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Zags: So is the sky falling now?

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Actually, no, it isn't, although a lot of Gonzaga fans could swear they heard some ominous rumbling above them Tuesday night.

They never would have believed that the Zags, a huge 14.5-15-point favorite over Saint Mary’s, could have stumbled, 60-47, in the West Coast Conference tournament, an event they’ve virtually owned in recent years.

Some thoughts:

-- The instant reaction among some GU fans is: Well, now there’s a blueprint out there on how to beat Gonzaga. Which, to me, is ridiculous. The biggest factor in this game was Saint Mary’s ability to control the tempo, or conversely, Gonzaga’s inability to speed the Gaels up. I’d bet at least 80 percent of Saint Mary’s possessions resulted in shots taken with single digits on the shot clock. As of Tuesday night, SMC is No. 347 in Ken Pomeroy’s adjusted tempo rankings. That’s what it does, and does very well. Unless a future Gonzaga opponent is similarly adept at massaging the ball
-- and hardly anybody is -- it shouldn’t be a major consideration.

-- Having said that, I agree with analyst Dick Vitale that Gonzaga’s defensive intensity didn’t seem overwhelming. GU never could apply enough heat to make Saint Mary’s uncomfortable.

-- Zach Norvell has had games where he starts out 1 for 6 from the field. That’s when he usually goes 4 for his next 5. This was the night he kept shooting, and kept missing.

-- Saint Mary’s had a 34-27 rebounding edge. Rui Hachimura had five boards in 34 minutes. He seemed to be without urgency.

-- Josh Perkins has had a marvelous senior year, but when analysts look at the Zags, he’s often the one questioned, and 4-for-14, five-turnover nights don’t dissuade them. He has the NCAA tournament to prove them wrong.

-- From Gonzaga’s standpoint, Saint Mary’s big guys did far too much damage down low, especially in the first half. I was surprised GU didn’t double more, although SMC’s facility with floor spacing might have discouraged Gonzaga from doing so.

-- Now the debate will be whether Gonzaga is worthy of a No. 1 seed. There’s a lot of sentiment that it remains so, but I suspect that will be contingent on the Power 5 conference results. Even if it slips to a No. 2, the damage probably is minimal. It will stay in the West and either begin in Salt Lake City or San Jose.

-- Typically, the days between the end of the WCC tournament and Selection Sunday have kind of a celebratory, anticipatory feel for the Zags. The guess here is that re-calibration and resolve will now be the operative elements.
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Do the Zags deserve a No. 1 seed?

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I think this is where I came in.

About three years ago, piecing together a work on Gonzaga hoops, “Glory Hounds,” I opened with an anecdote about how Kentucky fans in 2015 had their panties in a tangle about the Zags, owing to the notion that GU’s prospective seed could put the beloved Wildcats in the same region as a potent Wisconsin team.

Now, as Yogi was fond of saying, it’s déjà vu all over again.

One of the hot topics of Gonzaga’s week (since there’s nothing much to discuss as regards the West Coast Conference) suddenly concerns Kentucky, which trounced No. 1 Tennessee Saturday. That has bumped up the onrushing ‘Cats in the national narrative – deservedly so.

In fact, Seth Davis of CBS and The Athletic nudged Kentucky into his group of four No. 1 seeds. Jerry Palm of CBS Sports told Sirius radio Monday that he could see Kentucky nabbing that No. 1 seed over Gonzaga, even if the Zags win out.

Which would be novel. Remember, Gonzaga was a No. 1 seed – officially – in the NCAA basketball committee’s early-February read on where the top 16 teams lay at the moment. It would be quite the notion that an early-projected No. 1 could win nine straight games – that would be Gonzaga’s path from the Feb. 9 reveal through the WCC championship game – and drop in the seeding. And the Zags have been abusing WCC teams by record margins.

Having said that, let me say this: I don’t have a problem with either Seth Davis’ or Jerry Palm’s reckoning.

First, let’s back up. When Gonzaga lost at North Carolina Dec. 15, there was a lot of talk about how little chance existed for GU to claim a No. 1 seed, so bereft is the WCC of real, meaty chances to impress. My take then was that it was possible for the Zags at least to be in the discussion come March.

It was a surprise to me, then, that Gonzaga so quickly made up that ground. Essentially, by the end of January or thereabouts, the Zags had sprouted on the top line.

Bottom line, risking pitchforks and torches outside my house from Zag fans: I don’t think Gonzaga’s resume is necessarily deserving of a No. 1 seed, pending what may take place around it (from Kentucky, et al).

The Zags have a thundering resume victory-on-steroids with the win over Duke in Maui. It’s the loudest statement Gonzaga has ever made to the basketball committee with a single triumph. (Meanwhile, Kentucky was thrashed in November by Duke).

And there’s no quibble here with Gonzaga’s scheduling intent. You don’t have to apologize for taking on Arizona or playing Creighton in front of 17,000 on the road, or meeting a Power Five team in Illinois in Maui.

It’s just that: Illinois is 10-16 (even as it’s proven to be nobody’s stooge in the Big Ten, having beaten Minnesota, Maryland, Michigan State and Ohio State). Creighton is a disappointing 13-13, having lost nine of 12 in the new year. Its season went south with consecutive home losses, and blown leads, to Marquette and Villanova early in January.

And Arizona is a mess. A team that was good enough to beat Iowa State on the eve of the Gonzaga loss in Maui, good enough to be 13-4 and 4-0 once, has now lost seven straight. It hasn’t won in a month.

Texas A&M, another Gonzaga victim, is tied for 11th in the SEC – after a Sweet 16 appearance last spring.

Yeah, Gonzaga beat Washington, and the Huskies’ season helps the Zags. But Gonzaga won by two, and it was at home, and that’s the kind of result the committee expects if you’re going to be a high seed.

None of this is Gonzaga’s fault, it’s just the way it played out. Reminds me a little of 2002, when Gonzaga had a sort of coming-of-age experience with NCAA seeding, falling to a No. 6 seed when Mark Few had toyed with the idea his team could be a 3 or even a 2. Teams like Fresno State and Saint Joseph’s – Zag victims -- were projected to be Final Four threats and when they came up disappointments, Gonzaga paid the price. Then it really paid the price with a first-round NCAA loss to Wyoming.

I’m not going to try to weigh Kentucky’s 21-4 record and recent 10-game winning streak in the SEC against Gonzaga’s chops. There’s time enough for that later.

Besides, you can get plenty of that on a Kentucky message board, where the opinions occasionally touched charitable (“I’d prefer a rematch with Duke to playing GU in the Dance. They’re a nightmare”) to the delusional (“I have no idea how this Zags team beat Duke. It almost seems like K gave them the win just because he thinks they’re the next media favorite. Of the four games I’ve seen from Gonzaga in the WCC, there’s nothing to make me believe they’re anywhere near even the top 15 teams in the country”).

Thankfully for some, registration for a fan card carries no requirement for being of sound mind.

Like a lot of mid-season debates, this one may descend to a faint murmur by March. The Zags may well end up a No. 1 seed. If so, they won’t be thanking Arizona or Creighton.
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Without Tillie, Zags will try to keep humming

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A lot of sympathy is due Killian Tillie for his latest injury at Gonzaga, and for all the constituencies that might feel aggrieved over it, his own well-being is the most important.

You name it, he seems to have had it in his three years at Gonzaga – sprained ankle and a month out during the Final Four year; serious hip injury that truncated the Zags’ run with the Sweet 16 in 2018, and likely caused Tillie to postpone his immediate NBA plans; stress fracture of the ankle and surgery last November; and now, a partially torn foot ligament that imperils the rest of his season, and possibly, his career at GU.

I’ve always believed Gonzaga has been fairly fortunate with injuries during its golden age (with exceptions such as Przemek Karnowski’s serious back ailment in 2015-16). But Tillie seems bent on upending that narrative all by himself.

So you feel badly for him, and in a sport where the opportunities tend to be transient, you also feel a pang for his team and its chances in March/April. In the month since his return from surgery, Tillie hadn’t yet been Tillie, but we know what he can do. His coach, Mark Few, long ago characterized him as as a guy who quickly understood things, who gets it, somebody whose instincts make the machine run more smoothly.

Which brings us to today’s question: How much more of a sweet purr could anybody bring to the Gonzaga apparatus right now? What the Zags did to poor Saint Mary’s the other night was almost criminal, hanging a 94-46 defeat on the Gaels. This is hardly a vintage SMC team, but, in the words of a football coach I covered once, it isn’t Squawhockey Canyon, either.

From the outset, the Zags were lofting Cirque du Soleil lob passes to crashing bigs and banging threes off behind-the-back feeds. It was something to see, a performance as much as it was a victory, and it’s lamentable to think that Tillie’s absence might chip away at the chance of watching such theater.

To me, it’s become obvious that the front line the Zags are unloading on the WCC is something the league has rarely, if ever, seen. Think of the good bigs that have come out of the WCC in the last 15-20 years (outside Gonzaga) – Omar Samhan, Jock Landale, Brandon Davies, John Bryant, Eric Mika, Stacy Davis, Brad Waldow. Almost always, they’ve been marginal NBA talents. Now, in Rui Hachimura and Brandon Clarke, the Zags are showing off two guys projected to be first-round draft picks.

The league is being overpowered by these guys, along with a cast that has Gonzaga, at 1.28 points per possession, far ahead of the field in KenPom’s offensive-efficiency rankings.

So far, in what was touted as a better WCC, it’s not a fair fight. According to Pomeroy, the Zags’ composite margin of 311 points through 10 league games – or a 31.1-point average victory – is tops through that period since 1998. Second on that list was the ’17 Zags with 280 points. The most impressive of the top five is No. 4, the 1998 Kansas team, playing in a far tougher league, with a 241-point margin of victory over 10 games.

Looking for a comp to judge the Zags’ dominance of the WCC, I hit upon Jerry Tarkanian’s UNLV teams that once laid waste to the Big West Conference. He had three clubs unbeaten in league play (1987, 1991, 1992), and the one that sticks out was the fearsome ’91 team, led by Larry Johnson (he averaged 22 points and 10 rebounds), Stacey Augmon, Greg Anthony and Anderson Hunt.

This was the team mentioned as among the best in history, coming off a 30-point thrashing of Duke in the 1990 championship game – and unbeaten until it met its end against the Blue Devils in the national semis in Indianapolis. The ’91 Rebels ran up a 316-point margin through 10 games, just a touch higher than the current Zags. The pace slowed slightly, however, and UNLV finished at 29.6. (The Rebels did it in style in nine of their 18 games, eclipsing the 100-point barrier.)

How does GU stack up against the best previous Gonzaga teams? That ’17 Final Four team that’s second on Ken Pomeroy’s list had a 28.1-point average margin through 17 WCC games, but the winning streak came to an end in the season finale against BYU.

The ’14-15 Elite Eight club had a more modest 16.1-point margin of victory before BYU also ended that streak on Senior Night at the Kennel.

Aside from the ’19 and ’17 GU teams, maybe the most comparable club – in terms of potential – was the 2013 squad that was upset by Wichita State in the NCAA second round. That team, which surely looked to have Final Four chops, ran the table over 16 WCC games, with an average margin of 19.4 points – more than 11 behind the current team’s pace.

Now the 2018-19 Zags have to try to fulfill their dreams without Tillie, at least for a while. For one night, at least, they seemed to be trying to say it's doable.
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The Zags and running it up (whatever that is)

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Happened to catch a Seattle radio segment the other day on which CBS sports bracket specialist Jerry Palm appeared. (Yes, occasionally sports-talk radio here veers dangerously from assessing what Seahawks mini-camps will look like in May and realizes we’re well into college-basketball season.)

The subject of Gonzaga’s 98-39 boat-racing at Santa Clara came up, and with it, the fact that the NCAA’s new NET rankings recognize margin of victory – but only out to 10 points. Never was it specifically alleged that the Zags’ clocking of the Broncos represented running it up, but still, I sensed an undercurrent in the conversation that Gonzaga might have treated the game differently than it would have without that NET factor.

Which, if that’s what Palm and/or his host believes, is ridiculous. I suppose if you want to split hairs, you can argue that with 14 minutes left, Gonzaga led 66-25 and it was going to be virtually impossible for five guys plucked out of Jack and Dan’s at closing time to lose the game with a lead like that, and the GU starters could have come out then. Or even earlier.

As it was, if memory serves, Gonzaga had all its starters out of the game for good at around the nine-minute mark, which is about as early as you’ll ever see. True, that left Killian Tillie, Geno Crandall and Filip Petrusev to wreak more indignity on the poor Broncos, but them’s the breaks.

Indeed, the most minutes by a Zag was Josh Perkins’ 26. Brandon Clarke played only 20 minutes and Rui Hachimura 18.

I bring this up because in a year in which Gonzaga is clearly the class of the WCC – by a bunch -- the subject is likely to arise again.

At 10 points, the scoring-margin component of the NET is almost so negligible as to be moot. If you win by nine or 10 points, it’s often the case that it was a one- or two-possession game inside the last minute. Example: Gonzaga’s 13-point victory over USF a while back was anything but comfortable.

Putting aside the NET, and looking at the subject from the sportsmanship angle, I’m often intrigued by discussions of running it up. There are so many gray areas that it’s become a silly topic. What’s running it up to one person isn’t to the other. Case in point: I was watching one of the football bowl games in December, and a team that was blowing out its opponent had the ball with a fourth down on the opponent 15- or 20-yard line in the fourth quarter. The team leading eschewed the field goal and went for it on fourth down, causing a cry of consternation from the play-by-play guy. How dare they?

Well, in many quarters, kicking the field goal with a five-touchdown lead is considered bad form – worse than simply lining up and running the ball and giving the defense a chance to stop you. But in either case, it’s stupid to get worked up about it when there’s no agreement on what either act signifies. Over the years, I’ve pretty much come to subscribe to the drawling dictum of the old Florida State football coach, Bobby Bowden: “It’s not mah job to stop mah offense, it’s yo’ job to stop mah offense.”

Funny, but “running it up” even carries two different connotations. At its most innocent, it means scoring a lot. Taken at its most nefarious, it means pouring it on to embarrass your opponent.

A final thought on it: Some fans think a game is only about who wins and who loses – end of story. Coaches don’t look at it that way. They coach against the game. They want to see improvement with certain combinations. They want to see how certain vulnerabilities are addressed.

Mark Few wants to see Tillie’s timing on certain ball-screen sets, he wants to see Crandall’s advancement with Perkins playing off the ball. He wants to see things that suggest his team is on an upward arc toward March. It isn’t about giving gratuitous minutes to the guys at the end of the bench – though they certainly deserve their run -- so the crowd can repair to the nearest bar to discuss the night.

The Zags face a four-game stretch with BYU, San Diego, USF and Saint Mary’s. Don’t look for them to beat any of those outfits by 59 points. But down the road, there will be a good many moments when the question isn’t winning or losing, but far more esoteric matters.
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The wizardry, and the imponderable, of Brock Ravet

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The first time Brock Ravet cast up a shot Monday at the King Showcase in Kent, it was from near-Steph Curry territory on the right wing.

“Oh, my God,” muttered a guy a couple of rows behind me.

Ravet missed. In fact, in a rough start for his Class 2B Kittitas High team against 4A Kentlake, Ravet forced things, going 0 for 5 with three first-quarter turnovers. Then he settled in, and when the afternoon was done, he had 30 points, 13 rebounds and six assists and Kittitas had broken from a 13-13 second-quarter tie to a 77-52 walk in the park.

I don’t claim to be the most sagacious at projecting what might be ahead for high school basketball prospects. There are eyes much more trained and discerning than mine at that.

But I’ve seen high school games of a good many future Gonzaga players over the years – Dan Dickau, Adam Morrison, David Pendergraft, Steven Gray, Josh Heytvelt, Gary Bell Jr., Cory Kispert, Anton Watson – and I’d have to say of all of them, I found Ravet’s game most intriguing. That doesn’t make it the best, or the most promising, but it certainly seems flush with possibilities. (For the record, although I liked Morrison, I didn’t foresee the huge national splash he created, but I don’t know if anybody else did, either.)

First, in the grand tradition of Gonzaga guards (and a virtual must in Mark Few’s system), Ravet (say Ruh-VAY) can shoot. His pet shot appears to be a step-back effort, and he drilled maybe three of them from 25-foot range.

He went 11 for 25 from the field, but don’t be alarmed by the percentage. A good many of the misses were from mid-range or in traffic. He can fill it.

Right away, you can see some of the things that caught Gonzaga coaches’ eyes: He has great court vision, he has a feel for tempo and he’s an exceptional passer. Time and time again, he gunned 35-to-40 foot passes to open teammates. Listed at 6-1 and 175 pounds and widely termed a combo guard, he’s at least a capable ball-handler.

Kentlake tried some box-and-one against Ravet. As he’s now within 129 points of the all-time state scoring record (Lance DenBoer, Sunnyside Christian, had 2,851 in the early 2000s), you’d have to figure the guy has pretty much seen it all.

His dad and coach, Tim Ravet, ascribed the slow start to adjusting to a different level of competition.

“I felt he forced it a little at the start of the game, not knowing how quick they are compared to what we play,” the senior Ravet said. “If we have a step on somebody in our division, usually they’re going to outrun the guy. I felt we got that to where he played quarterback a little longer (with the ball) in his hands until it opened up.”

After those initial rocky moments, you were left with a feeling of what’s-he-gonna-do-next? Once, he blew into the lane and did a tight spin-dribble. But he missed the shot and fouled at the other end. On the last two possessions of the third quarter, he called for the ball outside the left block, took a dribble back and swished a 16-footer, and then, with the clock running out, nailed a deep three to push the lead to 65-36.

On one 2-on-1 possession, he drove, hung the ball on his hip as if to go behind the back to a teammate and instead laid it in.

At times, there’s a hint of reckless abandon in Ravet’s game, probably the result of having his way with things against mostly inferior competition. The trick will be for Gonzaga to curb carelessness while preserving the creativity.

Few is pretty good at that.

The persistent question is whether Ravet has enough quickness, especially to guard on the perimeter. On this day, against a 9-9 Kentlake team that doesn’t have great size, he spent most of the time defending the post.

Ravet says the GU coaches would like him to work on quickness and develop a floater. He says he’ll be doing frequent Vertimax cable-resistance work at Kittitas to improve quickness. As with most high school players, he can add strength, but you wouldn’t consider him slender right now, either.

Can he play up? Can he make the move from dominating the game in a town of 1,500 that he’s led to two state titles to a program whose caliber is now national-championship contender? The Zags recently missed on a player of Ravet’s exact size, Jesse Wade, although that might have had something to do with Wade’s two-year interruption on a church mission.

“That’s up to him and Few and the coaching staff there,” Tim Ravet said, referring to the jump in competition. “He’s got to continue to build skill and get stronger, to work and improve. At least the opportunity is there.

“Seeing the floor and being a willing passer, I think that’s what they like about him. And that’s not going to change at the next level. He’s going to be able to do more of that. The harder shots he takes sometimes (now), he’s going to be able to take the right shots, and see the right (open) players. So I think he’s got a chance.”

On a languid Monday afternoon in January enlivened by his son, there was nothing to suggest otherwise.
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On a clear day, Zags can even see Nevada

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You might have missed this angle Tuesday night, but an old friend of Gonzaga came oh-so-close to doing the Zags a solid.

Leon Rice, the 12-year GU assistant, coaches Boise State, which fell victim to No. 10 Nevada, 72-71, on a three-point shot by Cody Martin with 4.5 seconds left – Martin’s first made trey in exactly a month.

Why, you ask, would Zag followers care especially about Nevada’s fortunes?

The answer lies several weeks down the road – possibly – when the NCAA basketball committee convenes to deal out seeds and sites on Selection Sunday.

Today, by consensus, the Zags (16-2) project to be a No. 2 seed in the NCAA tournament. Obviously, that’s subject to change. I feel safe in saying that were Gonzaga to run the table and win the WCC tournament, it would find itself in a spirited discussion for a No. 1 seed – dependent partly on future losses by projected No. 1s.

Nevada, 17-1 after the Boise State victory, is generally seen as a No. 3 seed today. That, too, could change, and it would get interesting if Gonzaga stays at No. 2 and Nevada bobs up one line to a No. 2. Or if both become No. 3 seeds.

Thanks to the Pac-12 and its de-emphasis on basketball – we kid – Gonzaga and Nevada are the sole contenders for the honor of best-seeded team in the West in 2019. As such, if they happen to be on the same seed line in March, the one the committee judges superior will get to stay in the West, while the other goes elsewhere. Anaheim is hosting the West regional, and Kansas City, Louisville and Washington, D.C., the others.

My belief is, this is a bigger deal for fans than it is teams. Regionals are in large, professional-style arenas in which partisanship is divided. Sure, some teams will be more popular than others, but the backing is nothing like a college venue. Still, for most Gonzaga fans, Anaheim (March 28 and 30) would be a preference, in terms of proximity, access and weather, if their team gets to the Sweet 16.

(The western sub-regional sites, by the way, are Salt Lake City and San Jose.)

How do the two teams stack up against each other today? I was a little surprised to see the Zags with a fairly decisive edge in the NCAA’s new NET metric – No. 6 at mid-week, as opposed to Nevada’s No. 23. The Wolfpack can boast that it has a better road record (5-1 to GU’s 2-1) as well as neutral (4-0, to GU’s 3-1).

But the reason becomes more apparent in their records in the NCAA’s Quadrant 1 reckoning – or combined record against the top 30 at home; top 50 on neutral sites; and top 75 on the road. There’s a lot more meat on the bones of Gonzaga’s schedule, as the Zags are 4-2 in that combination, while Nevada is just 1-0.

In a close head-to-head comparison, the Zags would be able to argue that they operated through most of their non-league schedule without Killian Tillie and Geno Crandall, and if they were to piece together a dominating run through the WCC, that contrast would only become more pronounced.

And regardless of what happens, they’ll hold the big hammer of a victory over a healthy Duke team. Meanwhile, the New Mexico squad that throttled Nevada recently has a NET ranking of only 188.

It’s worth wondering just how much weight the NET will be given by the selection committee, which, no matter its composition, was famous through the decades for saying that the late, unlamented RPI was merely one tool in the process. But given that the NET is more sophisticated – for instance, taking into account things like offensive and defensive efficiency – it makes sense that if anything, it will be relied on more than the RPI.

Lotta dribbles to take place before any of this matters, and even if it does, teams have to survive two games to get to the regional. But for Zag fans, it’s worth a glance now and then at Nevada.
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Not so far from Spokane, it's a raunchy hoops season

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Fired in December? Who gets fired or furloughed in December, except football coaches and federal workers?

But you’d have to say Steve Alford earned it at UCLA, with a fortnight that included a 29-point thrashing at Cincinnati and home defeats to Belmont and Liberty. It doesn’t do Bruin backers much good to know that Belmont has had a pretty robust basketball tradition (in addition to being a worthy music school). As for Liberty, the head coach there is Ritchie McKay, who has presided over more than one chaotic program at Oregon State, New Mexico, et al.

At times like these, I used to gulp, along with the other wretches following Gonzaga, and wonder whether this might be the time we’d have to spend days tracking rumors, following flight plans and otherwise keeping an eye on Zags coach Mark Few. Indeed, he was a possible target when the Bruins hired Ben Howland in 2003.

It wasn’t long after that Norm Few, Mark’s father, scoffed at the idea, saying he hadn’t heard of many “record trout coming out of the Los Angeles River.” And in time, it became obvious that Few wasn’t going anywhere, unless it was to a more sedentary life casting dry flies.

So breathe easy, Zag fans. These are restful days for you. Thanks largely to Few’s stability, there isn’t much question that Gonzaga is the No. 1 program in the West.

True, that’s a fragile designation, subject to change almost annually. Arizona is restocking again, but Sean Miller is still chasing that elusive first Final Four. Oregon and Gonzaga matched Final Four trips two years ago, but the Ducks skidded to the NIT last year and have slogged through an undistinguished start to 2018-19.

Which brings us to the meat of today’s treatise. “Undistinguished” is about as pretty a word as you can conjure in reference to the Pac-12 this year. Gonzaga would probably prefer no attempt at contrast, avoiding any guilt by association.

I’ve covered and watched the league for damn near half a century, and – gut feeling here – this is the worst I’ve ever seen it. Yeah, there have been other spasms of embarrassment: I recall a year in the mid-‘80s when the Pac-10 sent four teams to the post-season, and the day after all four were eliminated in the first round, the league’s post-season guide arrived in the mail.

Then there was 2012, when Washington won the regular season and didn’t get to the NCAA tournament, so tepid was the competition in the Pac-12.

These are the current guideposts: This week, the league has nobody ranked in the AP top 25, a feat of breathtaking ineptitude. It’s 7-25 against other Power Five conferences (three of the wins by Arizona State). It has losses to Princeton, Indiana State, Texas Southern, Kent State, Belmont, Liberty, Montana State and Santa Clara (twice). You say it’s no big deal, losing to Santa Clara? Well, the Broncos lost by 17 to Prairie View A&M – which is 1-11.

It would be stunning if the Pac-12 gets more than two teams in the NCAA tournament. Realistically, the only path to two would be a team that amasses a dominating league record – minimum, probably 15-3 -- and that team not winning the conference tournament. Short of that, the league might be looking at an automatic bid only.

What’s caused an epic collapse in a conference that as recently as three seasons ago, placed seven teams in the NCAA tournament?

USC and Arizona have been encircled by the FBI probe into agents and fraud. UCLA bears a resemblance to USC in football: Unable to come to grips with its pre-eminence in the sport, incapable of matching a coach to the prestige.

The Utah-Colorado tandem has recently formed probably the toughest Pac-12 road trip. No more. There and elsewhere, the easy answer is lack of players. Utah recently had guys like Delon Wright, Jakob Poeltl and Kyle Kuzma. Now it loses by 15 to an 8-7 BYU team on the Utes floor.

Washington has been a disappointment, a preseason ranked team blown out by Auburn and Virginia Tech. But the near-miss against Gonzaga suggests that, playing well, the Huskies could show well in conference (a lot of that based on the lousiness of it).

Oregon was picked to win the league. But it doesn’t shoot the three or rebound that well, has four losses (including the Texas Southern stinker) and now 7-2 freshman Bol Bol (21 points, 9.6 rebounds) has a foot injury of undisclosed severity.

Cal and Washington State are dreadful. Wyking Jones appears in over his head with the Bears, while defense is perpetually a rumor with Ernie Kent’s teams. The question in Pullman is whether WSU (7-6) can win more games than the football team did (11).

So there you have it, a veritable Brotherhood of Blushes. Whatever the new year holds for Gonzaga fans, they can be thankful that the problems nearby are somebody else's.
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Against the grain, Mark Few sticks his neck out

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Among the outcomes of the autumn trial resulting from the FBI investigation into college hoops was this: Silence, from the guardians of the game. Three shoe-company operatives were found guilty, several programs were bruised badly in the testimony – and in the wake of it, coaches seemed to take the fifth.

Too much on their plates, maybe. Got a shootaround to conduct. There’s Christmas shopping. A “buy” game to win, 104-63, before the conference season starts.

Oh, there was the clumsy response by Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski, who in October called the events “a blip on the radar screen of college basketball.” Somehow, days later he thought better of that assessment, and hastened to append that even a blip could be a serious thing. Whatever that meant.

So it was a bit startling when last week, Gonzaga coach Mark Few called on NCAA president Mark Emmert to break a leg, in so many words, and get moving on taking action against programs that were named in the trial. Left to its usual timeframe, the NCAA would get to it about when Few’s kids have grandkids.

“Step up and be a leader and make some quicker decisions,” was among Few’s urgings to Emmert.

I can see where it might not be that simple. If some schools are cheating as wantonly as the grapevine (and the trial) suggests, the investigation will have a lot of tentacles, far more than contained in a New York courtroom.

But give Few points for the chutzpah. I contend that coaches self-policing is a prime avenue for helping to apply bleach to a sport that sometimes seems beyond cleansing.

He and I have discussed this. Always the devil’s advocate, he contends media should play a larger role. Quixotic, but unrealistic, I say. It’s simple economics.

In more robust times for newspapers, for example, there might be time to check out a rumor, but it always came with a caveat: You could spend days spinning your wheels searching, with no guarantee a story would come out of it. Editors only want to invest in so many wild goose chases.

Nowadays, newspaper resources have grown frightfully skimpy. It’s not that the will for investigative stories has evaporated, it’s the way.

Just about every writer has heard a coach bemoan losing a recruit to somebody who’s allegedly cheating. So why can’t coaches turn a violator in?

Long ago, Few did it. Gonzaga was a key player in exposing Washington assistant Cameron Dollar in the recruiting of Clarkston standout (and future GU player) Josh Heytvelt. It resulted in a finding of almost two dozen violations against Dollar, who went on to be head coach at Seattle University and is now back at the UW.

Few said recently he earned a “lot of grief” for it. You know, from the honor-among-thieves crowd.

Turns out Few’s recent comments about Emmert were egged on by a close friend, a former coaching associate, and somebody whose staff was involved in the Dollar-Heytvelt drama – Ray Giacoletti.

“I’ve been the one to tell Mark, ‘Hey, you got as much voice as anybody,’ ’’ Giacoletti told me this week. “ ‘Would you stand up and say something? You’ve got juice; it’ll be a national story.’ ’’

I asked Giacoletti – now living in St. Louis and doing TV and radio work, two years removed from stepping down from his last job as Drake head coach – about the risks in speaking out. He minimized them, maybe because he spent six years working for Few.

“The only risk would be if you were doing something yourself you shouldn’t be doing,” Giacoletti says, “and that’s not the case at Gonzaga.”

Giacoletti can tell you how self-policing works. A quarter-century ago, he was a young assistant to Bob Bender at Washington, and they were trying to resuscitate a program that had been dormant for almost a decade after the forced retirement of Marv Harshman.

They were recruiting a seven-footer from Winnipeg, Todd MacCulloch. So was Utah coach Rick Majerus. One night they called the MacCulloch home, and Todd’s mother said, “You guys should have been here this weekend.”

Why? Well, Coach Majerus was, she said, working Todd out and having dinner at the house. Giacoletti says it was during a restricted period when that would be improper. The UW coaches provided MacCulloch’s mother with a name and number of the NCAA. She called, described what had happened, and soon, Giacoletti says, MacCulloch was off the list of players Utah was allowed to recruit. MacCulloch went on to lead the Huskies to NCAA tournaments in 1998-99, a Sweet 16 the first year.

Now it’s 2018, and the headlines in the sport are seamy. But the silence is mostly deafening. It could be that Few’s entreaty to Emmert carries challenges but the thrust of his words seemed important.

“Krzyzewski never stepped up and said anything,” said Giacoletti. “If he ain’t saying anything . . . I think Mark’s got the respect of all his peers. The ones who did it the right way are elevating him even another step. Like, where’s everybody else been?”

Holding their breath, maybe. Waiting for another shoe (company) to drop. Or in the case of Emmert, staying away from New York, where college basketball was on trial.

“I think there’s a line drawn in the sand,” said Giacoletti. “The NCAA’s got one shot here. If they don’t do what they need to do, it’s done, over. If you can’t stop it now, you never will.”
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"We Are G.U." details a zany side of Zag hoops

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Sometimes it seems as though Gonzaga basketball started in 1999, so much scrutiny is given to the Zags’ unlikely launch to prominence that year and their continued ascending arc (guilty as charged for my focus on this era).

Here to tell you that there’s a lot more to the story are Mike Shields and Aaron Hill, a couple of GU grads who have written a history of the Kennel Club. “We Are G.U.” is about as exhaustive and detailed a tome as you could imagine on the subject, and a worthy complement to the burgeoning library spawned by the phenomenon of Gonzaga basketball.

Hard to believe, but the origins of the Kennel Club are almost as distant from the ’99 uprising as we are today – on the other side -- from that Elite Eight shocker. Essentially, the group sprang from a series of events that began with Shields and his brother Tim dashing onto the floor at Kennedy Pavilion – unannounced, uninvited and obviously uninhibited – to do an improvisational cheer routine during a timeout of a 1984 game against Whitworth.

From there, it snowballed – an overture from Dan Fitzgerald, the coach/athletic director, to organize a spirit group; consistent involvement and support from the baseball team; official T-shirts and ever-better organization.

Hedonism was the imperative governing every decision. Shields, in fact, writes that he could have graduated in economics in mid-year (1983-84), but decided, understandably, to spread the credits thinner so he could stretch his college days a semester longer. Why not, when one party he describes drained 15 kegs and entertained 400-500 people?

The Kennel Club grew, and so did its creativity. One night, they held a Fitz lookalike night, replete with guys with white streaks in their hair. Later, a Kennel Clubber, Eric Edelstein, would become known for his late-night phone calls to opposing coaches. Imagine Brad Holland, the ex-San Diego coach and former UCLA guard, foggy and fielding a call from “Bill Walton,” saying, in that imperious voice, “ . . . and another thing, Brad, Coach Wooden would be embarrassed . . . the plays we would run at UCLA, where is the beauty of an entry pass to Keith Wilkes or the effortless screens and movement to get players like Gail Goodrich open? We see none of that with your team. It’s terrible.”

The authors document the sometimes-tenuous relationship the Kennel Club had with the GU administration, which was concerned about potential over-the-top behavior. So the club came under university jurisdiction after the 2004 season, which coincided with the opening of the McCarthey Athletic Center. That gave rise to a system by which the Kennel Club regulates the distribution of tickets in “Tent City,” the encampment of 150 tents housing students, some of whom, as the narrative notes, are enjoying “all the comforts of home, from futons and heaters to TVs and video-game systems.”

Never, it seems, did the fun cease, from the days when revered Father Tony Lehmann would come to bless the pre-funk kegs; to the night in 2006 when Washington played in the last game before a Lorenzo Romar-induced interregnum in the series, and the Kennel Club reminded Husky seven-footer Spencer Hawes of a Seattle Prep relationship gone bad, chanting, “Lindsey dumped you!”; to the evening in New York, when, after a Zag loss to Duke at Madison Square Garden, Clubbers encountered ex-Dookie Chris Duhon, who bought drinks and – mistaking GU walk-on guard Andrew Sorenson for Derek Raivio – raved about Sorenson’s “crazy handles.”

The authors share a good bit of Gonzaga space in history. Hill was a student manager for GU basketball, Shields for baseball, and both were grad assistants for Steve Hertz’ baseball program. And both tended bar at Jack and Dan’s.

“We Are G.U.” is a nice piece of the Gonzaga basketball story, well crafted and well worth your investment of $24.95. It’s available at the Zag Shop, Auntie’s and Spokane-area grocery outlets.
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Against UW, Zags are the gang that always shoots straight

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In a mention last week of Wednesday night’s Washington-Gonzaga basketball game in Spokane, one account – we won’t mention names; it’s the holiday season – referred to it as a “showdown.”

Showdown? Does it qualify for showdown status when one team has beaten the other by 27, 27, 16 and 20 in the past four meetings, and 11 of the last 12?

There are a lot of reasons why Gonzaga keeps tattooing Washington – better players, better coaching, better cohesiveness, etc., etc. The most obvious evidence of it is how defenseless the Huskies have been for a long time against the Zags.

I wrote about this a year ago, after Gonzaga’s 97-70 victory in Seattle: The Zags have now shot 50 percent or better in eight straight meetings against the Huskies. Which is stupefying.

So I’ve set out to put that number into some sort of perspective. How often does a team shoot 50 percent? And what are the odds it can do it eight straight times against one opponent?

Shooting 50 percent is nothing new for Gonzaga. Over the previous three seasons, the Zags did it no fewer than 60 times – 20 times last year, 23 in the Final Four season, and 17 in 2015-16. But if you sift out some of the chaff and assess how many times they did it against Power Five (plus the Big East) competition, the numbers drop severely. In 18 such games other than against the Huskies, they did it six times in 18 games in three years.

But let’s take it a step further. Arbitrarily, I went back through those same three seasons to see how Gonzaga shot against the three West Coast Conference teams with the worst composite league records over that period. There was a three-way tie for No. 3 (naturally), so the teams to be assessed were Portland (12-42 in league games), Pepperdine (17-37) and San Diego, Pacific and Loyola Marymount (all at 19-35).

Gonzaga hasn’t shot 50 percent in eight straight games against any of them.

The Zags do have a run of seven straight such games against LMU. But in eight-game segments AGAINST THE SUPPOSED DREGS OF THE LEAGUE, these are Gonzaga’s successes and shortfalls in hitting 50 percent: LMU 7-1, Portland 5-3, San Diego 5-3, Pepperdine 5-3 and Pacific 4-4. In 40 games, that’s a 26-14 success record, or 65 percent. Which makes the shooting numbers against Washington even more staggering.

Shooting, remember, is much more than just a blithe, well-they-hit-their-shots-tonight phenomenon. It’s essentially three things: Having a plan, executing the offense, and hitting the shot. Clearly, the Zags have been far superior to Washington in carrying the assignment out.

You try to envision how the Huskies might scissor the Gonzaga dominance of this millennium, and they will have one important component Wednesday night: A senior-led team that is no doubt tired of getting schooled every time it faces the Zags.

But this is a Gonzaga team that’s simply nasty offensively – averaging 98.4 points a game (second nationally) and shooting .542, tops in the country. It’s going to take a lot more defense than Washington has shown in the series to get it done.
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