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A tale of two Marks and the Kentucky job

  About 2001 or 2002, I found myself in Mark Few’s office, having a conversation I never had with any other coach.
  The chief of the Gonzaga basketball program was a couple of years into a tenure as the head guy, and seemed to be wrestling with the notion of the advisability of future job opportunities. He asked me for my thoughts in moving from Eugene – 10 minutes from where he grew up – to Seattle.
  Nothing very profound could I offer, either in the way of advice or insight. In fact, given that Few has staked his entire career at Gonzaga, it’s entirely reasonable to conclude this was only another case of my input ending up on a large trash heap of irrelevance.
  In any case, the conversation came to mind a week ago when Kentucky began its search to replace John Calipari. A respected national media member advanced Few’s name into the discussion, saying he was one figure whose name hadn’t come up, but needed to.
  Briefly, I wondered: Would this be, could this be, the crowning non sequitur for Few – deciding that in the twilight of his career, he had taken Gonzaga as far as he could take it and he was ready to bring all of Kentucky’s resources to bear in one final quest for a national championship? Even after a tenure in which he’s turned down Oregon, UCLA, Stanford, Indiana, Washington, Cal, Florida and God knows how many other openings?
  Nah, no chance. Who knows whether a shot-in-the-dark, flyer of a phone call was made to Few’s agent, but it’s pretty obvious Few intends to retire at Gonzaga. It’s sometimes said that everybody has a price, but Few has made a career of disproving it. Fifty-nine percent of his life – his life, not his career – has been spent at Gonzaga.
  And in that vein, I wonder if Few’s longevity at GU has been instructive for some other coaches along the way – the idea that just maybe, rushing to board the upward-mobility ladder is perhaps not always the best choice.
  The vision of Few at Kentucky was summarily obliterated by paging through the comments of the Wildcat faithful accompanying stories that UK athletic director Mitch Barnhart had hired Mark Pope of Brigham Young to replace Calipari. Most of those reacted by advocating Barnhart be stuffed into a broom closet at Rupp Arena, the door locked behind him.
  Which is precisely why Few wouldn’t bite on Kentucky. The idea of fans driving by his house and asking him to pose for photographs isn’t on his wish list. As longtime college-basketball writer/author Dick Weiss tweeted over the weekend, “Kentucky has the most passionate fan base in college basketball, and it’s not even close.”
  Dan Hurley of Connecticut, the hot thing going, said no to Kentucky. So did Scott Drew of Baylor. It’s unclear whether Kentucky approached Billy Donovan of the Chicago Bulls, but at the very least, this makes Pope no higher than No. 3 on the Wildcats’ list, and that was what seemed to throw many of their fans into a drop-forged rage – the idea that the search itself, not the fruits of it, had put them in their place.
  The Pope hire took me back to the ‘90s, when I covered Washington basketball. A 6-10 forward, Pope was the prize recruit of Lynn Nance’s UW regime, a product of nearby Newport High School. It struck me that Pope had almost a slavish relationship to Nance – totally bought in, eager to do whatever Nance demanded, at a time when the head coach wasn’t a very captivating figure in Seattle.
  Of course, when Nance was fired after the 1993 season, Pope transferred to Kentucky, and there might have been a seed planted to put that into motion. Nance had worked under Joe B. Hall at Kentucky from 1974-76, and he told me once he’d been named a “Kentucky Colonel” under that regime. That’s a service honor bestowed by the governor of Kentucky, and as I recall, Nance displayed that framed certificate on his office wall.
  Pope made the transfer, UK coach Rick Pitino immediately raved about his dedication and work ethic, and he was part of a vaunted Wildcat team that won the 1996 national championship.
  That’s one reason I think this might be an underrated hire. Pope won’t be dumbstruck by the fan frenzy around him; he lived it for three years. Beyond that, he’s a high-motor guy, a bit of a character on the sideline who had Utah Valley and then BYU on an upward arc.
  Meanwhile in Spokane, Mark Few will be content to see it play out, earning less and very likely, enjoying it more.
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Zags exemplary; some GU fans, not so much

  I’m sitting in front of a computer and trying to describe adequately Gonzaga’s nine-year streak of making the NCAA Sweet 16. A marriage of “stupefying” and “insane” is about the best I can do.
   So irrepressible were the Zags in taking out McNeese State and Kansas over the opening weekend, that the inclination was to wonder what the hell was wrong with those other two teams. Where was that squad that won 30 games in the Southland Conference and was one of the popular picks for a 12-5 upset? And what exactly happened to Kansas, injuries and depth issues notwithstanding, to justify allowing a blinding 32-4 second-half tsunami by Gonzaga – itself not exactly a deep team?
  The easiest answer is to say this is what Gonzaga does. No matter how dismal, no matter how down the outlook earlier in the season, it somehow redefines itself at the propitious time.
  I saw Gonzaga lose to Washington Dec. 9, and for GU fans, it was ghastly. The guard play devolved to atrocious in the late stages, when the Zags coughed up an 11-point lead and lost to the Huskies. Maybe worse than the bungled ball-handling and missed shots, they didn’t seem to be enjoying playing with each other, a hallmark of GU teams.
  Somehow, the Zags kept chopping wood, people like Ryan Nembhard and Graham Ike began to get it, and Saturday, after a second straight tournament victory that could have been by 30, Gonzaga had tied Duke (1998-2006) for the second-longest streak of Sweet 16 teams in history.
  If this isn't the most surprising of the Sweet 16s, it's at least 1B. Similarly, the 2015-16 Zags mucked aimlessly through much of the season. Then they caught fire, won the WCC tournament and blistered both Seton Hall and Utah to get to the round of 16. All that happened, ironically, as HBO cameras tracked them relentlessly for a reality-TV series called "Gonzaga: The March to Madness." Athletic director Mike Roth, fretting over the possibility of television chronicling the program finally coming back to earth after 17 straight NCAA-tournament appearances, likened the prospect to a "freakin' Greek tragedy."
  As it turned out, not to worry.
  Two points of perspective on Sweet 16 record history: UCLA’s glory-days teams obviously were dominant, but the NCAA doesn’t count them because the Bruins would routinely get a bye to the round of 16 in years when tournament participation numbered in the mid-20s.
  Second, North Carolina (1981-93) holds the record at 13, but it’s a bit less daunting than it sounds because the first four of those were 48-team tournaments and Carolina would get a bye, requiring a single win to crash the Sweet 16.
  It’s a ridiculously competitive sport. One night, you need to beat a team that massages the ball, the next you’re facing speedball on a short prep that begins at midnight after a late first-round win.
  Yeah, Gonzaga has benefited from a handful of 16-1 games, as did Carolina and Duke. But it’s also had to be pitch-perfect to get to that second weekend. It had to reduce Seton Hall’s Isaiah Whitehead from Big East tournament MVP to a 4-for-24 shooter in a 16-point win as an 11 seed in 2016. Then it went out and beat Utah by 23.
  It had to have Zach Norvell’s three to break a tie in 2018 in the last 21 seconds against North Carolina-Greensboro, avoiding one of those first-round upsets that are everywhere, in what would have been the Zags’ most dire opener ever in the tournament.
  It needed all of Drew Timme’s wiles to overcome a 12-point second-half deficit against Memphis in  Portland two years ago, and it took all hands on deck to oust TCU last year, 84-81.
  All that happened during a stretch when, in the first two rounds, Arizona lost to Princeton and Purdue lost to Fairleigh-Dickinson and Virginia lost to Maryland-Baltimore County and Kentucky lost to St. Peter’s and Texas lost to Abilene Christian.
  Right here is where some mouth-breathing Cream-o-Wheat-brain says, “Uh, how many natties they won?”
  That would be none. But college hoops has its own class structure, one that’s far more varied and nuanced than, say, any of the pro sports. It’s like an extension ladder with 16 rungs, one that accommodates bluebloods like Duke, North Carolina and Kansas as well as an indigent like IUPUI; faded-glory places like DePaul, Syracuse and Georgetown; football schools that have had spasms of success (Michigan, Miami) and those that can’t get out of their own way (Penn State, Nebraska); mid-majors that have had bursts into the limelight (Princeton, Davidson, George Mason, Wichita State); and a whole array of other sub-species.
  It’s an awfully diverse fraternity, and the Zags have earned a place on the next-to-top rung, a national title away from the summit.
  I’d imagine their fans can universally appreciate that, but then again, after sitting in at the Spokane subregional over the weekend, I may be giving some of them too much credit.
  When Saint Mary’s, the Zags’ longtime bete noire, ran onto the floor for its first-round game with Grand Canyon, it was booed – not lightly, loudly. That came, assuredly, from some of the Gonzaga fans in the audience. Not all of them, but some.
  I thought it was bush.
  Saint Mary’s won the WCC regular-season title and followed up with the conference-tournament championship. It was the Gaels’ year. For their trouble, they got assigned to the Spokane subregional, to deal with the challenges of a road game.
  I’ll stipulate first that those are expensive tickets, and fans absolutely have the right to cheer or boo as they like. Second, the sound of boos is often a vague impression; if 100 people in a baseball stadium of 45,000 people boo, the storyline tends to become, “Bryce Harper was booed … “
  The Saint Mary’s reception was certainly robust. My companion, unsolicited, called it “hostile.”
  Of course, it was only a segment of Gonzaga fans. It’s probably not worth pointing out to them that any advancement by Saint Mary’s in the tournament stands to benefit Gonzaga financially via conference payouts. Moreover, what would there be for the Zags in the WCC without the Gaels? It’s easily the best rivalry in West Coast basketball, one that makes both schools better.
  There’s a time to lay down your guns and appreciate the other guy. In this case, it struck me as an unseemly sequel to the trash-throwing incident early in February when Gonzaga hosted the Gaels – petty, provincial and not a good look.
  Meanwhile, those folks have plenty to cheer from their favorite team. For comparative purposes, the next-best ongoing streak of Sweet 16s is Houston’s five. Funny, but for virtually a decade now, Gonzaga has been doing what it couldn’t from 2010 to 2014, when it annually won an NCAA-tournament game but stumbled in the second round.
  The Sweet 16 was the Holy Grail then. Now it’s as routine as the electric bill.
#theslipperstillfits #unitedwezag #wcchoops #wccsports #zaghoops #zagmbb #zagsguru #zagup

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The bubble: For the Zags, new, different and indeterminate

Behold Gonzaga, forever breaking glass ceilings, always doing something outside the norm.
This season, that means lurking about the ledge of the NCAA-tournament cut, which is quite a change around the McCarthey Athletic Center. It’s been fully eight years since the Zags lived on the bubble, and of course, they haven’t failed to make an NCAA field since 1998, or shortly after somebody decided it would be a good idea to cut out the bottom of Naismith’s peach basket.
They’ve been there 24 consecutive times. Actually, they’ve made it 25, because they had just won the WCC’s at-large bid in 2020 before Covid-19 shut down the tournament before it could start.
It’s a bit jarring, then, to hear of the Zags on the bubble. The tournament would get along fine without them, of course, but initially, at least, it’d be like Christmas without a tree. They’ve been to eight straight Sweet 16s and since that bubble-surviving season of 2016, they’ve won more games in the tournament (24) than anybody.
Entering a pregnant final weekend of the regular season in the Bay Area, we can safely say this: They’ve been playing better. Nolan Hickman is shooting better, Ryan Nembhard is more comfortable, Graham Ike has been adept at staying on the floor, and Dusty Stromer looks more like the player he promised back in November.
But these Zags make for a tough read, and if they don’t win the WCC tournament, I suspect the NCAA basketball committee is going to have some long and pointed discussions about their qualifications.
Seemingly, for every argument favoring Gonzaga’s entry, there’s a counter. The Zags are No. 21 in the NET rankings, higher than any non-qualifier has ever been. Yeah, but they have one Quad 1 win.
Undefeated in Quads 3 and 4, they don’t have ugly blemishes. But they don’t have much oomph in Quad 2, either, with just two wins.
They have good metrics, almost uniformly – besides 21 in the NET, 21 in KenPom, 22 by Bart Torvik, 19 in ESPN’s Basketball Power Index. But in the KPI computer rankings, they’re No. 67.
And yeah, they’re playing better. But that matters to them, not the basketball committee. Years ago, there was a bump for late-season success, but not anymore.
This might be the most enigmatic of Zag resumes in the Mark Few era. They have losses to two of the top title contenders, Purdue and Connecticut, and another to an incipient high seed in San Diego State. There’s not a lot below it, once you get past the breakthrough win at Kentucky, thanks largely to the fact UCLA and USC went belly-up in tandem this year.
Therein, however, is a factor that may help Gonzaga – scheduling intent. Anyone assembling a schedule that includes UCLA and USC in addition to the other heavies isn’t ducking tough games. The committee will appreciate that the Zags’ intentions were good. We’re in an age when it’s next-to-impossible to project rosters accurately.
We shouldn’t obsess over the Quad numbers, either. The committee will drill down farther, and recognize, for instance, that Gonzaga beat Syracuse by 19 points, and the Orange was 18-10 and 9-8 in the ACC entering a Tuesday night-game with Virginia Tech.
And what, you ask, about the eyeball test? Does it matter? Is it even a thing? I suspect that more than the usual committee eyes were focused on the Gonzaga-Kentucky game because of GU’s precarious status. That can’t have hurt.
Is it a factor that Gonzaga has aced the opening weekend in eight straight tournaments? Minimally, if at all. Remember, to include the Zags means somebody else that might be deserving gets dinged. Every year is a clean slate. Perhaps there’s the smallest smidge of persuasiveness, though, in a committeeman knowing the Zags won’t embarrass him. They haven’t had a first-round loss since 2008, to Stephen Curry.
The guess here is that any win over Saint Mary’s gets the Zags in, and, short of that, beating San Francisco at the Chase Center Thursday night would go a long way, although three losses to the Gaels would be hard for the committee to digest.
A story: A good friend and I often used to travel to cover football games, and in so doing would find ourselves, in the days before navigational apps, groping through unfamiliar roads to find our way somewhere. In those moments, he would always implore loudly to nobody in particular: “Put up a sign!”
The committee would appreciate that of the Zags: Play your way into this thing, or show us definitively that, after a glorious quarter-century, you’re finally incapable of it.
By all means, Gonzaga, put up a sign.
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Against all odds, Zags continue to be ranked

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

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

  Back in 2010, before Final Fours, before Sweet 16s on demand, before NIL, Gonzaga turned in one of its most forgettable basketball performances of all time, losing 76-41 to Duke at Madison Square Garden. When I wrote Glory Hounds, Zags coach Mark Few and his assistant, Ray Giacoletti, recalled a glum, introspective walk afterward through the streets of New York in a snowstorm amid the incongruity of Christmas lights, trying to get a handle on their team.

  For hours.

  Few and his coaching cronies have a name for it: Season-on-the-brink moments.

  “You have ‘em every year,” Few told me.

  Well, since the 2022-23 season is now over, there are no season-on-the-brink moments. But Connecticut’s evisceration of the Zags the other night in the Elite Eight probably would have qualified (and what better place to have lost yourself in thought, or blackjack, than the Las Vegas Strip?).

  Gonzaga finished a season that was by turns alarming and then satisfying with a performance against UConn that was perplexing. Not that the Huskies won, or even that they won convincingly, but that the Zags, once the wheels started to come off, never mustered so much as a whimper of response. They were like a rotting second floor, which looks OK one minute and then collapses into a pile the next.

  After all, this was an even game 14 minutes in, nothing to indicate UConn would later lead by 33. But the Zags then couldn’t make a shot – a lot of them in the lane. Offense affected defense and defense affected offense.

  They didn’t help themselves by playing unintelligently. They botched the last possession of the half, pushing the UConn lead to seven, and Drew Timme’s third and fourth fouls, each early in the second half, simply weren’t smart, a contrast to his brilliant career.

  So yes, the margin, 28 points, was a shock. Yet – easy to say now – perhaps there was a bit of inevitability to the defeat, even as there was talk of Gonzaga going all the way in a tournament memorable for its anarchy.

  This was never one of GU’s best teams, less than imposing on the perimeter and without the defensive chops necessary. The Zags were an ominous No. 73 in KenPom’s defense numbers, and if you need perspective, the No. 72 team was Washington State, a .500 outfit.

  An Elite Eight push was thus, if not overachievement, at least a mark of fulfillment.

  Not that you’d know it by some of the reaction. For some reason, maybe because that national-title banner remains unhung, the Zags seem to rally critics to pitchforks and torches faster than you can get a beer from the fridge during a timeout.

  Of course, there was an old standby, that the West Coast Conference doesn’t prepare Gonzaga for the NCAA tournament. So, I Twittered, that must mean the WCC hurt them when they lost in the eight straight Sweet 16 years, but not in the nation-best 25 victories they ran up in that stretch.

  Somebody said they don’t see teams in the WCC that can extend and take away the three-pointer like they encounter in the NCAAs. Hmm, that sounds a lot like the Alabama team the Zags solved in Birmingham just before Christmas.

  One media type alleged the Zags have had a “manageable to downright easy road” getting to the second weekend over the years. True that the UCLA injuries aided Gonzaga’s path this March. But in every one of those other Sweet 16 advances, the Zags faced a single-digit seed in the second round. We should want them to play the Milwaukee Bucks?

   Ask Kansas how easy it is to get to the round of 32; three of the past four tournaments, it hasn’t. Ask Virginia, which has won games in only one of the past five tournaments. Ask Baylor, which has pushed into the Sweet 16 once in five tournaments.

  The difference, obviously, is that those schools have recently won NCAA titles. USA Today, noting that vacancy in the Gonzaga trophy case, wrote, “So what is preventing this program from finally cashing in and winning a championship? If not already, at some point Few will be defined by his inability to get Gonzaga over this last hurdle.”

  Pretty bold stuff, as opposed to the LA Times’ reference to Gonzaga as an “NCAA tournament Goliath” and a description of GU as a “blueblood” on a Westwood One national radio broadcast. The Zags don’t have a national championship, but they’re runaway leaders in inspiring polar reaction.

  During its tournament run, for what it’s worth, Gonzaga (44-25) nosed into a tie for 19th nationally in total victories in the event, with Maryland (44-28) and Purdue (44-33). The Zags spotted the field a pretty good head start.

  What’s next? Spokane Arena hosts first- and second-round games in 2024, and even without Timme, it would seem a proper goal to try to wrangle the kind of protected seed – No. 4 or better – to stay home. Gonzaga’s best teams have never quite lined up with that facility’s years of hosting, notably in the pandemic-scrubbed tournament of 2020.

  Never has the college game been so infused with the transfer/NIL chaos, but you’d guess established programs with a solid culture – raise your hand, Gonzaga -- would be the ones holding the trump cards. This would be a good time for that culture to assert itself, to kill off those season-on-the-brink moments.
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So what's the ceiling for the Zags?

  Prisoners of the moment, we are. That’s a truism reinforced by the fact that Gonzaga hoops graduated from a collective national ugh earlier this season to the notion that, who knows, might have six more games in it.

  Such was the rush created by the Zags’ ruthless 77-51 dispatch of Saint Mary’s the other night. Gonzaga treated the Gaels like somebody propped up in a “buy” game on a Wednesday night late in November, leading by 37 before SMC trimmed the deficit with its starters against Gonzaga subs.

  Even so, 26 was the largest margin either of these WCC strongholds have inflicted on each other in their long history in the league tournament.

  Sunday, Gonzaga earned a No. 3 seed opposite WAC winner Grand Canyon, with TCU, UCLA and high-upside Connecticut also lurking in the West Region.

  Following the woodshedding of Saint Mary’s, the bouquets rained in for the Zags, except for this one from Brian Rauf, a writer at

  “Seen a lot of talk about Gonzaga being a national-title contender because of how it blew out Saint Mary’s. To me, the game says more about the Gaels’ offensive struggles vs. athleticism than anything Gonzaga. Zags are still a solid team but I don’t see that ceiling . . . some issues – perimeter shot creation and rim protection chief among them – haven’t gone away. WCC opponents just couldn’t exploit them to the same extent.”

  Rauf’s is a point worth examining. There are some warts with this Gonzaga team, and the question is: After a long, sometimes-bumpy season, have the Zags managed to chip away those weaknesses in advance of a long March run, or did they just do what they almost always do, which is shame the rest of the WCC?

  Gonzaga’s performance against the Gaels was beyond dominating. Most impressively, its defensive rotations were terrific, its help almost unerring.

  “Our defense was as good as it’s ever been,” said GU coach Mark Few. “It wasn’t just 10 minutes, 20 minutes, it was 40.”

  The way it unfolded, Saint Mary’s was never going to win this game. But it also must be said that this was one of those nights for the Gaels, one in which they fluffed shots at the rim and threw passes to people in the seats. By themselves, apart from the Zags, they were horrendous.

  Rauf’s observation about perimeter shot creation is valid. The Zags don’t have much of that. They do, however, run such exquisite offense – tops in the nation, per – that it helps mask that deficiency.

  I’d be more concerned about that No. 75 defensive number in KenPom, and whether the Saint Mary’s evisceration is evidence of a defense finally getting it, or merely a one-off.

  Zag fans who needn’t have a long memory might counter Rauf by pointing out that better Gonzaga teams have stumbled against Saint Mary’s – late season, and in the 2019 WCC-tournament final, when GU was top-ranked.

  If you’re Zag-centric, you could argue the three games against Saint Mary’s this season summarize neatly Gonzaga’s ascendant arc. In Moraga early in February, the Zags led most of the way before Aidan Mahaney stole the game from them with a brilliant few minutes.

  In Spokane, Gonzaga controlled throughout and won decisively but not in one-sided fashion. Then in Vegas, the Zags made Saint Mary’s look like the East Bay Irregulars.

  This week, the Zags will truck some glitzy luggage into the NCAA tournament. They’ve won 13 straight first-round games, fifth all-time and trailing only a collection of royalty named North Carolina, Kentucky, Kansas and UCLA.

  They’ve been in seven straight Sweet 16s. One more gets them undisputed third all-time, behind North Carolina and Duke.

  Win it all? I doubt it. Even in a year of parity, that mountain is a sheer one for a team without great margin for error against the requisite array of opposing styles. What seems failsafe one night can be MIA the next. Last year, Andrew Nembhard was nails against Memphis, helping push the Zags into the Sweet 16. Against Arkansas, not so much.

  But maybe with a break or two, the Final Four isn’t necessarily a bridge too far. For Zag types who would dare to dream, the Saint Mary’s game was a nudge into dreamland.
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Coach Cal and The (almost) Home-and-Home with Gonzaga


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So why stipulate that the game be at Spokane Arena?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But not Kentucky. As they say, so near, but yet so far.
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For the Zags, a good time for a tuneup

Gotta say this for Saint Mary’s: True, most of the time it plays a distant second to Gonzaga in the hierarchy of West Coast Conference basketball. In their two-decades’ jousting history, Mark Few has a 44-12 edge on Randy Bennett.

But when the Gaels get the Zags, they get them good. They upended a top-ranked GU team in the WCC-tournament championship in 2019, and Saturday night, they did it again, pulling down the shorts of the nation’s top-rated team, 67-57.

If you’re a Zag fan, the images are disquieting: Drew Timme, unable to buy a basket, barreling down the lane with multiple defenders in his way. Chet Holmgren, flummoxed, trying to do too much.

Gonzaga, without answers and on that night, certainly without poise.

Of course, the magnitude of these Saint Mary’s wins is partly a credit to Gonzaga. They wouldn’t be monumental upsets if the Zags weren’t sufficiently monolithic to reach the top of the polls with some regularity.

If you’re thinking the loss to the Gaels leaves Gonzaga needing a reset, the good news is, this is a time of year that’s traditionally been very good to the Zags. No, just not March, though the month is frequently seashells and balloons for Gonzaga.

The nine-day interregnum between the end of the regular season and Gonzaga’s first game of the WCC tournament has almost without exception been productive for the Zags, who usually hit the “refresh” button profitably right now.

To wit: It’s been a quarter-century, 25 years, since the Zags failed to make the final of the WCC tournament. Even allowing for the sometimes-flaccid nature of the conference – not the case now, certainly – that’s a mind-bending number deserving of a place alongside the other Gonzaga streaks – those of making the NCAA tournament and winning games in it.

The streak of consecutive years in the NCAA tournament – about to become 23, or 24 if you recognize the fact Gonzaga had already qualified for the scrubbed 2020 event – remains a numbing accomplishment, borne of consistency, the willingness to schedule hard and the chops to win those games.

Getting to WCC finals for a quarter-century without a hitch reflects a different path, one that doesn’t brook the lapse in mental readiness or the night you happen to shoot 33 percent.

Right about now, Gonzaga usually comes out fresh and guns a-blazing. And it carries over to the NCAA tournament, exemplified by the Zags’ crazy 19-3 record in first-round games since the 1999 breakthrough.

Not that there haven’t been some sweaty palms during the WCC streak. Back in 2004, as a conference top seed, the Zags white-knuckled it past Santa Clara in the semis, 63-62. Two years later, in the only time Spokane hosted the tournament, Gonzaga needed overtime to subdue San Diego in a 96-92 semifinal screamer.

Since 2011, there have been four GU four-point semifinal victories. And over the past 15 years, nothing was more harrowing for the Zags in early rounds than the 2014 77-75 quarterfinal victory over No. 9 seed Santa Clara, when David Stockton wove around Sam Dower’s high screen and made a reverse layup with two seconds left.

Gonzaga’s record in the WCC tournament since losing to San Diego in the first round of the WCC in 1997? It’s 52-6.

This would be a good time for that other gear.
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Roth exits, leaving a totally different Gonzaga


“Just put a quarter in me,” Mike Roth would say self-deprecatingly, in reference to his facility for waxing long in answer to media questions.

Well, Roth just announced his retirement after 24 years as Gonzaga athletic director, and it would take a lot of quarters to describe properly how GU has changed since he came to campus.

If 24 years sounds like a long time, it actually shorts Roth. He’s been at the school in various athletic capacities since the mid-‘80s, and he pretty much knows every paver on every walkway around every athletic facility in the place.

The continuity at Gonzaga – unparalleled nationally for the combination of athletic administration and men’s basketball – is slowly being chipped away, victim both of its own excellence and the years that brought it about. First, Tommy Lloyd, a 20-year basketball assistant, to Arizona, and now Roth, who did three and a half decades at Gonzaga. But nothing is forever, not Roth’s vision, high standards or simple willingness to call you back.

Born in Easton, Pa., he grew up in Moses Lake and followed a sister to Gonzaga, where he played JV basketball briefly when Adrian Buoncristiani was varsity head coach.

“I went in and sat down with Adrian at my request,” Roth told me several years ago as I researched for my Gonzaga book, “Glory Hounds.” I said, ‘Adrian, I want to play. What are my chances? Am I going to get to play?’ “

“No,” Buoncristiani replied.

That set Roth toward Willamette University and a college experience he relished. He would end up back at Gonzaga to get a master’s degree in athletic administration before a short stint as a grad assistant to basketball coach Jay Hillock. But his first real apprenticeship to his current job was director of the newly refurbished Martin Centre in 1986.

One can only marvel at the GU landscape then. The school played at the NAIA level in all but basketball and baseball. Only a couple of sports even had full-time assistant coaches – baseball and women’s hoops not among them.

Roth came to wear a number of different hats in athletics. One of those was compliance, and in that role, he assumed a tortured position when Dan Fitzgerald, the basketball coach and athletic director, was whacked for NCAA violations over mismanagement of department funds. Fitz was a dynamic figure with diehard supporters, and some of them were convinced Roth, initially replacing him as interim A.D., had to be complicit in Fitzgerald’s demise.

“There was a very, very small, vocal and aggressive group,” Roth told me. “I took some heat, more than I would have liked, to be quite honest. There were some personal attacks that were really painful.”

At basketball games, Roth would sometimes try to start a conversation with one of those Fitz loyalists and be met with stony silence.

Summer of ‘98, he and athletics survived a financial crisis at the school, during which there was a push to de-emphasize sports to NCAA Division III.

(Yeah, this is the same program that in the past five years, played in two NCAA basketball championship games.)

Basketball hit the mother lode in 1999, stayed steady and – unlike other one-hit wonders – found a way to build on it, brick by brick. Mark Few’s perseverance was paramount, but Roth proved an able steward of the enterprise, even if sometimes you wondered if he could be fully simpatico with a train roaring downhill. If ever that was the case, Roth could point to GU’s routine department-wide APR success in the classroom.

Around Roth, the landscape evolved dramatically in program advancements and facilities upgrades. GU has constructed two basketball-related buildings in the last 17 years and a top-of-the-line baseball park.

If some of the glory fell to Roth, it also became his purview to rationalize the athletics boom to wary Gonzaga trustees; you could almost feel the eye-rolls over the phone when Roth would reference such meetings on his calendar. Imagine the crossfire at one of those the weekend in 2007 when Josh Heytvelt got busted for drug possession.

Roth had another role as well. Few guards his privacy zealously and slips into a bunker, not to be rousted even during some basketball-related issues. In those times, it was frequently the Tommy Lloyds or Mike Roths offering up Gonzaga’s public face.

The Zags’ “hunt” for Roth’s replacement was a short one. If ever there was a no-brainer, this was it. Chris Standiford has been at the school since the early ‘90s, starting with his time as an undergrad. He’s been a low-key, behind-the-scenes stalwart.

About that Gonzaga continuity: There’s a fine line between the value of institutional knowledge and the danger of becoming stale. The Zags, with Mike Roth having overseen their transformation, seem to get that as well as anybody.
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