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Zags yearn for normalcy, whenever that might be

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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

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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?
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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

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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.

Damn.

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

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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

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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 Ancestry.com 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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Zags: A sobering night in Provo (but aren't they all?)

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Once the BYU students had stormed the floor, and coach Mark Pope had gotten done lavishing praise on just about everybody in the house wearing a “Y” sweatshirt, a thought occurred to me: BYU’s dominating 91-78 victory Saturday night over Gonzaga wasn’t a zero-sum game, as in the benefit to the Cougars equaling the blow to the Zags.

Not really. All the mania associated with the game – the sellout crowd, the noise, the hype of the ESPN2 mikesters, Pope’s overheated reaction to it – underscored what a night it was for BYU. Which means, in the public eye, how big a deal it was to beat Gonzaga. Which means, at least by this line of thinking, that the Zags’ status as a national colossus is secure. So while the gain for the Cougars was considerable, the deficit sustained by the Zags was something less.

Nebulous, maybe. But even the metrics would suggest the night wasn’t overly costly to the Zags and their quest to capture a No. 1 seed in the West. They actually gained ground on San Diego State, which lost to a 14-14 UNLV team. At least BYU is an NCAA-tournament team-in-waiting.

All of it, all the hoopla in Provo, makes for an interesting juxtaposition against the way it was going to be when BYU joined the WCC. Remember how there was a prevailing feeling that the Cougars were going to rule the league, that all their big-school resources were going to be too much? Well, as we all know, BYU has instead faded in and out of relevance through the past decade, and not only has failed to outflank the Zags, but Saint Mary’s as well. So the tableau of Provo gone wild as it did Saturday night, about a game in an arena three times the size of the McCarthey in Spokane, is not what everybody anticipated when BYU dropped in on the WCC back in 2011.

Not that the night wasn’t a slap to the senses of the Zags. Impressions:

-- I’d guess the GU coaches would tell you this was about as far as their team has strayed from the scouting report. The Zags left shooters open, they let Yoeli Childs roam inside wantonly. It was a lousy defensive performance, bad enough to kick their KenPom ranking from No. 26 to 35 in a mere 40 minutes.

-- When Mark Few lamented his team’s toughness, some of that was code for how Filip Petrusev played. He got stripped, he had trouble playing through contact, and then spent far too much time pleading his case to officials.

-- What happened to the Joel Ayayi who was Gonzaga’s biggest surprise of the early season? The one who drained a nerveless 25-footer down the stretch to help beat Washington? The one with 19 points to lead his team’s scoring against Santa Clara in January? Ayayi didn’t hit a three in two games over the weekend. He hasn’t hit two since Feb. 1 at USF. He appears to have lost aggressiveness, something the Zags desperately need as the games become bigger.

-- The game underscores what the loss of Anton Watson to a shoulder injury means to Gonzaga. He would have been a safety net against foul trouble by the GU bigs, or the night when Petrusev is struggling.

-- GU was 5 for 25 on threes, worst since 3 of 16 at Santa Clara Jan. 30. In March, that’s a ticket to spring vacation.

-- Gonzaga still hears derision (some deserved) about the strength of the WCC. But there aren’t a lot of teams out there that would enjoy dealing with the offensive prowess of the Zags, Saint Mary’s and BYU, three of the top 13 in the nation at that end by KenPom.

-- I heard Seth Davis say the other night he thinks Gonzaga might be the one to cut down the nets in Atlanta in April. Personally, I don’t see it. But perspective is in order. It’s only the Zags’ overachieving, startling season that elicits that kind of prediction. So all wasn’t lost at BYU. But misplaced, yeah.
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Zags now left to their own (considerable) devices

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For Gonzaga basketball fans, it was an unusually enlightening Saturday. The Zags learned all sorts of things, starting with the morning’s annual basketball-committee bracket top-16 reveal, and ending with the obliteration of a good Saint Mary’s team 10 hours later in Moraga.

In the morning, Gonzaga discovered it has an edge on San Diego State, even as the Aztecs are undefeated, and that means it’s only logical the Zags will maintain that edge if they don’t lose before Selection Sunday. By night, we saw what a focused, healthy (or what passes for healthy in this gimpy season) Zags team is capable of.

Oh yes, the day reinforced something else. It appears that whatever’s out there for Gonzaga on Selection Sunday March 15 – seed, site, bracket quadrant – the Zags are going it alone.

Maybe there’s been another year when the most prized victims of November and December went so collectively south on Gonzaga, but I can’t recall it.

You know the drill: In the Zags’ “inverted” schedule – tough non-conference followed by a less rugged WCC – they do what business they can, and then hope those vanquished acquit themselves well as the season plays out, the more to burnish Gonzaga’s resume. Most years, it seems to me, what passed for quality wins before Christmas have stood up, often gaining greater resonance. As in 2003-04, when Maryland, a Zag victim, was limping along at 14-11 late in the season, trying merely to mount the NCAA bubble, when suddenly it blew through the ACC tournament victorious, all the way to a No. 4 seed in the NCAAs.

(Of course, at the other end there was 2001-02, when St. Joseph’s – ranked No. 10 in the preseason – and Fresno State seemed like major conquests, but each receded from prominence, fell out of the rankings, and on a sobering Selection Sunday, No. 6-ranked Gonzaga got a No. 6 seed.)

Opponent-wise, this year is looking something like 2002. Oregon, Washington, Arizona, North Carolina – meh.

The Ducks are sort of mucking through the season, overly dependent on Payton Pritchard and unconvincing up front. Against the 199th-ranked KenPom defense at Oregon State the other night, Oregon scored 53 points to fall to 18-6.

Washington? The Huskies haven’t won since about the last time Donald Trump told the truth. Their fall from grace has been spectacular – a team drawing mention for a Final Four to one that may struggle to get out of the Pac-12 cellar.

Like Oregon, Arizona (16-7) has been something of a fits-and-starts outfit, puzzling in that you’d figure those freshmen would be jelling by now. But the Wildcats were just schooled at home by 13 against UCLA. And North Carolina, well, we knew Carolina was a shell of itself when the Zags won convincingly in December, but just when the Tar Heels were about to salvage some self-esteem Saturday against Duke, they invented all sorts of different ways to lose.

The good news for Gonzaga is, it has enough juice to make it on its own. Obviously, winning will keep GU on the one line, and even another loss might not be fatal to its prospects for a No. 1 seed.

But there’s that developing joust with San Diego State for the top seed in the West – the winner prospectively going to Los Angeles for the regional (barring a complete collapse, GU will start the tournament at Spokane Arena) and the loser having to trek to New York for a second weekend, there possibly to encounter Duke and its second home at Madison Square Garden.

It has to be significant that Gonzaga was judged ahead of SDSU BEFORE its thunderous victory at Saint Mary’s, so whatever the margin was Saturday morning, it’s greater now.

For comparison, San Diego State has a road win at BYU (a challenge looming for Gonzaga Feb. 22) and neutrals over Creighton (by 31) and Iowa, 26th and 18th, respectively, in KenPom rankings. Notwithstanding Arizona’s inconsistency, the Wildcats are still worth a No. 15 KenPom (and No. 10 in the NET) and Oregon is 25th in both metrics.

Where might San Diego State slip up? An old Zag friend, Leon Rice, could help next Sunday at Boise State, and the Aztecs finish the regular season at Nevada Feb. 29.

Much remains to be decided, in Spokane, in San Diego, even in Eugene and Tucson. But by now, the Zags have to know that it’s in their hands. Which, all things considered, isn’t so bad.
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How the WCC's other half lives, and some questions

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We’ve been hearing for years about what it’s like on the road for Gonzaga in the West Coast Conference. So I decided to find out for myself. Well, myself and my wife. We spent part of a long weekend in the Bay Area attending both GU games at Santa Clara and San Francisco.

I’d never seen a game in either house. Interviewed Steve Nash for a preseason piece back in the mid-‘90s in the SCU gym, but that’s it.

It was different. Different in just about every way imaginable, before you even get in the door.

You know already the fuss Gonzaga coach Mark Few raised a couple of seasons ago when he asked why more WCC programs weren’t plunging into facilities improvements the cash the Zags were earning for league members with their success in NCAA tournaments. Well, there’s another marker of how Gonzaga affects the league: The cost of seeing the Zags play those teams on the road.

At Santa Clara, you can’t merely buy a general-admission ticket. The Gonzaga game is “bundled” with another game – ours with Portland’s at SCU later this month – so you have to purchase two games, and you can donate the second one to charity. Those extra tickets were $13 apiece. Not a huge outlay, but an add-on.

At USF, War Memorial Gym is so small – 3,005 capacity, compared to 4,700 at Santa Clara – that the “surcharge” comes in another form. As in, we (and a lot of other people there following Gonzaga) paid $75 for a general-admission seat. Yes, $75. They can get it, so they charge it. And truth be told, the place is so small, that gets you a good seat.

Most noticeable thing about the atmosphere in these places? The predominance, or lack of, the pep band. Funny thing: We got into a discussion about, believe it or not, whether there had been a pep band at Santa Clara (in a game we’d witnessed from high up), and sure enough, there was. Two days later, at USF, the band was tucked up in a corner of the gym. But inscrutably, it didn’t play. The members sat sort of forlornly with their instruments, and might have played four times the entire 2 ½ hours-plus of pregame and game time. If you’ve been serenaded by rousing riffs of Barenaked Ladies at the McCarthey Athletic Center or Nirvana at the University of Washington, you don’t know how good you’ve had it. It adds immeasurably to the game-day experience.

(A primer on the Bulldog Band at Gonzaga, courtesy of associate A.D. Chris Standiford: GU’s band is all-volunteer and under the aegis of the athletic department, which pays for instruments, sheet music, uniforms and the services of longtime conductor David Fague, director of the jazz studies program. The band numbers about 130, none of whom are on athletic-department scholarships. Part of the allure for band members is not having to submit to student ticket procedures. GU’s band pre-dates the NCAA-tournament streak, but in sketchier form in early years. It was when the Zags began to be a regular player in the NCAAs that AD Mike Roth committed to an upgraded band.)

Sound systems didn’t seem suitable for either the Santa Clara or USF gyms. In our seats, I’m not sure I caught a distinct word from the P.A. in either game. In fairness, I can’t summarily swear the acoustics are better at the McCarthey, but I suspect they are.

Concessions were unspectacular at both venues. At Santa Clara, I went without. My wife opted for a garden burger, while the topic recalled a memory from something GU athletic director told me several years ago – that there was a motive to the 6 p.m. home starts engineered by Gonzaga when the games aren’t assigned to ESPN. Six o’clock gives most workers time to get to the arena, but not enough time to eat before they get there. So there are varied food choices at the MAC, and they provide GU a worthy revenue source.

Competitively, the legendary challenge Gonzaga has in these arenas is palpable even in warmups, where the hosts give off a determined, excited vibe and the Zags are only workmanlike. The visitors reflect something I’ve believed for a long time: Athletes usually play only as hard as they think they need to win.

At Santa Clara, it was obvious Filip Petrusev, with a career-high 31 points, could do just about anything he wanted. It was also obvious he did a lot of things he won’t be able to do against NCAA-tournament-level competition. Of course, Killian Tillie got hurt, and I say this without any research or foundation, other than having covered or been around teams for about half a century: I honestly don’t remember a basketball player having endured as many different injuries in a college career, one atop another.

With Tillie out at USF, it was going to be a dicey day for Gonzaga. There simply aren’t enough bodies for breathing room. USF took away the perimeter, took the fight to Gonzaga, and led for much of the game in front of a highly diluted crowd. It shouldn’t be a result that diminishes the Zags, given USF’s 80s ranking in both KenPom and the NET.

The weekend stirred in my mind a question that arose a long time ago. If you could gather the WCC presidents around a table and they’d speak what’s in their heart of hearts, would they tell you this isn’t what their school signed up for when they joined an alliance – a conference – of religion-based, non-football-playing West Coast schools? That one school would have charter flights and be a grabber on ESPN, and would nudge my school’s own particular enterprise away from being a sleepy little urban campus to needing to do something dynamic with athletics? Would they really rather not have to deal with the nuisance of athletics insinuating itself into the academic mission?

Around the WCC, there have been recent facilities upgrades. But here's obligatory perspective: Santa Clara’s crowd of 4,200 for Gonzaga was almost 2,000 more than the next-biggest SCU attendance this season, against Cal. The Broncos drew 1,202 for Washington State back on Nov. 12. If the interest is modest, it follows that so will be the investment.

In the men’s room, a philosophical Santa Clara fan said, “We’ll get ‘em next year.” Then, mindful that this was Gonzaga’s 21st straight win over the Broncos, he added, “Maybe.”
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In an unremarkable year, Zags still an eye-catcher

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A pro scout I’ve known for a long time lamented the other day the state of the college game in 2020 – the mediocrity of it. He said he wasn’t viewing it from the lens of pro prospects available, but merely the quality of play. If he were issuing grades, he said, the best teams he’s seen – and he’s seen most of them, many more than once – wouldn’t rate more than a 79 or 81 on a scale of 100.

All of it dovetails with a national narrative that there are no great teams, and that this is a year of uncommon balance.

We didn’t discuss Gonzaga. I would assume GU would rate near the top of his list, and that ranking would be founded on its offensive acumen. For sheer precision, unselfishness and – for a lack of a better phrase – intuitive purpose, it’s hard to beat Gonzaga, and its nation-leading 120.1 (points per 100 possessions) offensive ranking in Ken Pomeroy’s statistics.

Up front, a disclaimer: There remain warts with this basketball team. Albeit improved defensively, it doesn’t scream that that element is sufficient to get the Zags to Atlanta and a Final Four berth. The foul shooting is occasionally cringe-worthy. The depth teeters on the edge of alarming, and you wonder if GU doesn’t need somebody like Martynas Arlauskas to emerge and be able to provide a yeoman 10 minutes if called upon two months from now.

But oh, that offense.

Obviously, it isn’t breaking news that Gonzaga runs good offense. That’s always been in the DNA of Mark Few. Go back to 2006, the Adam Morrison-mania year, and Gonzaga was No. 2 in KenPom offensive numbers (it was also a gag-inducing 174th in defense).

Last year, the Zags were No. 1 nationally in offensive efficiency at 124.5. Dating to 2013 – the first No. 1 seed year, the first No. 1 ranking year – Gonzaga has now occupied a top-five spot in offense four times.

But last year, Gonzaga had two uber-athletes up front in Brandon Clarke and Rui Hachimura. That meant a lot of offense at close range was created by athleticism.

The loss of those two players, plus Zach Norvell and Josh Perkins, would lend to the assumption that the Zags wouldn’t purr like a fine German engine in 2019-20. That it has – at least at one end – is a testament to the coaching wiles of Few and his staff.

They’ve always said they place a high premium on skill – on the ability to pass and shoot. But there has to be more than that. A lot of players are good passers and unselfish.

Remember that the backcourt for this Zag edition consists of two grad transfers with destinations unknown at the start of last May, plus a player (Joel Ayayi) who averaged 5.6 minutes a game last year. From that, from the guys who handle the ball the most – voila! – the nation’s leading offense in 2020.

I watch other teams, and there’s a randomness about their attack. Washington, understandably, wants to get the ball to Isaiah Stewart regularly. The rest of the time, shots go up for no apparent reason, other than maybe “I probably need to shoot it right about now.” Oregon State, with a veteran squad and a Pac-12 player-of-the-year candidate in Tres Tinkle, is an unremarkable 36th in offense, and the shots go up seemingly without regard for the notion that something better may await.

This Gonzaga team seems to know the difference between meh, good and better. Only occasionally do you see the imprudent shot. Players seem preternaturally willing to see an offensive sequence through to its logical conclusion, rather than rush up something low-percentage. It’s all in the numbers – six players in double figures, a .508 team percentage (fourth nationally), .391 from three (ninth) and a gaudy 1.63 assist-turnover ratio.

The Zags may get tested this week at Santa Clara (17-5), which you’d figure is tired of getting absolutely trucked by Gonzaga, and at USF (15-7). If you’re a Zag fan, you hope for defense, and appreciate the offense.
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Just as we all figured, Gonzaga again ranked No. 1

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So Gonzaga is No. 1? Again?

Meh.

(If this website had a "facetious" emoji, right now I’d insert it.)

I tweeted this earlier Monday: Honk, if back in 1980; or 1993; or 2012 even, you’d believed by the end of the millennium’s second decade that the Zags would have made excursions to the top of the polls in four different seasons – with four virtually different casts.

Surely you jest.

Before Gonzaga made it to the top in the polls in 2013, I’d always sensed among its fandom that getting to No. 1 was nigh-impossible, even on a handful of occasions when the Zags edged into the top five. There were too many Dukes and Kansases and Kentuckys in the way.

(In fact, real Zagnuts may remember that as GU stood poised to claim the No. 1 spot with a late-season Indiana loss in '13, here came third-rated Duke, beating No. 5 Miami, and there was a large measure of belief that voters wouldn't, couldn't vote in the Zags given such fresh Blue Devil tracks. But they did.)

So I well remember when it happened in early March, 2013. I was in the office of GU president Thayne McCulloh, interviewing him, when he got the affirmative text. Hours later, there was the 20-foot-long blue-frosted sheet cake on a table in mid-campus with a “1” etched in. There was the quote from ex-Zags coach Dan Monson, when I asked him over the phone if, long ago, he and his staff had ever envisioned such a day. He said no, adding, “We drank a lot of beers together, but we never drank that many.”

I recall writing, “It means everything and it means nothing.” Everything, because it was so symbolic of Gonzaga’s improbable rise. Nothing, because a No. 1 ranking doesn’t help you win games (and in fact, it may have helped augur one of Gonzaga’s most painful losses, to Wichita State in the NCAA second round).

So what does being No. 1 mean today? Well, the “nothing” part still holds. And “everything” isn’t quite as forceful as it was that day in 2013, but it still invites a look at the bigger picture.

In the here and now, I’m shocked this team got to the top. I surmised it was overrated when preseason polls shoved it into the top 10. All it had lost from last spring were two NBA first-round draft picks, another NBA hopeful and the school’s career assist leader. Then came the Bahamas tournament and a startling succession of injuries. But still, wins over Oregon, and Washington and Arizona, none at home.

And in a season where the No. 1 ranking has been treated like a live electrical wire, here they are again.

This marks the 13th week Gonzaga has been ranked No. 1, including 2013, 2017 and 2019 (two stretches).

For perspective, consider the program whose story might come closest to Gonzaga’s – Butler. The other Bulldogs crashed the NCAA final game twice in a row, in 2010 and 2011, so they’ve had more high-end success than Gonzaga. But Butler has never been No. 1 in the polls. In fact, it’s only nosed into the top 10 a couple of times.

Downsides? Of course, there’s the old target-on-your-back standby. And inevitably, cue the legion of yard-barkers. Gonzaga-baiting – always great sport on the Internet -- may now crescendo. Just because it does.

I’ll say this: If Gonzaga’s lesser schedule going forward invites discussion that an onrushing Ohio State or Kansas or Louisville is more deserving in January, so be it. You don’t get to stay No. 1 by statute. This isn’t like royalty in England. And if you want to argue that one of those teams is a better choice for No. 1 today, knock yourself out. But you can’t dismiss Gonzaga’s eligibility – its worthiness – for the top spot on Dec. 23, 2019.

So big picture, taking into account everything from its NAIA roots, to Hank Anderson to John Stockton to Dan Fitzgerald, where does that leave us?

At the corner of stupefying and preposterous.
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