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Coach Cal and The (almost) Home-and-Home with Gonzaga

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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.
#BBN #kentuckybasketball #theslipperstillfits #unitedwezag #wccsports #zaghoops #zagmbb #zagsmbb #zagup

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For the Zags, a good time for a tuneup

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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

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“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.
#theslipperstillfits #unitedwezag #wcchoops #zagmbb #zagup

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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.
#theslipperstillfits #unitedwezag #wccsports #zagmbb #zagup

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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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