beyond the pale for the Zags to play the first weekend of the NCAA tournament at Spokane Arena. With fans there, I mean.

This is going to be the sixth time Spokane Arena has hosted the subregionals. To stay home, a team needs a “protected” seed, which means no worse than a 5, probably a 4. Against reasonable odds, the Zags never have been able to line up one of their premier teams with one of those years when WSU or Idaho hosted the Spokane subregional (GU isn’t official host of those games, partly because that would cancel the ability to stay home).

The Arena has hosted in 2003, 2007, 2010, 2014 and 2016. Always, the Zags were betwixt and between. In ’03, Dan Dickau had just left. In ’07, the Josh Heytvelt drama hit. In 2010, they were a year past one of their best rosters. In ’14 and ’16, they were either a year before or after some of their most talented teams.

It was dodgeball gone bananas.

And then came 2019-2020, a confluence of Spokane hosting and an impending No. 1 seed by the Zags. It was going to be so cool. It was going to be one of the shortest distances in NCAA history from a protected seed’s campus to the host arena – what, maybe a mile and a half?

What could go wrong? Not Saint Mary’s or BYU, but … the coronavirus.

You have to hurt for the businesses this will impact. And for players like Tillie, who has soldiered through an incessant string of injuries to come out the other side a senior, ready to create a final bang. And yes, to a lesser degree, you hurt for the fans.

But they’re used to it. Remember how, when the Zags were only an ascendant force, not a national colossus, Gonzaga lobbied the WCC to play the league tournament at a neutral site such as Oakland rather than have to risk everything at a WCC bandbox? They played in the pre-McCarthey Kennel (capacity 2,600-2,800, according to athletic director Mike Roth), not big enough to host the tournament, so it annually went someplace like Santa Clara or San Diego.

Of course, they built the McCarthey by 2004, so at last they were voted the host berth for 2006, which, after all those years, only seemed poetic. To everybody, anyway, except USF coach Jessie Evans. Stating his case for a California school to host it, he said something very much like, “Who wants to go to Spokane?”

Sure, who would want to go to a basketball hotbed that cares passionately about hosting the event?

Bottom line: For all the celestial basketball that has graced GU fans over the years, marrying the Zags to a post-season event in Spokane has been akin to an ultramarathoner tackling a mountain trail with a 60-pound sack of concrete strapped to his back.

So here we are. What a break for the 8 or 9 seed opposite the Zags. It was going to have to face a noisy partisan crowd. Now, aside from the travel to Spokane, it has to overcome … crickets.

Small solace for Spokane, but know this: It’s going to get moved to the front burner when the next round of future NCAA sites gets awarded.

Unfortunately, the next such available games, as I read it, are in 2023. When each day brings so much uncertainty, that seems like a long way away.
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