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Against all odds, Zags continue to be ranked

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  I didn’t do much on New Year’s Eve, so belatedly, here’s a toast to the phenomenon of Gonzaga basketball.
 
  Clink.
 
  But accompanying it must be a question: Why the hell would anybody rank Gonzaga right now?
 
  The news that Gonzaga is ranked Number Whatever in the weekly Associated Press poll usually elicits so many yawns. That’s because the basketball rankings don’t carry a lot of cachet – you may have heard, there’s a multi-team post-season tournament that determines some things – and also because the Zags have long been a pretty regular visitor to the ratings.
 
  In fact, this week they snuggled into the AP rankings, at 24th, for the 142nd straight week. (By my calculation, it’s 141 weeks, but AP claims it’s 142. In any case, it’s an awfully long time, dating back to the preseason poll of 2016-17.)
 
  That GU (9-4) is ranked -- despite having a down year, despite its depth problems, despite its guard play, despite its absence of a dependable, go-to scorer, despite its fragile leadership – is a stretch as long as a party limousine going to a New Year’s Eve gala.
 
  I’d put it on two factors: First it’s a testament to what Gonzaga and Mark Few have built over the years in Spokane, a nod to voters telling themselves, “They’ve still gotta be good, don’t they? Don’t they? Gonzaga doesn’t really have down years, does it?”
  
  The rankings are a reflection of inertia, as in, an object at rest tends to stay at rest.  Once you've established that you're a fixture, it takes an act of Congress to remove you.
 
  At any rate, a couple of numbers are worth mentioning. In that 142-week stretch, Gonzaga has been ranked No. 1 no fewer than 40 times. And within it, the Zags were once top-10 ranked for 83 straight weeks. Eighty-three weeks covers more than four seasons.
 
  And according to the website Collegepollarchive.com, Gonzaga is but a week away from crashing the all-time top 10 for consecutive appearances in the AP poll. Next week, it would tie for No. 10 Duke’s streak of 143 from 1987-95, back when Coach K was really getting it cranked up in Durham.
 
  It’s an elite list, topped by Kansas at 231 weeks, from 2009-21. Duke makes it a couple of other times, North Carolina and Kentucky twice as well. Those are good people with whom to rub elbows.
 
  Secondly, it’s possible Gonzaga’s home loss to San Diego State loss – tucked away on a night not typically awash in college hoops (last Friday), combined with the Christmas-to-New Year’s preoccupation with football – escaped the notice of every voter. One fellow, in fact, still has the Zags 10th, and to him, I’d say it’s high time to put away the holiday egg nog.
 
  The Zags don’t have a Quad 1 victory, of course. They troubled Purdue for a half in Hawaii, they weren’t much of a challenge for Connecticut in Seattle, and they yakked up a double-digit second-half lead at Washington. What they thought were accomplishments -- beating the LA schools -- are, until further notice, worth nothing as those two stumble aimlessly.
 
  Bottom line, the streak appears to be on borrowed time. If it makes it through January, it’s an upset. There’s not enough oomph in the WCC schedule to impress voters, yet there are potholes that could snag the Zags, like a game at Santa Clara Jan. 11 and the home date with San Francisco Jan. 25.
 
  In other words, the next misstep likely costs them. This season, they're never very far around the corner.
#theslipperstillfits #unitedwezag #wcchoops #wccsports #zaghoops #zagmbb #zagup

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It's all on the table for the Zags, not necessarily in a good way

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  In the runup to the Connecticut-Gonzaga hoops matchup last week at Climate Pledge Arena, the cheap-seat price on StubHub dropped into the 20s.
 
  Too much Husky-centric euphoria, maybe, over their undefeated football season. Too much focus on the sputtering Seahawks. Too much angst spent on a Mariner franchise forever crying poor.
 
  And, lets face it, too little Zags.
 
  This feels like new and uneasy territory for Gonzaga, after another disquieting loss, the 76-63 defeat Friday night to the defending national champions. Actually, the Zags have been here before, and it’s not a comfortable place to be. More on that later.
 
  They stand 8-3, hardly cause for panic, except that they’ve revealed themselves to be without star power, without depth in the backcourt, without reliable perimeter shooting or fluid offense, and very possibly, without a clear path to the sort of March stage they’ve mounted for going on a decade.
 
  Since 2016-17, the year Nigel Williams-Goss became eligible, Gonzaga has entered the NCAA tournament as no worse than a No. 4 seed, and four times a No. 1, credentials that reflected Final Four and even national-title potential.
 
  This team is not that. It’s all out there for Gonzaga, and not in a good way. The run of eight straight Sweet 16s is in deep trouble. The astonishing streak of 14 opening-round victories in the NCAA tournament is fragile, because, no, it’s hardly a lock that the Zags make the thing at all, something they’ve done 25 straight times.
 
  It may not be an overstatement to say that to a large extent, the Zags’ fate rests in the hands of Los Angeles. Their two best victories are over UCLA and USC, and weekend losses by both dropped them to 5-4 and 5-5, respectively.
 
  The season looks a lot like 2015-16, when the Zags fumbled multiple opportunities at key victories and entered March with a single quality win, over No. 9-seeded UConn. That team came together down the stretch, burst to the WCC tournament championship (after losing twice to Saint Mary’s), crashed the Sweet 16 and was a bad finish against Syracuse away from the Elite Eight.
 
  Relative weakness of the WCC is probably more of a hindrance than a boon. Yes, that makes the automatic berth ostensibly easier, but it also dilutes the value of beating those teams and buffing the at-large resume. Saint Mary’s is a mere 6-5, and if the WCC doesn’t afford at least a couple of opportunities to impress, Gonzaga is left with San Diego State Dec. 29 and Kentucky Feb. 10.
 
  The season-ending injury to Eastern Washington transfer Steele Venters has been a killer, stripping the Zags of likely their best outside shooter and causing everybody else to adjust to try to caulk that deficit. Meanwhile, Ryan Nembhard and Nolan Hickman are forced to play too many minutes in the backcourt because there’s nobody else available, and neither has been a revelation.
 
  Progress by Seoul import Jun Seok Yeo would enhance the flexibility in the backcourt. In the meantime, it’s particularly painful for Zag partisans to see two GU ex-pats, Hunter Sallis and Dominick Harris, prospering elsewhere, leading Wake Forest and Loyola Marymount, respectively, in scoring.
 
  At Washington eight days ago, after the Zags took an 11-point lead with about 14 minutes left, they finished by going 3 for 18 with six turnovers. The offense was a total mess, and if you want to attribute that to a Husky team that previously couldn’t stop anybody, go ahead.
 
  The other night on the Field of 68 podcast, Rob Dauster and Jeff Goodman ruminated on the state of Gonzaga, and the tenor was sobering. Goodman noted, rightly, that there’s nobody on the roster that strikes fear in an opponent, nobody on the scouting report that must be taken away. He wondered aloud whether this season finally reflects the impact Tommy Lloyd used to have on the roster.
 
  Mark Few, a steady-as-she-goes kind of guy, would no doubt preach caution. There are almost three months of opportunities, a lot of room for growth, and no epitaphs advisable in mid-December. And because Gonzaga punched so far above its weight in recent years – four No. 1 seeds in six tournaments! – the shortfall is so pronounced.
 
  Yet here we are. When the season began, it wasn’t unreasonable to think that this would finally be the year the Zags’ output dovetailed with Spokane’s hosting of an NCAA-tournament subregional. But right on schedule – for its fans, maddeningly uncanny schedule -- this is the cue for Gonzaga to have an off-year.
 
  Spokane Arena hosted in 2003, and 07-10-14-16. Gonzaga (31-2) was headed there, finally, in 2020, and the pandemic blew up everything. Twelve times the Zags have had a No. 4 seed or better – pretty much the standard to get a “preferred” site – and none have matched up with Arena hosting years.
 
  That streak, shake your head, seems almost certain to continue. It’s the others that don’t look like a slam-dunk.  
#theslipperstillfits #unitedwezag #wcchoops #wccsports #zaghoops #zagmbb #zagsguru #zagup

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Suddenly, Zags have a Saint Mary's problem

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For a good long time now, Saint Mary’s has been Gonzaga’s bete noire in the West Coast Conference, the program that occasionally made a mess of a perfectly good party.

  Never mind that the Zags have won about three games in every four played in the long-running subplot of Mark Few versus Randy Bennett. When you’ve ridden herd in a conference for as long as Gonzaga, the losses have a way of sticking with fans almost more than the wins.

  As recently as 10 months ago, the Gaels did it to the Zags, as freshman guard Aidan Mahaney erased a forgettable night with a spectacular few minutes down the stretch in an overtime victory.

  Twice in recent years, Saint Mary’s has short-sheeted No. 1-ranked Gonzaga clubs: It happened to the Chet Holmgren team two years ago, 67-57, late in the season in Moraga; and even more shocking, in the WCC tournament final of 2019, 60-47. That night, Corey Kispert, Zach Norvell and Josh Perkins combined to shoot 1 for 11 on threes, and making the occasion more incredible was that Gonzaga had beaten the same team 31 days earlier by the score of 94-46.

  Now Saint Mary’s has found a different way to torment its oppressors.

  Suddenly, the Gaels have lost their way.

  They entered a Tuesday-night game with Cleveland State having lost five of six games. The 3-5 record represents the most losses this early in the past 20 years of the program.

  Hah, the Gonzaga partisan might say. This is a good thing.

  Well, not so much, because in their annoying-little-brother role to Gonzaga, the Gaels have been a useful foil. They’ve been somebody good, a reminder to keep the Zags engaged through the dog days of the season and a worthwhile pelt when the NCAA basketball committee gets to assigning seeds and sites in March.

  What’s to keep Gonzaga interested once the calendar rolls to 2024? Brigham Young has split for the Big 12, and wouldn’t you know it, BYU is ranked 14th by AP this week. If Saint Mary’s is going to continue mucking through its season, there isn’t an opponent on GU’s league schedule that would burnish a resume.

  The Zags have acquitted themselves well, losing only to Purdue and bagging victories over probable NCAA-tournament timber UCLA and USC. Which means, if Saint Mary’s doesn’t experience a revival, there would be only three remaining NCAA threats on Gonzaga's schedule -- Connecticut Dec. 16, San Diego State Dec. 29, and at Kentucky Feb. 10.

  Bennett’s Gaels have scheduled harder this year. But they’ve also fallen harder, losing to San Diego State by 25 and Xavier by 17.

  “They’ve scheduled like he never has before,” said Boise State coach Leon Rice, the former Zag assistant, whose team won 63-60 the other night over Saint Mary’s. “When you have a hard one, one after another after another, it can stack up on you.”

  Saint Mary’s has been an offensive mess, shooting just .428 (260th in Division I), .299 from the three-point line and .629 on free throws. At least the improved schedule has minimized the computer damage; the Gaels are a respectable 65th in the KenPom rankings, implying that it’s not that farfetched to rescue a move toward the NCAA tournament.

  “They’re gonna be good, it’s not like they’ve disappeared,” Rice insists. “You watch, they’re gonna win nine of their next 10.”

   If they do, Zag fans will have to love it, even while they’re hating it.
#theslipperstillfits #unitedwezag #wcchoops #wccsports #zaghoops #zagsguru #zagsmbb #zagup

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Gonzaga's bracket busted too, and cue the analysis

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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.

  For hours.

  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.
#theslipperstillfits #unitedwezag #wcchoops #wccsports #zaghoops #zagmbb #zagsguru #zagup

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Playing deep into March: It's become a Zag thing

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  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.

  Villanova 21.

  Duke 20.

  Kansas 20.

  Kentucky 14.

  Michigan State 13.

  UCLA 13.

  Virginia 11.

  Arizona 7.

  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
#marchmadness #theslipperstillfits #unitedwezag #wcchoops #wccsports #zaghoops #zagsguru #zagsmbb #zagup

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So what's the ceiling for the Zags?

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  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.
#slipperstillfits #unitedwezag #wcchoops #wccsports #zaghoops #zagmbb #zagup

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Coach Cal and The (almost) Home-and-Home with Gonzaga

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John Calipari reminds me of the guy who, buying a used car from a private party, offers $7,800 for a vehicle listed at $8,000.

The kosher thing to do would be to split the difference, settle for $7,900 and you drive it away. But no, Calipari holds out for $7,850. Gotta have an edge.

Considering it’s summer, the dude has been in the news an awful lot lately – stepping up to help out victims of flood-ravaged eastern Kentucky, and then causing a Kentucky kerfuffle (and those are the worst kind of kerfuffles) when he went public with his desire for an upgrade in auxiliary basketball facilities. The Wildcat coach said Kentucky was a “basketball school,” and that drew the ire of the UK football coach, Mark Stoops. All of which caused the athletic director, Mitch Barnhart, to tell the kids to quit squabbling, or they’d go to their respective rooms.

Barnhart couldn’t have been pleased at Calipari’s attempt to take his facilities campaign beyond closed doors. In the manual of coach-AD relationships, that’s a no-no, covered on about Page 2.

In the course of the flood-relief effort, Calipari and Gonzaga coach Mark Few announced a two-game series this season and next, which was cool. What isn’t cool is that Calipari insisted on the Zags’ piece of the deal to be played at Spokane Arena rather than the McCarthey Athletic Center.

Let’s be clear about two things: If Calipari prefers not to come 2,500 miles west, to say this is too much hassle, to say who needs it, that’s fine. It would be understandable.

Second, he’s not forfeiting money if he plays in the McCarthey. I’m told that typical Gonzaga contracts with like basketball programs – not “buy” games, in other words – don’t involve an exchange of cash. In this case, then, Kentucky merely covers its expenses to come to Spokane and the Zags do the same next season in going back to Lexington.

So why stipulate that the game be at Spokane Arena?

“Anybody that wants us to play in a 6,000-seat facility wants us to lose!” Calipari reasoned as part of a tweet-storm surrounding the agreement.

No, what we want is for college basketball to have the best possible product. The sport is best served on home courts, not neutral ones, even if the neutral one is maybe a mile and a half from Gonzaga’s campus.

Calipari’s calculation must come down to this: The chance of his team losing at the MAC as opposed to Spokane Arena is greater than the comparative deficit it will take in computer rankings and the NCAA tournament seeding process if it wins the game at Spokane Arena. (Surely he realizes that the NCAA’s NET rankings would deem Spokane Arena a “neutral” site rather than a Gonzaga home game. And if Kentucky happens to win but is somehow aggrieved on Selection Sunday, look for Cal to be at full whine.)

What probably happened is this: Calipari, whose Memphis teams also came west to play at Spokane Arena, said he wouldn’t play at the MAC. So Few said, OK, then we get the first game of the two. (Coaches notoriously fight for that “edge,” partly because they work every angle and partly because some series have been known to be cut short by the “first” school buying out the return game.)

Indeed, Calipari seemed deeply pained in tweeting, “I’m disappointed we have to go there first . . . “ In any case, since the two coaches are good friends and the programs of great national stature, there’s zero chance Gonzaga tries to bail on the return game.

Calipari also pointed out that he’d “tried to look back” and find when Kentucky had played a true road game in front of 6,000 or fewer fans and he “stopped looking after the 70s.” You picture Cal, in his personal study at 1:30 a.m., poring through the Kentucky press guide and trying to square attendance figures with schools which might have played in smaller arenas half a century ago.

It doesn’t matter. This isn’t a question of who’s big-time and whether Kentucky should be too proud to play in a 6,000-seat gym. Gonzaga, even without that elusive national championship, has become a phenomenon unto itself -- a thing college basketball has never seen -- and if it plays in a 6,000-seat facility, you play there.

In recent years, Michigan State and Notre Dame have played there. So have UCLA, Arizona, Oklahoma, Texas and North Carolina.

But not Kentucky. As they say, so near, but yet so far.
#BBN #kentuckybasketball #theslipperstillfits #unitedwezag #wccsports #zaghoops #zagmbb #zagsmbb #zagup

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In lieu of extreme makeover, Zags opt for fluffing the couch cushions

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A funny thing happened to Gonzaga on the way to the ATM, to find out if there was anything left in the coffers. It looked up to see an exacta hit in the final race.

Rasir Bolton decided another year of being loved up, and giving back to the community, was worth revisiting. Julian Strawther wasn’t ready for the NBA, and fortuitously, he realized it. And Drew Timme, well, you only get to do this college thing once, and prolonging it in the era of the NIL is certainly better than the days when you survived on Top Ramen.

Big, bang, boom. And as if the week's news wasn’t already intoxicating enough for Zag fans, here came the bulletin that Chattanooga guard Malachi Smith, the Southern Conference player of the year, emerged from the transfer portal with a commitment to GU.

What’s next? Dollar pitchers at Jack and Dan’s?

All of it leaves me . . . wary.

Let’s rewind about 10 weeks, to late March. I sensed a despair around the Gonzaga fan base, born of a season that delivered less than expected. Yes, the Sweet 16s are nice – seven in a row now, astonishingly – but the script didn’t account for a round-of-16 loss to Arkansas, a game in which Gonzaga’s four- and five-point deficits seemed more like 15. Chet Holmgren, the school’s most heralded recruit in history, was gone. The talking heads kept returning to a theme: This Gonzaga team wasn’t tough enough.

It almost seemed as though a changing of the guard was not only inevitable, but maybe even preferable. Maybe the roster needed a shakeup if the Zags are ever to deliver that first national championship. Perennially in the national spotlight, the Zags looked ready to be the hunter, not the hunted.

If we’re being honest, the 2022 tournament was a washout for Gonzaga. In the opener, they led 16th-seeded Georgia State by a bucket midway through the second half. They trailed Memphis by 10 at halftime, and only some miraculous work by Timme in the second half saved them. And truth be told, a couple of the shots he made, you don’t want him taking.

And then, cashiered by Arkansas, ignominiously.

But as June arrives, it turns out Gonzaga's roster will undergo far less than a makeover – more like some touch-up paint.

It rejiggers the Zags from an outfit that might have lost all five starters to one that’s now going to rub elbows with the presumed most viable national-title contenders, folks like North Carolina, Kentucky and Arkansas. It ensures consistent perusal from the prominent websites, visits from The Athletic and under-the-hood diagnosis by the studio jockeys, for better or worse.

(So much for catching anybody by surprise.)

With the spotlight, of course, comes a risk, that of doing something less than fulfilling potential. And even as Gonzaga was blowing to a 28-4 record in 2021-22, it fell short of that. The Zags were the top overall seed entering the NCAA tournament, a distinction that seemed based as much on the absence of any other candidates as anything GU did.

Now the Zags are loaded, maybe as loaded as they’ve ever been. It will be especially intriguing to see how Mark Few unearths enough minutes in the backcourt for Smith, Bolton, Nolan Hickman, Hunter Sallis and Dominick Harris.

When the school issued the announcements of Bolton and Strawther returning, the accompanying inscription on the photos was, “Run it Back.”

But the Zags need to do more than run it back. They need to redefine themselves. They need to show they can as easily grind an opponent into dust defensively as they find the open man. Timme needs to summer in the weight room, and know that as his leadership dictates, his team follows.

No, it’s not a failure if these guys don’t win a national title. It is if they don’t exhaust every avenue trying.
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Gonzaga and that troublesome final hurdle

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

For so long, Gonzaga had a way of making it look easy. This last part isn’t.
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For the Zags, a good time for a tuneup

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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.
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