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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.
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.
Five words. Five innocent, but chilling words that frame the future of two Pac-12 basketball programs, and indeed, the entire conference.
“I never got a call.”
As the college hoops season winds down, one of its surprises is the University of Arizona, which, following the skidding, contentious final years of Sean Miller, finds itself in prime position to nail down a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament under first-year coach Tommy Lloyd.
Yes, I’m surprised, but not because I didn’t think Lloyd was an ascendant star as he did excellent work over two decades for Mark Few at Gonzaga. Rosters being almost unknowable several months out these days, and allowing for the usual adjustment to a new regime, I figured the Lloyd track at Arizona would be something like this: A couple of uneven transitional seasons, and by the third year, appreciable success.
Two things happened: Lloyd re-recruited key parts of Miller’s last roster, though it’s stunning to realize that Arizona retained only two of the top six scorers from last season. And second, he and his staff have coached the hell out of this team. They play a brisk, up-and-down style (hello, Gonzaga), stand third in the nation in scoring and rank in KenPom’s top 10 in both offense and defense, a recipe for solid candidacy to win the whole enchilada in April.
Lloyd is the most logical choice for national coach-of-the-year recognition -- and given that there are several outlets making that pick, he's in the pole position to win at least one of them.
Answered, at least in part, is the question that accompanied the promising assistant at Gonzaga: What if Tommy Lloyd could coach? He had long since proven himself as a recruiter, especially overseas, and if he had similar chops on the bench, he’d be the total package. Now we’re seeing what was fact at Gonzaga, that Lloyd had considerable say with Few in day-to-day operation and intricacies of strategy.
Meanwhile, as Arizona was early into the work of assembling its 22-2 record, Lloyd was asked by longtime Arizona Daily Star columnist Greg Hansen if he had heard from nearby Washington in the spring of 2017 when it replaced veteran Lorenzo Romar with Syracuse assistant Mike Hopkins.
“I never got a call,” Lloyd replied.
He never got a call.
This was the landscape five years ago: Gonzaga was about to crash its first Final Four. Yes, between that one and now, it has played in another Final Four, made more excursions to the top of the polls and cemented its place as one of the real monoliths of the sport. So Lloyd’s star wasn’t as bright in ’17 as it was last spring.
But Washington was making an unusual commitment in its willingness to hire an assistant. That’s a relatively rare thing at the major-conference level. At Washington State, hardly a college-basketball destination, you have to go back four coaches to find a hire who was last an assistant, and that was a special case in Tony Bennett.
And yet, if we are to believe him, Lloyd never got a call.
True, hindsight is 20/20. And it’s far too early to make a final judgment on either Lloyd or Hopkins as a head coach. Lloyd, as the jocular old bromide goes, may be giving Arizona fans too much too soon (though they’d find a way to excuse him if he won a national title in his debut). And Hopkins may, somehow, at long last, still the Huskies into some stability after a wildly convulsive five years. He won Pac-12 coach-of-the-year honors his first two seasons, flopped spectacularly the next two, and in Year Five, has rebounded with a new cast of local kids who came back home for a final college season.
But the Huskies are winning only modestly, probably headed for a secondary tournament and in today’s here-and-gone environment, needing to replace the key parts of the roster. Since Jen Cohen, the UW athletic director, owes Hopkins about $9 million, he probably gets to stick around and see if he’s up to the task.
What might have Cohen -- who hasn’t been a stalwart in major hires at the UW -- been thinking back in ’17? Perhaps there was some institutional knowledge that Few had turned down Washington back in 2002 when it hired Romar. Maybe there was a fear that Lloyd would give the Huskies the thumbs-down as well, and it would be a public embarrassment. Maybe they were just too proud. But the Huskies had a chance not only to see if a rising coach with state-of-Washington roots was interested, but potentially to chip away at the school across the state that has long been a bete noire to Husky basketball.
But Tommy Lloyd never got a call.
Brainstorming how possibly to make sense of the John Stockton lightning bolt of a few days ago, I was alerted to my latest incoming e-mail.
The Minneapolis Star-Tribune wrote that hospitals in that area have suspended a long-standing program of diverting ambulances from their emergency departments when they’re overcrowded. ER closures, something that used to be a random occurrence, are now so routine because of Covid-19 that some ambulances were changing course multiple times during one transport.
Stuff like this must somehow have escaped Stockton during his professed “thousands of hours” of research into Covid-19 and its auxiliary issues.
In a detailed interview with the Spokesman-Review of Spokane the other day, Stockton sought to explain his side of the impasse that caused Gonzaga to suspend his season tickets at GU basketball games because of his refusal to comply with the school’s mask mandate. He had touched on these views in a Utah-based anti-vaccine video project last year.
At the end of the S-R interview, the paper posted this italicized editor’s note, in itself rather remarkable: “Many of the claims made by Stockton regarding Covid-19 and vaccines are not backed by science nor deemed credible by medical professionals . . . “
In other words: “We don’t know what would cause the NBA’s all-time assists leader to go rogue and spew out such chunks of cockamamie horse pucky, but take them with a grain of salt, kind of like you would if the One America News Network claimed Rand Paul’s ancestors discovered America.”
Good for Gonzaga for making an uncomfortable call on this, but the right one.
Poor Chris Standiford. All he’s had to do in his first five months as athletic director is mete out discipline for a DUI incurred by his future hall of fame basketball coach Mark Few, and then confront Stockton’s flights of fancy.
Stockton alleges that “over 100” vaccinated professional athletes “in the prime of their life” have dropped dead, “right on the pitch, right on the field, right on the court.”
He also insists there are “20,000 deaths from the vaccine that the CDC acknowledges from their VAERS (Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System), which they acknowledge accounts for only one percent of actual.”
I believe this is the first time I’ve heard the number 20,000 invoked by an athlete since Wilt Chamberlain, the NBA great, claimed to have slept with 20,000 different women. Wilt’s assessment appears more credible.
Stockton says he has spent “well over 1,000 hours” researching Covid-19. Who knows, that could be true. He also referenced “thousands of hours” spent on this. Just know that 1,000 hours works out to about six months of 40-hour weeks, or a full-time job for half a year.
We can glean insight into Stockton’s mind-frame with his statement to the Spokesman-Review that he gravitated toward a “holistic” approach to healing partly because he had a negative experience with anti-inflammatory drugs when he was a player.
From there, apparently, he grew sufficiently entrenched in his beliefs that it became too much of an imposition to wear a piece of cloth on his face at a Gonzaga basketball game. What for many of us is worthy of investing only an eye-roll became a position paper for him.
I’m guessing this is not entirely a shock to people around Gonzaga, because the school has known for a long time he’s a little different.
I’ve had a few moments around Stockton, all of them, well, odd.
In 1999, the year Gonzaga burst onto the national stage, the Zags had just beaten Florida to crash the Elite Eight, and, for an off-day story, my paper was gathering reaction from prominent alums. I took on the challenge of finding Stockton, and was proud to discover the hotel in Charlotte where his visiting Utah Jazz were about to play the Hornets.
They rang his room. Stockton might have been napping, and if that’s the case, I’m sorry. I identified myself and asked if I could get his response to the Zags’ improbable run.
“I don’t do interviews on game day,” Stockton said.
This wasn’t going well.
“I understand,” I said. “Could I just get a sentence from you on their run?”
“No,” he said. End of conversation.
In other words, “The Zags are a win over UConn today from a trip to the Final Four. Reached in Charlotte, John Stockton had no comment.”
In 2002, I wrote “Bravehearts,” a book on the rise of Gonzaga basketball. I wanted to see if Stockton might write the foreword. I went through a administrator friend at Gonzaga, who forwarded this reply: “Why should I do something for a guy who’s just trying to make money off the program?”
Hmm. Apparently, once you have the germ of an opinion, it becomes very hard to knock you off that opinion.
About 2014, I was writing about David Stockton, the overachieving guard who is John’s son. It seemed to scream out for an observation or two from the dad (or at least an attempt to get one). At this point, I had covered probably 75 Gonzaga games over 15 seasons.
I approached GU’s sports publicist. He didn’t handle Matters Stockton. He referred me to another longtime operative in the athletic department, whom I knew pretty well, and I made the request. Days passed. Nothing. I got back to my contact. Still nothing. The campaign died a slow death.
Maybe I didn’t miss that much.
Those Zags, always the show-stopper.
They’re at it again, splashing up insane offensive numbers, cozying up to triple digits routinely, sending Drew Timme off to win national player-of-the-week honors on a weekend of 27-for-32 shooting.
This year, they started No. 1, were all the rage after clowning Texas and UCLA, and then receded from the national conversation by losing to Duke and Alabama. But they followed with an underrated win over Texas Tech before touching off the current run of ridiculousness against WCC teams.
They're 14-2. And yes, they’re No. 1 again.
Meh, you say.
It’s true that the Holy Grail continues to elude the Zags. Some of their achievements put them shoulder-to-shoulder with the blueblood programs, but they’re always the outlier, never having won a national championship.
Let’s allow that the Gonzaga administration, the coaches, the fan base and the recent rosters will perpetually lament not having won a title if it never happens. It’s the star atop the Christmas tree.
But, for however long it takes you to negotiate this sermon, let’s put aside what hasn’t happened and focus on what has. Beneath GU’s latest foray to the No. 1 spot are an array of numbers that shout perspective even as some fans scream for the ultimate banner.
Like: Beginning with Gonzaga’s first No. 1 ranking in 2013, the Zags have been voted to the top of the AP poll in six different seasons, a number equaled only by Duke. Kentucky and Kansas trail with four apiece.
This season’s four weeks at No. 1 makes it 38 weeks over those 10 seasons, good for No. 8 on the all-time list. And when Gonzaga chases down Cincinnati’s 45 in seventh, the six programs ahead will be Duke, UCLA, Kentucky, North Carolina, Kansas and Indiana.
Consecutive weeks at No. 1? Gonzaga’s 17 last year rates seventh all-time.
Courtesy of the NCAA record book, Gonzaga is 12th all-time in winning percentage (.931, or 95-7) over a three-year period and 12th over a two-year period (.954 or 62-3).
The Zags’ 61 straight victories at the McCarthey Athletic Center brings them within hailing distance of Arizona’s 71 at No. 10 in history.
There are the other standbys: The Zags’ 22 straight NCAA tournaments is No. 5 all-time, and its 12 consecutive victories in the tournament’s first round is history’s sixth best, behind North Carolina (18), Kentucky (16), Kansas (15), UCLA (14) and Kansas again (14).
Six successive Sweet 16 appearances is the longest ongoing streak and tied with UCLA for fourth all-time behind North Carolina and two Duke teams.
You get the idea. The Zags keep exceedingly good company these days. Now they’d like to separate from the crowd, elite as it is.
A couple of years ago, a provocateur tweeter took note of Gonzaga’s 20 straight NCAA-tournament appearances and single foray to the title game, and tapped sarcastically, “Pretty nice return.”
I took the bait and replied to the effect that the tournament is insanely competitive, annually.
And Saturday night, that’s what struck me about Gonzaga’s 91-82 defeat to Alabama. It was evident even up in the cheap seats at Climate Pledge Arena, which aren’t so cheap.
This was going to be the year Gonzaga broke through the glass ceiling and won its first NCAA championship. It had a premier player-of-the-year candidate coming back in Drew Timme, it had the No. 1-rated recruit in the nation incoming in Chet Holmgren, and it had significant other pieces like Andrew Nembhard and Anton Watson and a handful of gifted newbies.
This was going to be the year.
It still may be.
But Alabama showed the Zags just how fragile the presumption is. And how fragile the presumption is that Gonzaga will win a national championship in your lifetime.
‘Bama got into the lane too easily, it kicked the ball to perimeter shooters adroitly, and the flurry of treys thrust the Tide into a lead Gonzaga never could overcome. And Alabama defended, holding GU to 45-percent shooting.
It left Gonzaga with so many things to address: Dribble penetration, defensive rotations. Timme’s sudden need to force his own offense. The all-too-frequent evidence that the Zags got less than the best shot available. Free throw shooting, which was horrendous.
It’s too early to say definitively that this team can’t shoot as well as the primo 2020-21 edition. The latest Zags shoot threes at .340, that club shot .368. But Nembhard is at .281, four percent off last year, and the combo of Timme and Holmgren are only eight of 31, which means either they figure to be better, or they need to find something closer.
Against Alabama, Timme said, they came out flat.
Huh? In a parlay of the biggest building with the most partisan Gonzaga crowd possible in the nation, they came out flat?
Strange as it sounds, maybe Timme was right. I felt there was sort of an odd vibe of Gonzaga appreciation in the place, as if the occasion – splashy new arena meets college hoops monolith – was bigger than the competition.
‘Bama, where’d it come from? It lost to Iona. But then, where did Purdue come from? Yeah, it was No. 7 when the Zags were preseason No. 1, but now people are seeing the Boilermakers’ offense as unstoppable. And here we thought the long-term threat was going to come from Duke or Villanova or UCLA. But wait, there’s Calipari’s guys, and Kansas is perennially tough, and here’s Baylor, back for more.
Point is, there’s nothing guaranteed anybody, which amplifies something I’ve believed for a long time: The national-title talk around Gonzaga is overstated – not because the Zags aren’t capable of it but because it’s not necessarily the inevitable culmination of their generation-long ascent. Aspire to get to the Final Four, and if you’re good enough then to go 2 and 0, God bless you.
The good news for the Zags is, there ought to be a mountain of upside. Julian Strawther is just a pup. Nolan Hickman and Hunter Sallis are fresh out of high school. Rasir Bolton is adjusting to a new system. And Holmgren is just scratching the surface.
None of this even accounts for the expected bump when Mark Few makes the whole greater than the sum of the parts.
Gonzaga still has as good a chance as anybody to win the ’22 championship. It’s just that there are a lot of anybodys out there.
Apparently without a heart, the year 2020 just keeps dealing out haymakers. Two more came the other day, in less than 24 hours, with the passing of two iconic figures whom I knew well – Tom Jernstedt and Bob Robertson.
(This space normally is about Gonzaga basketball, but many Zag followers were inevitably familiar with Bob-Rob’s immense contribution, while Jernstedt affected them in ways they might not even realize.)
For most of the 38 years he worked at the NCAA headquarters, Jernstedt’s role was the guardian of March Madness. In the early years – back in the mid-‘70s -- that didn’t mean so much, but he shepherded the event to its larger-than-life status of the late-20th century and beyond. I won’t bother here to unearth the figures – the uptick in TV revenue, the sonic boom in fan interest – but it was colossal. The tournament went from cozy little curiosity to mega-happening.
Close to home, the tournament got a significant shove forward in 1984 when Seattle’s Kingdome hosted the Final Four. Jernstedt ramped up the hospitality, visitors noshed on salmon and cruised Puget Sound, and the weather cooperated spectacularly. The weekend took March Madness up another notch.
Jernstedt came from Carlton, Ore., near Salem, to the University of Oregon. I first knew him as a young events manager at the UO in the early ‘70s. In 1972, when the Ducks hosted an NCAA track meet, he found himself in the middle of a kerfuffle between the body’s track and field committee and Bill Bowerman, the legendarily gruff UO track coach who doubled that year as Olympic coach.
It seems an NCAA official was alleging that the lane markings for the relay handoffs were measured incorrectly, and it fell to Jernstedt to inform Bowerman of the breach. Only in his mid-‘20s, Jernstedt recognized that telling Bowerman something was amiss with the track at Hayward Field would be like impugning his first-born son.
“I was fearful of him,” Jernstedt told me in an aside when I interviewed him in 2017 for a book due out next month. “I was with the NCAA 38 years, but I never felt the kind of pressure I felt with Bowerman over that.”
Jernstedt withstood a fusillade of spittle and F-bombs, and went on to what he assumed might be a relatively short stint with the NCAA, a waystation on returning someday as Oregon athletic director. But Oregon’s clumsy chain of command to the president discouraged him, and instead he built a sterling career at the NCAA. That ended a decade ago when NCAA president Mark Emmert launched his reign of error by offing Jernstedt from the organization’s rolls, not face-to-face but with a phone call.
Jernstedt was one of those people whose style makes you check your own hole card – low-key, even-tempered and perpetually guided by common sense.
It was other qualities that distinguished Bob Robertson. The man was unfailingly convivial and kind. In some extended conversations I had with him, I always had the feeling he wanted them to go longer. He liked people that much.
Much has been made of the range of Bob-Rob’s microphone, from Notre Dame football in the mid-1950s to Seattle Totems hockey to roller derby to soccer – and of course, his five decades watching Washington State football, much of it not very memorable. But you don’t know the half of it.
Bob’s love for the mike was absolutely immutable. I was driving in Spokane in late winter maybe 15 years ago, flicking the radio dial, and here came Bob-Rob, describing a State B basketball game at Spokane Arena. You know, Pateros, Curlew, St. John-Endicott, those schools.
Similarly, I’m in Phoenix 15 or 20 years ago, headed out to dinner. The car radio gives voice – Bob-Rob’s – to a high school state-tournament game. An Arizona state high school tournament.
You never knew where Bob Robertson might track you down. Motoring toward Pullman late one night in August about a decade ago for WSU’s football fall camp, I picked up Bob-Rob, doing a Spokane Indians game with Tri-City, Class A Northwest League baseball. The game was scoreless, and, swear to God, it would go 19 or 20 innings before somebody pushed across a run.
I figure Bob-Rob was 82 then.
Mount Rushmores make for trendy debates these days, and if you carved one for Washington State – not just athletes and coaches, but presences – wouldn’t Bob Robertson have to be on it?
It’s what we argue in 2020, the year without a conscience.
The first date that unsettled the stomachs of Gonzaga basketball fans was Aug. 3, when they sweated out the return of NBA-explorer Corey Kispert.
Surmounting that crisis, they look with trepidation to Wednesday, Aug. 26. And the 29th. And Sept. 1. And truth be told, sleep could be fitful any night thereafter.
New student orientation and a phased move-in is next Wednesday at GU. The 29th brings a phased move-in of returning students, who might be inclined to fete the fact they’re coming back to a semblance of their old lives. And Sept. 1 marks the start of fall-semester undergrad classes.
Cue the breath-holding by Gonzaga officials, from the president’s office to the athletic department. They’ve heard the alarm bells clang in recent days over Covid-19 at North Carolina, Notre Dame, Michigan State and Syracuse.
“It really comes down to a question of, if our students are part of the solution and not part of the problem,” says Mike Roth, Zags athletic director.
According to Roth, only two schools in the West Coast Conference, Gonzaga and Brigham Young, have opted for something other than remote classes only. GU chose a hybrid approach, offering both in-person and remote learning.
“We have a chance of being successful,” Roth says. “We just need students to buy in.”
When I asked Roth earlier this week how often athletes are getting tested, he said: “Thus far, we haven’t been testing, other than for symptoms or exposure. If student-athletes are showing symptoms, we get them tested, or if they’re exposed, we get them tested.”
Meanwhile, college sports’ fretful piece of the coronavirus response continues. Football is iffy, and the consensus is, basketball’s start date of Nov. 10 will be pushed back – to Thanksgiving, to Jan. 1, 2021, to . . . who knows? NCAA senior VP in charge of hoops Dan Gavitt says they’ll offer a more definitive date by mid-September.
This much we know, and it’s good news for Zag fans lusting to see the logical progression of a loaded roster: Everybody around the game, including the NCAA, is hell-bent to ensure that we don’t have a repeat skip of the NCAA tournament. That doesn’t mean a tournament is guaranteed to happen, only that people in power are going to move heaven and earth to try to see that in some form, it does.
To that end, we give you the Zags, who might be the busiest program in the country right now. You know already that, seemingly out of the blue the other day, Gonzaga and Baylor announced they had brokered a deal to play this season. Sometime.
If you’re Gonzaga, with visions of a second Final Four (and beyond), there’s a big need for a backup plan to its original schedule. By my reckoning, it’s bigger than anybody else’s.
Already, the Pac-12 scrubbed all schools’ athletic competition through the rest of the calendar year. That included Gonzaga’s games with USC, Arizona and Washington.
Now, introduce the possibility that the NCAA waves off its start until Jan. 1. If you’re Duke – where Mike Krzyzewski underscored the other day that a return of the tournament is a dire necessity – you can still build a resume against North Carolina, Virginia and Florida State, teams from your own conference.
In that scenario, if you’re Gonzaga, your opportunities to shine are limited to BYU, Saint Mary’s and perhaps San Francisco. If it all ended there, Gonzaga might be the most underseeded national-title contender in NCAA history.
Ergo, Mark Few’s fishing this summer has included trolling for big-name opponents willing at the 11th hour to engage his team.
“Fewie’s been talking to a lot of coaches,” Roth says, “and a lot of coaches have been talking to him.”
Were it not for the Zags’ considerable national brand, and TV’s thirst for sports programming, the possibility would be out there for a skeletal GU schedule. Roth is convinced that won’t happen.
“TV is still going to be a real major player here,” he insists. “Especially with the unknown of attendance. What TV wants is great matchups and great games. I don’t have any fear of Gonzaga being left at the curb.”
What of all those November-December non-conference screamers, not only involving Gonzaga, but others? Roth broaches the notion that ESPN might want to consolidate some of those events it owns – more games at one site, more teams, less travel.
“We don’t know what ESPN might be thinking right now,” he said.
Nor the NCAA for its tournament. Some form of pod seems likely, but could it handle the usual 68-team kaleidoscope? Perhaps 32? Baked into that discussion is the reality that the fewer the teams, the fewer the games, and the less cash CBS and Turner are going to pay for it.
At least there’s reason for hope that the run-up to the tournament – the regular season – could be achieved in some form with pods. Remote learning helps cover the “student” part of student-athlete, and Roth waxes enthusiastically about the Zags having three available courts – the McCarthey Athletic Center, Martin Center and the practice floor in the new Volkar Center.
“One of the concepts Mark and I talked about the other day is, if we don’t have fans, it actually makes things easier, that you could come to a single location,” Roth says. “You could have two or three games going on at the same time.”
But, as everywhere, the students must be willing. Gonzaga’s campus will be armored with the usual safeguards – signage, plexiglass, sanitizer – but this seems more about will.
Courtesy of the GU enrollment office, through senior director of community and public relations Mary Joan Hahn, this is the student breakdown on in-person/remote learning: Of 4,837 undergrads who responded to a questionnaire, 15 percent will be online only. Some 84 percent will do it both on campus and online. And, compared to most years, when on-campus residents number more than 2,500, about 1,930 will live on campus.
Meanwhile, the scattergun, helter-skelter messaging from the White House has sabotaged the national response in at least two ways, on campus and off: It made self-discipline seem unimportant to some. And a long, ineffective campaign – such as it is -- has been accompanied by Covid fatigue. Some are just sick of dealing with it, so they won’t.
In basketball terms, Gonzaga long ago established itself as a little bit different. Here’s another chance for its students to prove it.
Wrote recently here about how the NBA “tournament” in Orlando later this summer (and fall) will affect collegians exploring the league’s draft Oct. 15.
So here’s what I’m hearing about the three Gonzaga players – Corey Kispert, Joel Ayayi and Filip Petrusev – who have entered their names in the draft, plus a handicap on whether they’ll stay or go:
Kispert – He’s popularly seen as the most likely of the three Zags to be drafted, probably in the second round. GU’s second-leading scorer in 2019-20 (13.9 ppg), he can shoot from deep (.438 on threes) and has a strong, mature body. His athleticism is a mixed bag; he’s a fairly explosive leaper but struggles with lateral quickness.
Kispert has conducted himself well in Zoom interviews with NBA teams.
I’m told he has let it be known he’s seeking an assurance from an NBA team of a guaranteed contract. Normally that means being selected in the first round, but there are cases of some second-round picks who get guarantees.
Here’s the problem with that scenario: Kispert will have to decide by Aug. 3 whether he’s staying in the draft, which at that point, will still be 10 weeks distant. In normal times, that gap would be only about three weeks. So it’s highly unlikely an NBA team would commit to a guaranteed contract 2 ½ months before the draft.
I’m thinking Kispert is a four-year Zag. I’d put his likelihood to return at 85 percent.
Ayayi – Word is, when Ayayi declared, he told the Zag coaching staff he was coming back. In other words, this would be a fact-finding mission.
That makes perfect sense. He’d be unlikely to be drafted.
Ayayi, as a redshirt sophomore, made a quantum improvement, and if he takes another significant step next season, he has a chance in the NBA. As it stands, his chief asset – he’s an excellent rebounding guard – wouldn’t be enough to excite the NBA. While he hit some big shots, his three-point percentage of .345 is only average. He had a three-week, six-game stretch in February when he hit double figures only once.
I’d make his chance of returning 80 percent – only that low because he’s from France and the possibility of playing in Europe might enter in.
Petrusev – Of the three, Petrusev is the wild card. He’s given varying signals as to his intentions, alternately indicating his return to GU is likely but also holding out the possibility of playing in Europe.
He averaged 17.5 and 7.9 for the Zags and was the WCC player of the year. My sense, though, is that some of that pre-eminence stemmed from the fact the conference doesn’t have a lot of players who are physical matches for a 6-foot-11 player with some skill. I saw him get his career-high of 31 points at Santa Clara on 14-of-18 shooting, when the Broncos simply couldn’t find anybody to match up with him. That goes away at the next level.
If Petrusev is destined to be a perimeter threat as a pro, he has yet to prove it; he attempted only 11 threes last season.
He’s the toughest call of the three, and I wouldn’t be surprised if it goes either way. Let’s call it 55 percent likely to return.
When the NBA burped up its plan to restart its 2019-20 season the other day, one of my thoughts was: Hell of a way to prepare to win a national championship.
The League is planning on taking its sweet time in the restart, and of course, in doing so, it isn’t beholden to any college team like Gonzaga, which has designs on emerging from this nether world with its first NCAA title banner next April.
I’d kind of assumed that we might get a scaled-down version of the NBA playoffs, much like the coronavirus has scaled down everything. Silly me, forgetting there’s too much money in those televised playoff games. The League isn’t poised for a restart until July 31 and playoff series will be per-usual, seven games. The thing could actually go until Oct. 12. Good thing the Minnesota Timberwolves aren’t part of it; they might have had to call in the locals from ice-fishing.
You'd think you could dispense in pretty short order with the regular season, since, when they stopped playing March 11, some teams had completed 66 of their 82 games. That's 80 percent.
(Meanwhile, the 2020-21 NBA season is due to begin Dec. 1. Can’t wait for the load-management controversies, starting about Dec. 4.)
July 31 seems a long way off, in a world living day-to-day. But the NBA still has to work out details for use of Walt Disney World Resort for use of the Orlando plant for all games, housing and practices.
For Gonzaga, the immediate impact of the NBA reboot is that the great muddled future just became more muddled.
The pushed-back NBA agenda now calls for an Oct. 15 draft. All the run-up proceedings have been delayed as well, and the NCAA has declared the deadline for player withdrawal from the draft to be Aug. 3, or 10 days after the NBA draft combine, whichever comes first.
Aug. 3 is exactly two months later than when it was scheduled to have been. And, you surely have noticed, NCAA schools aren’t planning a two-month delay in starting fall classes.
In Gonzaga’s case, that means – potentially, anyway – that in the same month some of its players are beginning ’20-21 classes, they’re deciding on whether to leave the place for good and play pro basketball.
Now in reality, I suspect Corey Kispert, Joel Ayayi and Filip Petrusev will pretty much have landed on a decision by sometime in July, once they’ve gotten more input from NBA teams. They’ve probably already got an inclination, and it could be confirmed or reversed by whether they get an invitation to the combine.
No doubt, the GU staff is well piped-in on those inclinations. But things can change, or intentions can be misread; the Zags didn’t think Zach Collins was going to be outbound after one season, and he surprised them in 2017.
Bottom line, if you’re crafting a roster you hope capable of winning the 2021 national championship – and a lot of people believe Gonzaga is one of those candidates – you’d like to have a little more certainty. A little more routine. You’d like, for instance, to know how about Ayayi’s future, and how his potential departure would affect the incoming freshman class, including guards Dominick Harris and Jalen Suggs, the most heralded recruit in Zag history.
But this is the way of the world in 2020. In a way, the compressed timeline takes us back to an era when transfers (grad transfers, in particular) weren’t so prevalent on the landscape. Back then, if a player bailed unexpectedly for the NBA draft, you were hard-pressed to dial up a replacement. You couldn’t hit “accelerate” on the grad-transfer market. You might be pretty much relegated to combing the junior colleges, and that’s often risky business.
No doubt, in Mark Few's ideal world, this is not how he would have envisioned launching a national-title contender.
Oct. 12 for the NBA championship? That’s two days after Texas and Oklahoma meet in the Red River Rivalry, a day after the Seahawks host the Vikings. The NHL could still be dropping pucks in October. Maybe by then baseball will have wedged out a piece of the playoff sports calendar.
Maybe. That’s a word that comes up a lot these days.
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