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Gonzaga, and that tricky final step

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As a kid in the Midwest, my very first brush with college basketball was with the Ohio State Buckeyes, with Jerry Lucas and John Havlicek and Larry Siegfried and Mel Nowell. I believed they hung the moon. They beat everybody, usually badly. And when it came to the 1961 national-championship game and they lost as an undefeated team in overtime to Cincinnati, it was beyond my comprehension. How could it even be?

Sixty years later (good grief), I’m guessing Gonzaga faithful feel similarly today. How could something that seem so predestined end so poorly? How could a team that passed so intuitively, cut so sharply, shared so collaboratively, fall so nakedly to Baylor?

Largely, the Zags were dysfunctional against the Bears, and it was shocking to the eye. I couldn’t recall when Gonzaga was just schooled like that. Not by BYU last year in Provo. Not by Saint Mary’s in the WCC tournament in 2019, although the Gaels have their own understated way of spinning a web of superiority. Not at North Carolina in 2018, even as the Tar Heels put up 103.

There were times in this Final Four when Gonzaga energy seemed wanting. Baylor bludgeoned the Zags on the glass, 38-22, 16 of those offensive rebounds. UCLA outrebounded Gonzaga by six – this after a tournament in which the Zags outboarded USC by 12, Creighton by seven, Oklahoma by eight.

The popular narrative is that UCLA stripped Gonzaga of its bounce and emotion in the 93-90 semifinal screamer two nights earlier. We’ll never know. But when Duke upended unbeaten UNLV in 1991 in the national semis, it had enough to come back and finish against Kansas. In 2001, after Duke overcame a 22-point first-half deficit to Maryland, it summoned what it took to beat Arizona in the final.

But, Baylor. While the Zags cruised through February -- the undefeated story gathering momentum -- Baylor’s season skidded to a stop with a Covid outbreak. That, and two losses soon after, served to obscure the fact this team was a force otherwise highly capable of its own unbeaten season.

The Bears might have been the most formidable title-game underdog ever. They left the Zags to reckon with an 86-70 loss, a 31-1 season and a dream eviscerated.

By now, it’s obvious the bar is ridiculously high at Gonzaga. In this dreamy season, it almost escaped notice that the Zags made their second Final Four in four years – once a Holy Grail in Spokane -- so preoccupied were we at the pursuit of the championship. The six consecutive Sweet 16s, the 20 NCAA-tournament victories since 2015, those were footnotes to the grander mission. But the destination turned out meh. It was the journey, gamely forged in the rigors of a pandemic, that proved unforgettable.

A radio host in Seattle asked on Monday: Did the Zags need to win the natty to validate the program? No, not even close. The validation came a long time ago. Now, is there unfinished business? No doubt. Will Gonzaga be less than fulfilled if it fails to win a championship? Of course.

It can be a process. Mike Krzyzewski first took Duke to a Final Four in 1986, losing to Louisville in the final by three. He got to the Final Four again in 1988 without a title. And in 1989. And in 1990. It wasn’t until his fifth one, in ’91, that he won the big trophy.

People remember Michael Jordan’s jumper to win North Carolina the championship in 1982, but it’s often forgotten that was a first title over 21 years for Dean Smith, one of the greatest coaches in history, a guy whose breakthrough came in his seventh Final Four. A fellow who had once been hung in effigy on the Carolina campus.

Today, social media doesn’t countenance such procrastination. It doesn’t matter that the Zags ran a more gorgeous offense than I’ve ever seen, whirring, zipping, laying the ball in. The WCC doesn’t get them ready, Twitter barks. What did you expect?

The Zags will keep sawing wood, as Mark Few likes to say. Meanwhile, you hear the opinion that right now, in this moment, it’s Gonzaga as much as Duke or Kentucky that’s the college-basketball program of choice. Guys are lining up to join the program. It’s indicative that there’s been little public consternation over whether Drew Timme opts out for the NBA, because the Zags are likely to add 7-1 Chet Holmgren, perhaps a generational talent. And wouldn’t that be some one-two up front?

As they say, it’s hard to win one of these things. Once, probably even Coach K despaired over that. But it says here the question at Gonzaga isn’t so much if, but when.
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All that's left for the Zags: Convincing the NCAA field

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The question for Mark Few curled out of Rece Davis’ mouth, needing to be asked yet somehow the uninvited guest at your party.

“Would it be a disappointment,” posed Davis Sunday on ESPN, “if you don’t win the national championship?”

Few parried the question, leaving us to debate nuance. Of course it would be a disappointment – especially if Gonzaga made it all the way to the 2021 basketball title game and came up short.

But would it be a failure? No.

It’s a pretty wacked-out station we’ve come to, this all-or-nothing, zero-sum reckoning for the Zags -- champs if they win it, chokers if they don't. Not sure Dan Fitzgerald saw this coming, back when the late Gonzaga head coach used to stage victory dinners for his staff as a .500 season was assured.

I guess you could say: They did it to themselves. They got to a national-title game four years ago, they’ve been to every Sweet 16 since 2015. This year, they outlasted Kansas, they found a way against West Virginia, they strafed Iowa and schooled Virginia. Since then, they’ve been playing against themselves as much as anybody else.

I’ve watched college hoops for about half a century, covered it for 45. This is the most pleasurable basketball I’ve ever seen, the most fluid, selfless, squeaking symphony in memory.

And Sunday, it was hard to find a naysayer. Davis and Jay Bilas picked the Zags to win it all. Over on CBS, so did Clark Kellogg and Seth Davis. Dickie V hollered his affirmation. So did Stephen A. Smith.

Such consensus is unusual. You probably have to go back to 2012, when Kentucky ruled with Anthony Davis, and to 2006-07, when Florida was dominant.

But today’s consensus is tomorrow’s crumpled bracket. Let’s not confuse the inclinations of analysts with certitude when the ball goes up. The tournament is fraught with peril, and it seems almost silly to have to point that out. Nobody is talking about Oklahoma as a threat, and this is a team that in seven days of January, beat Kansas, Texas and Alabama. And it has a probable Hall of Fame coach in Lon Kruger.

Somebody tweeted that Gonzaga’s path is so favorable, it likely wouldn’t be favored by less than eight points until it got to a title game. Are you kidding?

Speaking of wagering, the William Hill Sportsbook lists Gonzaga at plus-220 to win the title, which means a $10 bet wins $22 (and you collect $32). Which also means that the barstool debate of Gonzaga-versus-the-field tilts to the field, and fairly convincingly.

I’m of the belief that the presence of Iowa, Kansas and Virginia in Gonzaga’s region favors those teams the Zags have vanquished (assuming the Kansas and Virginia Covid problems are reconciled). Yes, the Zags will know they’ve beaten those teams. But the psychology lines up with the underdog. Moreover, think about this: Gonzaga has a long, long history of jumping on teams unfamiliar with GU’s offensive wiles in the tournament. In 2006, Gonzaga, a 37-20 start against UCLA (sorry to bring it up). In 2010, 22-7 against Florida State. In 2012, 27-10 against West Virginia. In 2018, 15-0 against Ohio State. Does that edge diminish in a potential rematch?

For months, I’ve felt a key to the Zags’ future in the tournament was Oumar Ballo. If the big guy could contribute 10 or 12 minutes in a pinch if Drew Timme got in foul trouble or tweaked an ankle, it could be pivotal. But Ballo has been slow to develop, and his February was a dud with a thumb injury. That means Few is left with a seven-man rotation, which cuts it thin.

Not only do the Zags have to think about Oklahoma and potentially, Baylor and Illinois, but Indiana. You know, the ’76 Hoosiers, the last team to win a championship by going undefeated. That's a burden that could get heavy.

For many reasons, it would be very cool for the Zags to get this done. It would be a grand culmination to one of sports’ greatest stories. It would set off a raging discourse about whether GU’s season in the outgunned WCC stacks up to Indiana’s ’76 run through the Big Ten. Against the backdrop of a world pandemic, and all its cruelty and inconveniences, it would be unforgettable.

It would silence those who like to deny Gonzaga’s legitimacy. In that vein, there’s something noble about the Zags heading into this thing undefeated, not only covetous of a championship but in pursuit of history.

They seem to be saying: Bring it on. Yeah, it’s a lot. But bring it on.
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If you squint hard enough, Ducks could be in Zags' future

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Far beneath the surface of anything that really matters in college hoops is the relationship between Oregon and Gonzaga. The Zags’ Mark Few, of course, is an Oregon grad, and at least during much of Gonzaga’s prominent years, hasn’t been a proponent of scheduling his alma mater. At times, the Ducks have been mildly receptive to the idea, but hardly gung-ho.

Here we are now in the weirdness of 2021, and for a little while, at least, there’s the vague specter of Gonzaga and Oregon meeting again, something they did early last season in the Bahamas as the Zags squeezed out a one-point overtime victory.

For Zagnuts, I’m thinking it was a good thing that Oregon came to life and ran down UCLA Wednesday night in Eugene, to take the inside track on the Pac-12 regular-season title.

The setup is this: Assuming Gonzaga doesn’t misstep against a No. 16 seed in the first round of the NCAA tournament, it obviously would prefer the best possible matchup for its 8-9 opponent.

That isn’t Oregon.

True, it’s been something of a fits-and-starts season for Oregon, partly due to Covid (it played one game in 26 days in January and February) and partly because of injuries – to center N’Faly Dante (out for the season) and guard Will Richardson (back since Feb. 4). But Dana Altman is renowned for his teams peaking late, and one can imagine a second-round game against GU – another Northwest team that gains more national acclaim – stirring the Ducks to their competitive ceiling.

Fact is, Oregon’s resume is relatively thin; it has only two victories against teams we know will make the tournament (Colorado and UCLA), and a third against Seton Hall, which is on the bubble. Thursday, even after the Oregon win over UCLA, Joe Lunardi has the Ducks as a No. 8 seed and Jerry Palm puts them at a 9 seed.

Oregon could advance, backslide or stay the same. Ahead are games against Oregon State Sunday and in the Pac-12 tournament. But given Oregon’s ascending arc – four straight wins, nine of the last 10 – and Altman’s habit of his teams making a late move, it was likely a good thing that the Ducks got past UCLA vis a vis Gonzaga. The guess here is that a couple of wins in the Pac-12 tournament would push Oregon up to perhaps a seven seed, maybe a six, no matter what happens against the Beavers. Alternatively, a victory over OSU to clinch the Pac-12 title, and another in Las Vegas, should keep Oregon clear of Gonzaga’s path.

All this is speculation, including the chance of Oregon, even as an 8 or 9, getting placed in Gonzaga’s region, and whether the Ducks would be a serious threat to end the Zags’ season anyway. Drew Timme would be a handful for Oregon (but so might Chris Duarte for Gonzaga).

I think Oregon might be dangerous. Best to let Baylor or Michigan or Illinois have the honor.
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More than the numbers, Zags are easy on the eyes

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This being the era of hot takes, we'll take the bait.

Those Zags: If only they could shoot.

Hot enough for you?

OK, there’s supposed to be a kernel of truth in the hottest of hot takes, and we’re taking some liberties here. But, even as Gonzaga leads the nation in field-goal percentage at .554, there’s at least a sliver of truth to the idea that it’s the system, and the execution, more than the shooters that are responsible for an offense that can only be described as dazzling.

First, some numbers: Second to the Zags, at .532, is Stephen F. Austin, and at this stage of the season, that’s a fairly healthy gap. And the next program playing big-time basketball (sorry Sister Jean, nothing against Loyola of Chicago, which is No. 3) is Baylor, at .507.

If Gonzaga keeps that accuracy even at a 54-percent level, it would be the best nationally since Michigan’s national champions of 1989 posted a .566 rate of success.

And you’re saying this team can’t shoot?

No, but a deeper dive into the numbers gets more revealing.

Look at GU’s three-point percentage. It’s at .358, which is 80th nationally. That’s OK, but nothing great. Contrast that to Baylor’s ruthless 43.9 percent.

It’s in Gonzaga’s success at two-point shots that the story is told. The Zags are at 64.5 percent, with Belmont second at 62.0. Past Gonzaga, the next major hoops player is No. 6 Creighton at 58 percent and beyond the Blue Jays among the heavyweights, it’s Michigan – No. 15 at 56.4. In the last 20 years, or roughly the period Gonzaga has been a national player, the NCAA leader in two-point percentage has been under 60 a total of 14 times.

But when you hit the “play” button and cue up Gonzaga’s offense, you don’t think of guys cashing in jumpers from the elbow. What it is, is a freakin’ symphony – a kaleidoscope of Drew Timme moves inside and intuitive passes to cutters for layups out of the Zags’ ball screen-motion offense. So many of the buckets are point-blank against bewildered defenses, you begin to wonder: Does that other team practice?

After Gonzaga coldly dispatched Saint Mary’s the other night, Mark Few seemed to step back in a moment of admiration, saying, “This is a team. They move it and share it. Our offensive numbers are reflecting that. It’s something to behold, if you ask me.”

Could it be that Gonzaga is fattening up on some of the woebegone franchises of the WCC? Only slightly. Gonzaga’s two-point percentage against the Big Four it has vanquished – Kansas, West Virginia, Iowa and Virginia – is .625, a figure that would lead the nation.

It's borderline insane that in running out to a 22-0 record, Gonzaga's worst shooting nights were a pair of 49.2s against Brigham Young and Pacific. Remember, the typical Zag script includes a ridiculous lead, major run for the deep reserves and a decline in field-goal percentage.

What does this mean for March (and maybe, April)? Sunday, Michigan struck a sobering chord for Gonzaga fans, thundering past Ohio State in an epic game. Anybody who might have thought the NCAA tournament is only about Gonzaga and Baylor got a reminder that the road to One Shining Moment is strewn with land mines.

Still, there’s comfort in these numbers for Zag fans. Sure, it will help if Jalen Suggs can reprise his shooting against Iowa, or Corey Kispert can channel what he did to thrash Virginia.

But lights-out isn’t the only path to success for Gonzaga. Play energetic, connected defense and at the other end, just run your stuff. Most of the time, it’s exquisite.

And better than the other guy’s.
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Gonzaga, where "the ball doesn't stick"

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The conversation began with the obligatory smack chatter.

“I haven’t watched you play a whole game,” Ray Giacoletti said over the phone to Mark Few following Gonzaga’s beatdown of Brigham Young earlier this month. “Holy s---.”

“Well, whatya been doing?” Few challenged.

“What the hell you think I’ve been doing?” Giacoletti fired back.

Indeed, Giacoletti has been busy – while not being busy – as an assistant at Saint Louis University, one of the college basketball programs hardest-hit by the Covid-19 pandemic. Between Covid updates, schedule jockeying and the occasional peek at the AP poll – which has the Billikens No. 25 this week – Giacoletti has been able steal a look at the top-ranked Zags.

“The thing that strikes me immediately, is how well they all pass and share the basketball,” Giacoletti said. “To the level of the NBA – NBA teams pass the ball like that.”

Giacoletti has a novel description for it.

“You always have one guy – the ball just sticks,” says Giacoletti. “And probably two or three. They don’t have anybody where the ball sticks.”

No black holes, in other words. No apparent selfishness in sleuthing out the best shot possible.

“This group,” Few told Giacoletti that night, “just innately does it.”

Giacoletti was supposed to have had a lot more free time these days. When, a few years back, I caught up with the former Washington assistant (1993-97); Eastern Washington head man (2000-04) and Zag aide (2006-13), he was exploring a career in broadcasting after leaving a tortured rebuild at Drake University. But, halfway through a month’s vacation in Italy with his wife Kim in August, 2019, he got a call from Saint Louis coach Travis Ford, offering an assistant’s job. He bit.

Behold, the Billikens are on an upward arc. They’re the 13th-best shooting team in the country (a stat led by the Zags at 55.3 percent), but if you haven’t heard much about them, there’s a reason. They haven’t played since Dec. 23, so if they pull off their scheduled game Saturday against St. Bonaventure, it will have been exactly a month between games.

To look at the Atlantic-10 standings is to glimpse the sports disruption of Covid-19. St. Bonnie and UMass are 4-1, Dayton and Davidson 4-2, Rhode Island 4-3 – and Saint Louis is 0-0.

“We have three groups,” Giacoletti said. “People that have had it (Covid), people that have it now and people that don’t have it. We literally could do nothing with any of them. So everybody sat for a minimum of three weeks.”

It’s the weirdest season ever, but it has been good to former Gonzaga assistants. Bill Grier (1991-2007 at GU) is an aide to Tad Boyle at Colorado, and the Buffs are a robust No. 7 this week in the NCAA’s NET rankings. Leon Rice is in his 11th year as Boise State head coach, and his team is 12-1 and sharing the Mountain West lead with Utah State at 8-0.

Everybody’s Covid experience is different. As fraught as the weeks have been at Saint Louis, Rice says, “I think the number of changes in our schedule is at 11. The crazy thing is, I don’t think any of them have been us. I think we had most of ours (cases) early in the fall. Just keep doing what we’re doing.”

The Mountain West’s coping mechanism is eye-catching: In a difficult travel league, each road trip means staying at that site for two games, split by a day off. So, for instance, BSU just played two at Wyoming. What it means is, later on, the Broncos get to host Utah State twice, but finish with two at San Diego State.

Rice likes to think his program is a slice of Gonzaga Lite – good chemistry with enough offensive balance that multiple players might go for 20 on the right night. He’s bullish on a staff (including former Eastern Washington coach Mike Burns) that allows him to think big-picture on program culture. It works, and now Rice, with 210 victories at BSU, is only three from Bobby Dye (1983-95) at the top of the school list.

As for the Zags, Rice says, “Gonzaga’s always been good offensively, but this team is just off the charts with how explosive they are.”

Because, among other things, the ball doesn’t stick.
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Zags' offense even better than it looks

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Heard a TV announcer the other night note that Gonzaga was No. 4 in the nation in shooting percentage. Which elicited nothing much more than a “Meh.”

After all, two recent Zag squads – the 2019 Elite Eight team eliminated by Texas Tech, and the 2015 team ousted by Duke in the round of eight – led the nation in shooting, at .526 and .520, respectively.

At any rate, the citation of No. 4 led me to a deeper dive into shooting percentages, and this is the inescapable conclusion: Gonzaga is right now running spectacular offense, something far more revealing than a declaration that they’re No. 4 in the country in shooting.

Let’s start here: The Zags are no longer No. 4, but tops in the nation, thanks to having shot 60.3 percent against Dixie State Tuesday night.

So they’re fattening up on tomato cans, right? Ah, not so much. Against the five Power Six schools vanquished by GU – Kansas, Auburn, West Virginia, Iowa and Virginia – the Zags are shooting .5535, or just a tick under their nation-leading figure of .557. Their shooting percentage hasn’t really depended on whom they’re playing.

Another number of note: The next-highest school in the rankings that plays big-time basketball is Illinois, which is No. 8 at 53.1. To illustrate that point, the current runnerup to GU is Murray State at 55.6. Murray’s ranking got off to a boffo start against Division III Greenville University of Illinois, whom the Racers beat by the ludicrous score of 173-95, hitting 77 of 105 shots for a .733 percentage.

Given the trend in 2020-21, you’d have to say the Zags’ number has a fighting chance of staying relatively steady around 55 percent. And a traipse through the record book reflects what a remarkable number that would be.

Not since Duke’s 1992 national champions – 29 years ago – has a national leader in shooting percentage hit the 53-percent mark. As recently as a four-year stretch from 2011-14, the national leader shot only 50 and a fraction.

Meanwhile, a broad look at history is intriguing. The best years for shooting percentage came in the 1980s, topped by the NCAA record-holder, Missouri, in 1979-80. That year, absurdly, each of their top five Tiger scorers shot no worse than .541 – and three of them surpassed .600. Oddly, the leader, big man Steve Stipanovich, the No. 2 overall pick in the 1983 NBA draft, wasn’t one of them. The team shot .572.

Through the ‘80s, the national leader never dipped below 54 percent and frequently bobbed up to 56.

But in 1986-87 came the three-point shot. And while its impact wasn’t convulsive immediately, in time it became a serious weapon. Volume shooters by proponents like Rick Pitino coaxed more teams into buying in, and while that bumped up metrics like effective field-goal percentage, it dropped actual shooting percentages.

Other factors weighed against shooters and in favor of improved scouting, like Synergy Sports Technology, a service providing instant cut-ups of opponent offenses or individuals’ tendencies.

For much of this century, freshmen have exited for the NBA after one season, often in which they were unrefined players but prized for their potential.

Shooting percentages have thus stagnated. In fact, Gonzaga’s .526 of 2019 is the highest number since Florida had the same when it repeated a national championship in 2007.

What happens now for Gonzaga? Is the rarefied percentage sustainable? One number would seem to argue that it is: Despite a couple of phenomenal individual games – Jalen Suggs against Iowa and Corey Kispert against Virginia – GU is shooting only .346 from three-point range. Surely the ceiling is higher.

With league play starting this weekend, there are competing arguments for the overall shooting outlook. GU’s percentage could rise, given that most of the teams on its WCC schedule aren’t the equal of the Power Six teams it has dispatched. Or, there’s the fact that conference brethren know each other better, and especially by the rematch games, they’ve brainstormed ways to slow down offenses.

But if that Gonzaga number hovers near 55 percent, history will tell us what we can see with our own eyes: The Zags’ offense is something else.
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If the Zags beat Virginia, cue the hosannas

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About the time Gonzaga had rained its 10th trey in the first half against Iowa the other day in South Dakota, Mark Titus of FoxSports tweeted this: “With respect to Baylor, I’m ready to officially declare this a Gonzaga-versus-the-field season.”

Dana O’Neil of The Athletic chimed in: “Not as good defensively, but remind me of Villanova, circa 2018. Dudes everywhere.”

Let's rewind. One can trace the arc of Gonzaga basketball – golden age – in half a dozen or so escalators:

-- 1999-2001: The breakthrough.

-- 2006: Adam Morrison mania.

-- 2013: First No. 1 ranking.

-- 2013: First No. 1 NCAA-tournament seed.

-- 2017: First Final Four.

-- 2020: First preseason AP No. 1 ranking.

And now, if the Zags can get through the week unbeaten – which means surviving the clutches of Virginia the day after Christmas – here comes the Adulation Phase, full-on.

Gary Parrish of CBS Sports outlined how that one sets up: “Yep, it would mean that Gonzaga would stop being talked about as just the favorite to win the national title and start being discussed as a legitimate candidate to become the first undefeated national champion since Indiana in 1976. And, at this point, it would neither be a premature or inappropriate conversation.”

That’s a mouthful. Anybody buying into that belief assumes the Zags can walk not only the inevitable NCAA-tournament minefields like Baylor, Villanova and Tennessee, but even the WCC traps like BYU, which (a) has spoiled a Gonzaga unbeaten season before (in 2017), and (b) is good enough to have throttled San Diego State on the road.

Of course, there will always be the but-they-don’t-play-anybody caterwaulers when the Zags enter the Portland/San Diego part of their schedule, but currently, that argument loses a little juice since Gonzaga has already dispatched the Nos. 3 (Kansas), 4 (Iowa) and 7 (West Virginia) teams in the nation. If today were Selection Sunday, there’s no question Gonzaga would be the overall top seed.

And remember this: Gonzaga overcame West Virginia with Jalen Suggs limited to 26 minutes and four points by a bad ankle, and the Zags pretty much boat-raced Iowa despite a Covid-caused, practice-crimping 17-day interregnum since the previous game.

Perhaps there’s a subtle, subconscious affection for the Zags for this attribute: They play a pleasing style that flatters the game – fast, purposeful, at times overpowering in its efficiency.

Not to say there aren’t concerns. Gonzaga’s inside game right now consists basically of Drew Timme. Oumar Ballo was overmatched Saturday against Luka Garza, and no shame there. Ballo could have benefitted greatly from the four “buy” games that were scrubbed during the Covid layoff.

Against Iowa, Timme and Corey Kispert fouled out, and Iowa was about a Zag turnover away from making GU's win perilous.

Moreover, since it’s 2020, it's always worth mentioning that the narrative can never stray too far from the coronavirus.

Over the years, there have been any number of teams that have entered that Indiana-1976 conversation without success – prominently UNLV, upset in the 1991 national semis to Duke; and as recently as last year, when San Diego State made it to late February before losing.

But if the Zags surmount Virginia – and that’s a delicious matchup, simply for the stylistic contrast – here come the bouquets. The national conversation about Gonzaga is going to be intense and for GU, unprecedented.

And just maybe, deserved.


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The Huskies, listing badly, put a new twist on the Gonzaga series

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Saturday, Dec. 12 was going to be the day Gonzaga renewed its basketball series with Washington. But that was back about a jillion months ago (seemingly), and several permutations of the ever-evolving basketball schedule.

Of course, that game was a fall casualty to Pac-12 dictates. And as it turns out, it likely would have fallen victim to the Zags’ decision to pause for a week while it (hopefully) shoos the Covid-19 virus out of the program.

You know how we got here – as in, the weirdness of 2020. But how we got to the fact there are currently another three games left in the Washington-Gonzaga series, takes some explaining.

And just maybe, it ought to take some reconsideration from the Zags.

Let’s backtrack. When I wrote “Glory Hounds” back in 2016, Zags coach Mark Few made it pretty clear he was less than lukewarm about some regional rivalries, in contrast to much of his fan base.

The Zags checked out of the series with Washington State after the 2015-16 season, following a squeeze play by Gonzaga that resulted in WSU’s home game in 2014-15 being moved to Spokane Arena.

The arcs of the two programs made it hard to argue with Few. The Cougars were a drag on Gonzaga’s computer rankings. They epitomized the everything-to-lose-nothing-to-gain proposition.

Few ruminated that the Huskies were falling into that same category. Remember, the last years of Lorenzo Romar’s tenure resulted in regular, double-digit beatdowns by the Zags.

Closer to home, when Few weighed in for the book, the Zags were amid an eight-year hiatus from the series with Eastern Washington. The two programs met last season.

I wrote then that the scissoring of the WSU series was justified. The Cougars went 22-68 in conference games in the five-year run of Ernie Kent, and there was simply nothing in it for Gonzaga. But the Huskies hadn’t bottomed out like that consistently, and I felt that series was worth continuing; the talent level was going to keep Washington at least on a respectable level.

Well, a couple of odd things have happened. Notwithstanding Few’s reluctance, the Gonzaga-Washington series was extended a year or so ago through the 2023-24 season.

And suddenly, it’s the Huskies who are looking like the potential anchor on Gonzaga’s profile in future years.

Meanwhile, the Cougars seem to be on a positive trajectory under second-year coach Kyle Smith, who has fit into the culture; gotten a victory in the Pac-12 tournament, something that somehow hadn’t happened at WSU in a decade; and attracted a top-35 freshman class to Pullman.

If Gonzaga is inclined to view these relationships as fluid, there’s not a lot to say right now that the Cougars aren’t more of a potential force than the Huskies.

Why do business with Washington? It’s possible one rationale for keeping a tie to the UW is that with the Battle in Seattle in limbo with the renovation of KeyArena, meeting the Huskies on Montlake every other year provides GU exposure on the west side. Another is the appearance of a warmer relationship between Few and UW coach Mike Hopkins than was the case with Few and Romar.

But right now, the UW program is teetering. The Huskies finished last in the Pac-12 in 2020 and appear a solid candidate to repeat in ’20-21. Last year, it was the academic ineligibility of guard Quade Green that torpedoed the UW. Now, swingman Naz Carter is gone in the wake of allegations of sexual assault. So, two years in a row, a player betrayed the program.

It’s instructive to look at a confounding big picture with UW basketball. This is a program planted in a city rightly renowned for its basketball talent. Yet, over a generation’s time, for all the talk about the “206,” etc., etc., the best the Huskies have done is get to the Sweet 16 (three times).

When Isaiah Stewart and Jaden McDaniels went in the recent NBA draft, it meant this: Since 2007, the Huskies have had nine first-round NBA draft picks who didn’t get to the NCAA tournament in the year they were selected. Next-highest number nationally is three (Indiana, Syracuse), and the only adjective I can think of for that is “stupefying.” No program has frittered away high-end talent like Washington. (Obviously, there was no NCAA tournament in ’20, but at 15-17, the Huskies weren’t going there.)

This isn’t a recommendation to erase any Gonzaga rivalry; fans tend to love them, for good reason.

But if GU is going to assess these rivalries periodically – and it has – the Huskies are making a good argument to reassess.
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The Huskies, listing badly, put a new twist on the Gonzaga series

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Saturday, Dec. 12 was going to be the day Gonzaga renewed its basketball series with Washington. But that was back about a jillion months ago (seemingly), and several permutations of the ever-evolving basketball schedule.

Of course, that game was a fall casualty to Pac-12 dictates. And as it turns out, it likely would have fallen victim to the Zags’ decision to pause for a week while it (hopefully) shoos the Covid-19 virus out of the program.

You know how we got here – as in, the weirdness of 2020. But how we got to the fact there are currently another three games left in the Washington-Gonzaga series, takes some explaining.

And just maybe, it ought to take some reconsideration from the Zags.

Let’s backtrack. When I wrote “Glory Hounds” back in 2016, Zags coach Mark Few made it pretty clear he was less than lukewarm about some regional rivalries, in contrast to much of his fan base.

The Zags checked out of the series with Washington State after the 2015-16 season, following a squeeze play by Gonzaga that resulted in WSU’s home game in 2014-15 being moved to Spokane Arena.

The arcs of the two programs made it hard to argue with Few. The Cougars were a drag on Gonzaga’s computer rankings. They epitomized the everything-to-lose-nothing-to-gain proposition.

Few ruminated that the Huskies were falling into that same category. Remember, the last years of Lorenzo Romar’s tenure resulted in regular, double-digit beatdowns by the Zags.

Closer to home, when Few weighed in for the book, the Zags were amid an eight-year hiatus from the series with Eastern Washington. The two programs met last season.

I wrote then that the scissoring of the WSU series was justified. The Cougars went 22-68 in conference games in the five-year run of Ernie Kent, and there was simply nothing in it for Gonzaga. But the Huskies hadn’t bottomed out like that consistently, and I felt that series was worth continuing; the talent level was going to keep Washington at least on a respectable level.

Well, a couple of odd things have happened. Notwithstanding Few’s reluctance, the Gonzaga-Washington series was extended a year or so ago through the 2023-24 season.

And suddenly, it’s the Huskies who are looking like the potential anchor on Gonzaga’s profile in future years.

Meanwhile, the Cougars seem to be on a positive trajectory under second-year coach Kyle Smith, who has fit into the culture; gotten a victory in the Pac-12 tournament, something that somehow hadn’t happened at WSU in a decade; and attracted a top-35 freshman class to Pullman.

If Gonzaga is inclined to view these relationships as fluid, there’s not a lot to say right now that the Cougars aren’t more of a potential force than the Huskies.

Why do business with Washington? It’s possible one rationale for keeping a tie to the UW is that with the Battle in Seattle in limbo with the renovation of KeyArena, meeting the Huskies on Montlake every other year provides GU exposure on the west side. Another is the appearance of a warmer relationship between Few and UW coach Mike Hopkins than was the case with Few and Romar.

But right now, the UW program is teetering. The Huskies finished last in the Pac-12 in 2020 and appear a solid candidate to repeat in ’20-21. Last year, it was the academic ineligibility of guard Quade Green that torpedoed the UW. Now, swingman Naz Carter is gone in the wake of allegations of sexual assault. So, two years in a row, a player betrayed the program.

It’s instructive to look at a confounding big picture with UW basketball. This is a program planted in a city rightly renowned for its basketball talent. Yet, over a generation’s time, for all the talk about the “206,” etc., etc., the best the Huskies have done is get to the Sweet 16 (three times).

When Isaiah Stewart and Jaden McDaniels went in the recent NBA draft, it meant this: Since 2007, the Huskies have had nine first-round NBA draft picks who didn’t get to the NCAA tournament in the year they were selected. Next-highest number nationally is three (Indiana, Syracuse), and the only adjective I can think of for that is “stupefying.” No program has frittered away high-end talent like Washington. (Obviously, there was no NCAA tournament in ’20, but at 15-17, the Huskies weren’t going there.)

This isn’t a recommendation to erase any Gonzaga rivalry; fans tend to love them, for good reason.

But if GU is going to assess these rivalries periodically – and it has – the Huskies are making a good argument to reassess.
#theslipperstillfits #unitedwezag #wccsports #zagmbb #zagup

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All Zags have to do in '20-21 is beat a virus and 350 other teams

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With a wing and a prayer, and maybe a rabbit’s foot and a stray four-leaf clover, Gonzaga launches its college basketball season this week. Not that luck is typically in the Zags’ playbook, but it’s 2020, and, well, you may have noticed, things are a little different.

The Zags, of course, open Thursday with a little-known opponent without much in the way of genealogy – Kansas. That kicks off a nine-day stretch in which Gonzaga also plays Auburn and Tennessee and Baylor. But not the Lakers.

Chief among the story lines for GU are: That the program seems ever on an ascendant arc, judging by the caliber of recruits committed verbally or in writing; and the chaotic, constantly evolving schedule that has taken shape under the persistent thumb of a pandemic.

But there’s another narrative that’s crept in over many months’ time, dating to even before the 2020 calendar year, prior to the ’20 NCAA tournament being scrubbed. It’s the one that points out that Gonzaga, for all its unlikely emergence a generation ago and erstwhile darling-ness and nationwide curiosity/appeal, hasn’t won a national championship, and is this the year, or what the hell are you guys waiting for?

Mostly we’re talking about nuance here, and maybe I’m nitpicking. But it’s been out there nonetheless, the notion that the program will be forever unfulfilled and, you know, no better than New Jersey Tech if someday it’s not Gonzaga hogging the highlights on “One Shining Moment.”

Last December, as a promising season was beginning, a Spokane TV station asked: “Is this finally the year for GU?” An editor of the Spokane Spokesman-Review termed it that “elusive” national title.

This is a second cousin, of course, to the old narrative that the Zags have underperformed in the post-season. Or, as someone writing for something called NBC Sports.com/Washington penned in referencing GU coach Mark Few, “The Bulldogs’ coach has had massive amounts of success in the regular season and in the second and third rounds of the NCAA tournament. However, it’s in the second weekend and beyond that’s been his bugaboo.”

Nothing like having a little perspective.

Few sporting endeavors are fraught with as much peril as winning an NCAA basketball title. All you’ve got to do is ford a river of menacing Dukes, Kentuckys and North Carolinas; and lying-in-the-weeds outfits like Florida State and Texas Tech; and oh yeah, the upstarts jonesing to make a name for themselves, like Loyola of Chicago and Wichita State and before that, Butler. (That was Gonzaga once, remember.)

When the Dodgers won the ’20 World Series, it broke a drought of more than three decades. In recent years, when they were denied, there were four or five realistic interlopers. In college hoops, there might be 25 or 30 outfits capable of the bonkers 40 minutes that sends you home.

Again, we’re talking nuance here. It’s not wrong to call Gonzaga’s title “elusive” – only that if it’s elusive for the Zags, it’s also elusive for a lot of other folks.

Some numbers to chew on: Twenty-three times since 2000, a program that hasn’t won a national championship in the past half-century has been seeded No. 1 and failed to win it all. Seventeen times, that school didn’t get to the Final Four. Twice that happened to Gonzaga. But it also befell Stanford three times, Pitt twice, and among others, Oregon (2014) and Washington (2005).

In other words, this winning-it-all thing ain’t easy. Never is, and that’s when we’re not turned upside-down by a virus. If you assume the Zags’ road to a respectable seed in the 2021 tournament hinges on their non-league performance, those four early games are not only pivotal, but freighted with negative implication for GU if they aren’t played.

So health, theirs and their opponents’, should be Job One for the Zags. Getting off to a fast start is No. 2, and if history holds, Few should be the right guy to make it happen. I count eight non-conference tournament championships on his 21-year watch, including a couple in Maui and three in Florida. The Zags have regularly tattooed Washington early, including in 2004, when GU was coming off a listless blowout loss at Illinois and the Huskies were ranked.

And almost without fail, when Gonzaga has stumbled in a pre-conference game – Dayton in a first-round Maui loss in 2013 – it has rebounded to scoop up valuable resume ground with a victory.

The Zags have beaten North Carolina and Duke in November. Now the goal is to do it in late March or early April.

No doubt GU players have a title in the back of their minds and don't mind saying so. Nothing wrong with that. But their fans ought not be so jaded that anything less than a championship is a failure.

You do you, as they say. Me, I’d root for health, and then a Final Four, and if that happens, talk about a title. That pretty much describes Few’s approach in 2017, when the Zags crashed through the glass ceiling to the Final Four. This time, instead of glass descending, they envision confetti.

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