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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.
A funny thing happened to Gonzaga on the way to the ATM, to find out if there was anything left in the coffers. It looked up to see an exacta hit in the final race.
Rasir Bolton decided another year of being loved up, and giving back to the community, was worth revisiting. Julian Strawther wasn’t ready for the NBA, and fortuitously, he realized it. And Drew Timme, well, you only get to do this college thing once, and prolonging it in the era of the NIL is certainly better than the days when you survived on Top Ramen.
Big, bang, boom. And as if the week's news wasn’t already intoxicating enough for Zag fans, here came the bulletin that Chattanooga guard Malachi Smith, the Southern Conference player of the year, emerged from the transfer portal with a commitment to GU.
What’s next? Dollar pitchers at Jack and Dan’s?
All of it leaves me . . . wary.
Let’s rewind about 10 weeks, to late March. I sensed a despair around the Gonzaga fan base, born of a season that delivered less than expected. Yes, the Sweet 16s are nice – seven in a row now, astonishingly – but the script didn’t account for a round-of-16 loss to Arkansas, a game in which Gonzaga’s four- and five-point deficits seemed more like 15. Chet Holmgren, the school’s most heralded recruit in history, was gone. The talking heads kept returning to a theme: This Gonzaga team wasn’t tough enough.
It almost seemed as though a changing of the guard was not only inevitable, but maybe even preferable. Maybe the roster needed a shakeup if the Zags are ever to deliver that first national championship. Perennially in the national spotlight, the Zags looked ready to be the hunter, not the hunted.
If we’re being honest, the 2022 tournament was a washout for Gonzaga. In the opener, they led 16th-seeded Georgia State by a bucket midway through the second half. They trailed Memphis by 10 at halftime, and only some miraculous work by Timme in the second half saved them. And truth be told, a couple of the shots he made, you don’t want him taking.
And then, cashiered by Arkansas, ignominiously.
But as June arrives, it turns out Gonzaga's roster will undergo far less than a makeover – more like some touch-up paint.
It rejiggers the Zags from an outfit that might have lost all five starters to one that’s now going to rub elbows with the presumed most viable national-title contenders, folks like North Carolina, Kentucky and Arkansas. It ensures consistent perusal from the prominent websites, visits from The Athletic and under-the-hood diagnosis by the studio jockeys, for better or worse.
(So much for catching anybody by surprise.)
With the spotlight, of course, comes a risk, that of doing something less than fulfilling potential. And even as Gonzaga was blowing to a 28-4 record in 2021-22, it fell short of that. The Zags were the top overall seed entering the NCAA tournament, a distinction that seemed based as much on the absence of any other candidates as anything GU did.
Now the Zags are loaded, maybe as loaded as they’ve ever been. It will be especially intriguing to see how Mark Few unearths enough minutes in the backcourt for Smith, Bolton, Nolan Hickman, Hunter Sallis and Dominick Harris.
When the school issued the announcements of Bolton and Strawther returning, the accompanying inscription on the photos was, “Run it Back.”
But the Zags need to do more than run it back. They need to redefine themselves. They need to show they can as easily grind an opponent into dust defensively as they find the open man. Timme needs to summer in the weight room, and know that as his leadership dictates, his team follows.
No, it’s not a failure if these guys don’t win a national title. It is if they don’t exhaust every avenue trying.
It was 23 years ago, in Seattle, that Gonzaga began one of sport’s all-time, improbable arcs.
But Friday, were Zags coach Mark Few to have awakened in my town, he would have been jarred by this headline: “Fair or Not, Gonzaga Men Just Haven’t Met Expectations.”
I think we just defined the term “parallel universe.”
After Gonzaga’s round-of-16 ouster by Arkansas, the Zags are consigned to the off-season. My guess is that when Few can steal away to a favorite stream and cast a fly, he’s going to come face-to-face with the question everybody else entertains: What’s it going to take? What’s the final, seminal ingredient Gonzaga needs to change the description on the boiler plate: Best college hoops program not to win a national championship?
It’s become a zero-sum game in Spokane, or so the critics have it. You either win the thing, or you’re a failure. It’s not good enough anymore to get to the Final Four, which Gonzaga has done twice in the last five years. And it’s surely not enough to be so consistent you’ve gone to seven straight Sweet 16s, a feat exceeded in history only by North Carolina and Duke. You’ve got to break out a banner, or you haven’t done jack.
Maybe this will be an inflection point for Few. But maybe it won’t, because there are mitigating factors that cloud any easy answers.
Start with the stylistic conflict going on, because I’m sure that’s prominent for Few. The Zags play an appealing, beautiful, breakneck-speed game – the antidote for which is a hit-the-brakes, physical, grabby defensive style, one that isn’t especially esthetic – just often effective. It’s how Arkansas confronted Gonzaga last week.
There’s an ongoing back-and-forth about how officials should call the game and right now, it’s trending toward handsy. If you’ve watched much of the 2022 tournament, you’ve seen an inordinate amount of flat ugly basketball, from the Illinois-Chattanooga goof-fest to a Villanova-Houston game Saturday in which neither team shot 30 percent. But the suspense of the tournament, and everybody’s focus on their bracket, has a way of masking the slog.
Add to that the custom of more physical play in the tournament, and suddenly, it’s an uphill challenge for Gonzaga.
But try telling Chet Holmgren that the zebras are more indulgent in the post-season. He incurred a couple of head-scratching fouls against Arkansas in 23 minutes. Forgive him if, on his way to the NBA, he might think he’s gotten mixed messages on what’s allowed in the college game.
Such things seem to have befallen the Zags in their most painful exits. This was how the Associated Press summed up the 2017 title game, when North Carolina nipped Gonzaga: “ . . . in many corners, this game will be remembered for these three men (naming the officials), who called 27 fouls in the second half, completely busted up the flow of the game.”
That was the night when Nigel Williams-Goss, Gonzaga’s scoring and assists leader, went down with an ankle sprain inside the two-minute mark with GU down by one, and Carolina survived. A year later, when Florida State upset the Zags in the Sweet 16, Gonzaga suddenly was without Killian Tillie – its second-leading scorer, second-leading rebounder and a 48-percent three-point shooter that year – when he injured a hip in practice.
Few has acknowledged that in 1999, when Gonzaga launched its generational run into the unheard-of, it got lucky. Minnesota, the Zags’ first-round opponent, was outed for massive academic fraud, players were declared ineligible, and GU took advantage for the school’s initial NCAA-tournament victory. Now it has 41.
It must sometimes seem to Few that the basketball gods have conspired to square accounts for that early kindness. Now he must come to grips with whether Gonzaga has endured more than its share of sour luck, or whether changes are in order.
Some observers have decided for him. A Detroit columnist cautioned the Pistons against considering Holmgren – because he comes from a place built on the path of least resistance. “I wonder about the competitive fervor of top recruits,” he wrote, “who hit the easy button and go to Gonzaga.”
When a post-Arkansas tweet compared the tease of Gonzaga basketball to Oregon football, a Portland media guy concluded, “Oregon football has far more substance than Gonzaga basketball. UO has actually won major conference titles. Gonzaga has not.”
The part about league titles is true. Far more dubious is what that has meant to Oregon’s national profile against Gonzaga’s. Since 2014, the Ducks have a Rose Bowl victory, a title-game loss to Ohio State by three touchdowns when Oregon was favored, a handful of ugly bowl losses, another 4-8 year and high-stakes, back-to-back blowout defeats four months ago to Utah. If that’s substance, the advice here is to wear gloves handling it.
That doesn’t mean adjustments wouldn’t help. Some nasty might look good on the Zags, some steely-eyed, defensive resolve. A bit of it could already be on hand in guard Dominick Harris, whom Gonzaga lost to a foot injury in the ’21-22 preseason.
Twice in person this season, before the Alabama and Memphis games, I thought I detected a casualness in warmups, a devil-may-care look that didn’t seem especially businesslike. I say that fully conceding that (a) maybe that’s how the Zags roll; and (b) maybe that doesn’t matter anyway.
At times like these, you grope for answers, nobody more zealously than the guy with the fly rod.
It probably doesn’t help Few to know that people like John Beilein, Bob Huggins, Rick Barnes and Dana Altman have never won a title. Tom Izzo, the master of March, has won only one despite a four-year head start on Few. John Calipari, the one-and-done recruiting maestro, has won one, and it took four first-round NBA picks that 2012 season, including Nos. 1-2 with Anthony Davis on top. Bill Self has won one (he’s also in this week’s Final Four) despite some pointed NCAA insinuation that Kansas is breaking rules to do it.
“All the stars have to be aligned correctly,” Charles Barkley was saying Sunday on TV. “Izzo, Self, guys like that . . . people like, ‘Why ain’t you won another one?’ It’s hard to win.”
For so long, Gonzaga had a way of making it look easy. This last part isn’t.
Five words. Five innocent, but chilling words that frame the future of two Pac-12 basketball programs, and indeed, the entire conference.
“I never got a call.”
As the college hoops season winds down, one of its surprises is the University of Arizona, which, following the skidding, contentious final years of Sean Miller, finds itself in prime position to nail down a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament under first-year coach Tommy Lloyd.
Yes, I’m surprised, but not because I didn’t think Lloyd was an ascendant star as he did excellent work over two decades for Mark Few at Gonzaga. Rosters being almost unknowable several months out these days, and allowing for the usual adjustment to a new regime, I figured the Lloyd track at Arizona would be something like this: A couple of uneven transitional seasons, and by the third year, appreciable success.
Two things happened: Lloyd re-recruited key parts of Miller’s last roster, though it’s stunning to realize that Arizona retained only two of the top six scorers from last season. And second, he and his staff have coached the hell out of this team. They play a brisk, up-and-down style (hello, Gonzaga), stand third in the nation in scoring and rank in KenPom’s top 10 in both offense and defense, a recipe for solid candidacy to win the whole enchilada in April.
Lloyd is the most logical choice for national coach-of-the-year recognition -- and given that there are several outlets making that pick, he's in the pole position to win at least one of them.
Answered, at least in part, is the question that accompanied the promising assistant at Gonzaga: What if Tommy Lloyd could coach? He had long since proven himself as a recruiter, especially overseas, and if he had similar chops on the bench, he’d be the total package. Now we’re seeing what was fact at Gonzaga, that Lloyd had considerable say with Few in day-to-day operation and intricacies of strategy.
Meanwhile, as Arizona was early into the work of assembling its 22-2 record, Lloyd was asked by longtime Arizona Daily Star columnist Greg Hansen if he had heard from nearby Washington in the spring of 2017 when it replaced veteran Lorenzo Romar with Syracuse assistant Mike Hopkins.
“I never got a call,” Lloyd replied.
He never got a call.
This was the landscape five years ago: Gonzaga was about to crash its first Final Four. Yes, between that one and now, it has played in another Final Four, made more excursions to the top of the polls and cemented its place as one of the real monoliths of the sport. So Lloyd’s star wasn’t as bright in ’17 as it was last spring.
But Washington was making an unusual commitment in its willingness to hire an assistant. That’s a relatively rare thing at the major-conference level. At Washington State, hardly a college-basketball destination, you have to go back four coaches to find a hire who was last an assistant, and that was a special case in Tony Bennett.
And yet, if we are to believe him, Lloyd never got a call.
True, hindsight is 20/20. And it’s far too early to make a final judgment on either Lloyd or Hopkins as a head coach. Lloyd, as the jocular old bromide goes, may be giving Arizona fans too much too soon (though they’d find a way to excuse him if he won a national title in his debut). And Hopkins may, somehow, at long last, still the Huskies into some stability after a wildly convulsive five years. He won Pac-12 coach-of-the-year honors his first two seasons, flopped spectacularly the next two, and in Year Five, has rebounded with a new cast of local kids who came back home for a final college season.
But the Huskies are winning only modestly, probably headed for a secondary tournament and in today’s here-and-gone environment, needing to replace the key parts of the roster. Since Jen Cohen, the UW athletic director, owes Hopkins about $9 million, he probably gets to stick around and see if he’s up to the task.
What might have Cohen -- who hasn’t been a stalwart in major hires at the UW -- been thinking back in ’17? Perhaps there was some institutional knowledge that Few had turned down Washington back in 2002 when it hired Romar. Maybe there was a fear that Lloyd would give the Huskies the thumbs-down as well, and it would be a public embarrassment. Maybe they were just too proud. But the Huskies had a chance not only to see if a rising coach with state-of-Washington roots was interested, but potentially to chip away at the school across the state that has long been a bete noire to Husky basketball.
But Tommy Lloyd never got a call.
Brainstorming how possibly to make sense of the John Stockton lightning bolt of a few days ago, I was alerted to my latest incoming e-mail.
The Minneapolis Star-Tribune wrote that hospitals in that area have suspended a long-standing program of diverting ambulances from their emergency departments when they’re overcrowded. ER closures, something that used to be a random occurrence, are now so routine because of Covid-19 that some ambulances were changing course multiple times during one transport.
Stuff like this must somehow have escaped Stockton during his professed “thousands of hours” of research into Covid-19 and its auxiliary issues.
In a detailed interview with the Spokesman-Review of Spokane the other day, Stockton sought to explain his side of the impasse that caused Gonzaga to suspend his season tickets at GU basketball games because of his refusal to comply with the school’s mask mandate. He had touched on these views in a Utah-based anti-vaccine video project last year.
At the end of the S-R interview, the paper posted this italicized editor’s note, in itself rather remarkable: “Many of the claims made by Stockton regarding Covid-19 and vaccines are not backed by science nor deemed credible by medical professionals . . . “
In other words: “We don’t know what would cause the NBA’s all-time assists leader to go rogue and spew out such chunks of cockamamie horse pucky, but take them with a grain of salt, kind of like you would if the One America News Network claimed Rand Paul’s ancestors discovered America.”
Good for Gonzaga for making an uncomfortable call on this, but the right one.
Poor Chris Standiford. All he’s had to do in his first five months as athletic director is mete out discipline for a DUI incurred by his future hall of fame basketball coach Mark Few, and then confront Stockton’s flights of fancy.
Stockton alleges that “over 100” vaccinated professional athletes “in the prime of their life” have dropped dead, “right on the pitch, right on the field, right on the court.”
He also insists there are “20,000 deaths from the vaccine that the CDC acknowledges from their VAERS (Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System), which they acknowledge accounts for only one percent of actual.”
I believe this is the first time I’ve heard the number 20,000 invoked by an athlete since Wilt Chamberlain, the NBA great, claimed to have slept with 20,000 different women. Wilt’s assessment appears more credible.
Stockton says he has spent “well over 1,000 hours” researching Covid-19. Who knows, that could be true. He also referenced “thousands of hours” spent on this. Just know that 1,000 hours works out to about six months of 40-hour weeks, or a full-time job for half a year.
We can glean insight into Stockton’s mind-frame with his statement to the Spokesman-Review that he gravitated toward a “holistic” approach to healing partly because he had a negative experience with anti-inflammatory drugs when he was a player.
From there, apparently, he grew sufficiently entrenched in his beliefs that it became too much of an imposition to wear a piece of cloth on his face at a Gonzaga basketball game. What for many of us is worthy of investing only an eye-roll became a position paper for him.
I’m guessing this is not entirely a shock to people around Gonzaga, because the school has known for a long time he’s a little different.
I’ve had a few moments around Stockton, all of them, well, odd.
In 1999, the year Gonzaga burst onto the national stage, the Zags had just beaten Florida to crash the Elite Eight, and, for an off-day story, my paper was gathering reaction from prominent alums. I took on the challenge of finding Stockton, and was proud to discover the hotel in Charlotte where his visiting Utah Jazz were about to play the Hornets.
They rang his room. Stockton might have been napping, and if that’s the case, I’m sorry. I identified myself and asked if I could get his response to the Zags’ improbable run.
“I don’t do interviews on game day,” Stockton said.
This wasn’t going well.
“I understand,” I said. “Could I just get a sentence from you on their run?”
“No,” he said. End of conversation.
In other words, “The Zags are a win over UConn today from a trip to the Final Four. Reached in Charlotte, John Stockton had no comment.”
In 2002, I wrote “Bravehearts,” a book on the rise of Gonzaga basketball. I wanted to see if Stockton might write the foreword. I went through a administrator friend at Gonzaga, who forwarded this reply: “Why should I do something for a guy who’s just trying to make money off the program?”
Hmm. Apparently, once you have the germ of an opinion, it becomes very hard to knock you off that opinion.
About 2014, I was writing about David Stockton, the overachieving guard who is John’s son. It seemed to scream out for an observation or two from the dad (or at least an attempt to get one). At this point, I had covered probably 75 Gonzaga games over 15 seasons.
I approached GU’s sports publicist. He didn’t handle Matters Stockton. He referred me to another longtime operative in the athletic department, whom I knew pretty well, and I made the request. Days passed. Nothing. I got back to my contact. Still nothing. The campaign died a slow death.
Maybe I didn’t miss that much.
Those Zags, always the show-stopper.
They’re at it again, splashing up insane offensive numbers, cozying up to triple digits routinely, sending Drew Timme off to win national player-of-the-week honors on a weekend of 27-for-32 shooting.
This year, they started No. 1, were all the rage after clowning Texas and UCLA, and then receded from the national conversation by losing to Duke and Alabama. But they followed with an underrated win over Texas Tech before touching off the current run of ridiculousness against WCC teams.
They're 14-2. And yes, they’re No. 1 again.
Meh, you say.
It’s true that the Holy Grail continues to elude the Zags. Some of their achievements put them shoulder-to-shoulder with the blueblood programs, but they’re always the outlier, never having won a national championship.
Let’s allow that the Gonzaga administration, the coaches, the fan base and the recent rosters will perpetually lament not having won a title if it never happens. It’s the star atop the Christmas tree.
But, for however long it takes you to negotiate this sermon, let’s put aside what hasn’t happened and focus on what has. Beneath GU’s latest foray to the No. 1 spot are an array of numbers that shout perspective even as some fans scream for the ultimate banner.
Like: Beginning with Gonzaga’s first No. 1 ranking in 2013, the Zags have been voted to the top of the AP poll in six different seasons, a number equaled only by Duke. Kentucky and Kansas trail with four apiece.
This season’s four weeks at No. 1 makes it 38 weeks over those 10 seasons, good for No. 8 on the all-time list. And when Gonzaga chases down Cincinnati’s 45 in seventh, the six programs ahead will be Duke, UCLA, Kentucky, North Carolina, Kansas and Indiana.
Consecutive weeks at No. 1? Gonzaga’s 17 last year rates seventh all-time.
Courtesy of the NCAA record book, Gonzaga is 12th all-time in winning percentage (.931, or 95-7) over a three-year period and 12th over a two-year period (.954 or 62-3).
The Zags’ 61 straight victories at the McCarthey Athletic Center brings them within hailing distance of Arizona’s 71 at No. 10 in history.
There are the other standbys: The Zags’ 22 straight NCAA tournaments is No. 5 all-time, and its 12 consecutive victories in the tournament’s first round is history’s sixth best, behind North Carolina (18), Kentucky (16), Kansas (15), UCLA (14) and Kansas again (14).
Six successive Sweet 16 appearances is the longest ongoing streak and tied with UCLA for fourth all-time behind North Carolina and two Duke teams.
You get the idea. The Zags keep exceedingly good company these days. Now they’d like to separate from the crowd, elite as it is.
A couple of years ago, a provocateur tweeter took note of Gonzaga’s 20 straight NCAA-tournament appearances and single foray to the title game, and tapped sarcastically, “Pretty nice return.”
I took the bait and replied to the effect that the tournament is insanely competitive, annually.
And Saturday night, that’s what struck me about Gonzaga’s 91-82 defeat to Alabama. It was evident even up in the cheap seats at Climate Pledge Arena, which aren’t so cheap.
This was going to be the year Gonzaga broke through the glass ceiling and won its first NCAA championship. It had a premier player-of-the-year candidate coming back in Drew Timme, it had the No. 1-rated recruit in the nation incoming in Chet Holmgren, and it had significant other pieces like Andrew Nembhard and Anton Watson and a handful of gifted newbies.
This was going to be the year.
It still may be.
But Alabama showed the Zags just how fragile the presumption is. And how fragile the presumption is that Gonzaga will win a national championship in your lifetime.
‘Bama got into the lane too easily, it kicked the ball to perimeter shooters adroitly, and the flurry of treys thrust the Tide into a lead Gonzaga never could overcome. And Alabama defended, holding GU to 45-percent shooting.
It left Gonzaga with so many things to address: Dribble penetration, defensive rotations. Timme’s sudden need to force his own offense. The all-too-frequent evidence that the Zags got less than the best shot available. Free throw shooting, which was horrendous.
It’s too early to say definitively that this team can’t shoot as well as the primo 2020-21 edition. The latest Zags shoot threes at .340, that club shot .368. But Nembhard is at .281, four percent off last year, and the combo of Timme and Holmgren are only eight of 31, which means either they figure to be better, or they need to find something closer.
Against Alabama, Timme said, they came out flat.
Huh? In a parlay of the biggest building with the most partisan Gonzaga crowd possible in the nation, they came out flat?
Strange as it sounds, maybe Timme was right. I felt there was sort of an odd vibe of Gonzaga appreciation in the place, as if the occasion – splashy new arena meets college hoops monolith – was bigger than the competition.
‘Bama, where’d it come from? It lost to Iona. But then, where did Purdue come from? Yeah, it was No. 7 when the Zags were preseason No. 1, but now people are seeing the Boilermakers’ offense as unstoppable. And here we thought the long-term threat was going to come from Duke or Villanova or UCLA. But wait, there’s Calipari’s guys, and Kansas is perennially tough, and here’s Baylor, back for more.
Point is, there’s nothing guaranteed anybody, which amplifies something I’ve believed for a long time: The national-title talk around Gonzaga is overstated – not because the Zags aren’t capable of it but because it’s not necessarily the inevitable culmination of their generation-long ascent. Aspire to get to the Final Four, and if you’re good enough then to go 2 and 0, God bless you.
The good news for the Zags is, there ought to be a mountain of upside. Julian Strawther is just a pup. Nolan Hickman and Hunter Sallis are fresh out of high school. Rasir Bolton is adjusting to a new system. And Holmgren is just scratching the surface.
None of this even accounts for the expected bump when Mark Few makes the whole greater than the sum of the parts.
Gonzaga still has as good a chance as anybody to win the ’22 championship. It’s just that there are a lot of anybodys out there.
These days, there are a lot of things I don’t get. For example, I don’t get how conservative America decided to throw in with an oily, grifting con artist from New York.
My latest puzzler is the saga of Mark Few’s DUI arrest. Well before the Gonzaga men’s basketball coach’s season started, the turnovers have been piling up, seemingly with every entity that touches the incident.
You know the particulars. The night of Sept. 6, a fire truck in Coeur d'Alene, Idaho trailed Few’s vehicle and reported an SUV weaving to the city police. Few, driving alone, was subsequently stopped. He blew breathalyzer readings of .119 and .120, a healthy amount above the legal limit of .08, and was charged with DUI.
In mid-October, he appeared in court, and I loved his statement: “I plead guilty because I am guilty.” He was fined $1,000 and ordered to perform 24 hours of community service. He has expressed deep remorse, and knowing Few pretty well, I would imagine his chagrin over this to be massive.
That doesn't excuse the fact a guy significantly impaired should still have the good sense to make other accommodations for a ride.
The process of putting it behind him probably only peters out after he’s visited a few hostile gyms in the West Coast Conference. That was hammered home last week, when a couple of Spokane TV stations spent minutes of newscasts airing dashcam video of Few’s arrest.
In it, you can see things like Few declining a field sobriety test, lying to the arresting officer about how much he’s had to drink, and getting handcuffed. It’s prickly but I wouldn’t term it combative, and I suspect it’s very much like the vast percentage of such arrests. Few tries to explain his way out of it, as the overwhelming majority of us would do.
I felt uncomfortable watching it, as if I were peeping in a neighbor’s bedroom window.
Is Few a public figure? As public as it gets in Spokane. Are news outlets in the right to air such releases? Absolutely.
Does it show a whit of judgment to show the video AFTER THE CASE HAS BEEN ADJUDICATED? I don’t think so. (I assume the public-records request was made weeks ago.)
This will not be a universally held opinion. Deadspin, for example, said the footage of Few reflected “a drunk and annoyed man that acted like he could do no wrong, and that the police were beneath him.”
I worked in the news biz for decades, and there are things you know but don’t report – not because you’re protecting somebody, but because the things don’t rise to the level of what constitutes news. If, say, Few had cursed at the officer or done something else unbecoming, then air it. But running with the story about 10 days after sentencing is odd.
“We asked for the footage because he is a public figure, and we wanted to learn more about what happened in the moments before he was arrested,” the anchorman at KREM-TV explained as the station led its newscast with the video. “We wanted to see how the police report of Few’s arrest lined up with what actually happened in the video.”
No, what you wanted was clickbait, something sizzling on Spokane’s most recognizable figure (but not so recognizable that the arresting officer in nearby Coeur d’Alene had any idea who he was).
Then there’s the school itself. Few issued a statement three weeks ago announcing a three-game suspension. Except the games are Eastern Oregon (played Sunday), Lewis-Clark State – both exhibitions, and thus non-counters for NCAA record-keeping purposes -- and Dixie State Nov. 9.
That, frankly, seems almost silly. The elephant in the room looms as the Texas game Nov. 13, a big-time early-season matchup of national interest and the next game after Dixie State. Like it or not, the appearance the Zags are giving is that they’re trying to move mountains to have Few coach that game.
Two factors that no doubt have affected the administration’s course: A belief that Few will have suffered enough, and over three decades, he’s been an exemplary citizen and a pillar in the community.
A three-game suspension seems within the bounds of propriety, but not when two of the games are trifling exhibitions far off the radar to most of the public. So in essence, here’s what the school has done: By letting Few off easy – and that’s the consensus out there – the whole saga has taken on more ridicule. The narrative becomes, Few got a DUI, the school let him skate, and what a lamentable mess it was from start to finish.
In such suspensions, two thresholds need to be addressed. First, and narrowly, Few has to be called to account for his behavior. Second, the school must send a message that it doesn’t countenance missteps like this. Even if the school is satisfied Few deserves a break for a track record of being a good soldier, it needs to consider that other component.
Gonzaga threw this pass out of bounds. The operative philosophy seems to have been “Don’t mess with Texas.”
Meanwhile, in complete incongruity, the Zags begin the season ranked No. 1 in the country. What a hell of a promotional campaign it’s been.
Most of the chatter around Mark Few these days has to do with what he might have done to somebody else when he was picked up on suspicion of drunken driving the other night.
Once that was reconciled, I was drawn to the question of what the arrest does to Mark Few.
What broadsided me most was how un-Few-like this was. Not that he’s a saint, but that he rarely leaves himself vulnerable. Almost exclusively, those moments have been in the athletic arena, when one of his teams couldn’t score down the stretch or he waited too long to switch defenses. But he’s got a ridiculous 630-125 record as a basketball coach at Gonzaga, he’s been to 22 straight NCAA tournaments and two national-title games, so there’s precious little to nitpick.
A lot of that is because Few is intensely private. His down time is nobody else’s. Before transfers became such so predominant in college basketball, he would disappear for much of the spring. Gonzaga helped there, too. Those glad-handing May caravans that occupy coaches at big-time schools wouldn’t be part of his job description – and indeed, that understanding was part of the allure in staying put in Spokane when he could have gone damn near anywhere.
So it’s no surprise that he doesn’t do social media. He’s not on Twitter. He’s long disdained sports-media yardbarking, the pat conclusions and the lazy narratives. In 2017, when the Zags marched to the school’s first Final Four, he scoffed at the popular notion that he managed to get a monkey off his back.
All of this is by way of saying that with his DUI arrest, he just invited all that conversation, all the yakkers, into his living room. The cloak of invincibility came crashing down, and suddenly, Mark Few looks a little different to a lot of people.
He issued a statement, mentioning a “lapse in judgment.” A lapse in judgment? That’s what you say when you forget to bring sunscreen. This is more like an egregious, confounding lapse in judgment.
Somebody said blowing a .12 blood-alcohol reading (as documents report) might have reflected a third beer, instead of two, at dinner. Not even close. Somebody else lamented that Few didn’t wait an hour before driving, as if that would have dropped him below the legal .08 limit. That’s another figurative air ball, minimizing the reality that .12 is a pretty stiff number, one and a half times the legal limit.
So, the cold facts: It’s September and college basketball preparations are ramping up. And the coach at the school people are picking to win that coveted national championship just got busted on a DUI charge.
It’s impossible to know whether Few’s arrest could impact recruiting, which has been boffo lately at Gonzaga. At the very least, it puts him in the position of having some explaining to do.
We can say this definitively: Chris Standiford, the new GU athletic director, scarcely had time to straighten the photos on his office wall before this crisis hit – he had been on the job all of two working days. As introductories go, Few’s was not ideal.
I wondered whether this could affect what has evolved into a likelihood that Few makes the Naismith Hall of Fame. Bob Huggins, with a DUI in his background and more wins than Few, hasn’t been selected. It took the Hall so long to enshrine Eddie Sutton, also with a DUI and 806 victories, that it came posthumously.
But an old crony in my biz with a sense for the Hall selection process draws a distinction between Huggins, Sutton and Few. The first two acquired reputations as rogues, whereas this is Few’s first blemish on an exemplary career. He’s been a pillar in the Spokane community; he and his wife Marcy helped raise millions in the Coaches Versus Cancer campaign.
Few is a good man who did something colossally dumb. My guess is, this is a searing, traumatizing moment for him.
It may be that’s a good thing.
When Mike Roth walks out of his Gonzaga athletic director’s office for the last time Aug. 31, he’ll graduate to a lengthy, personal, to-do list.
At least he can mark another list “don’t-bother” – the 2021 athletic administrator’s mountain of challenges, including the thorny Covid crisis, the newly implemented name-image-likeness world, realignment and the more global issue of whether – and how – the NCAA will even exist.
“The timing of being an AD right now is not great,” Roth told me Thursday, a day after he had begun attacking bookshelves and a file cabinet to get the digs ready for his successor, longtime deputy AD Chris Standiford.
For a short while, Roth, with 24 years in the chair, has been the most senior AD in the country. He’s got Oklahoma’s Joe Castiglione by a year. Yet it’s not the years, but Gonzaga’s dizzying advancement, that has marked Roth’s tenure. It’s hard to imagine any more head-spinning quarter-century than the one to which Roth has borne witness and helped orchestrate.
For most of us, it’s almost as difficult to remember the flavor of Gonzaga of the late ‘90s as it is to recall the campus layout. You know, the one without the McCarthey Athletic Center, and the Patterson Baseball Complex, and the Hemmingson Center, and the Integrated Science and Engineering building, and the Volkar Center, and the new bookstore, and . . .
None of those things were even on the outskirts of imagination when Roth took over as interim AD back in 1997. Years later, he could say he and basketball coach Mark Few began to share a vision that the program – yes, Gonzaga – could win a national championship. But it was a troubled university and a scandal-scarred athletic department when he slid into his role in ’97, and the beliefs were slightly more modest.
“I believe I hoped I’d have a job the next day,” Roth joked.
Yes, it’s true that Roth’s timing was fortuitous; for 22 years, he was boss of a coach who went against the grain and didn’t seek out the next big job. Alone, that might have greatly altered the narrative of Roth’s career.
But there was considerable foresight at work, too. A little before the earth-moving Elite Eight run of 1999, the Zags had changed colors, changed logo, subsidized TV time on Fox and tipped season-ticket holders to the reality they were going to have to pay for seat licensing. Gonzaga was entering the 21st century, and it couldn’t be accused of rank opportunism when the product on the floor caught fire in ’99.
“We were crazy-lucky,” Roth concedes. “But you define luck as when preparation meets opportunity.”
The rest is happy history – the new arena, the brick-by-brick improvement and the prodigious effect of basketball on the university at large. Now Gonzaga attracts the top-rated player in the nation, Chet Holmgren, and the belief nationally is that, yes, one of these first Monday nights in April is going to belong to the Zags.
“I do believe we’re gonna win the national championship,” Roth said. “I think it might be this year.”
It hasn’t been easy, and Roth talks about leaving the manifold stresses of the job behind. One was the Josh Heytvelt affair of 2007, when the GU big man was busted for drugs and the whole Gonzaga story seemed in peril. Roth flew to Phoenix to explain himself to the board of trustees, a hell of a way to celebrate a 50th birthday.
But GU’s handling of the mess was adroit – discipline, yet a path forward for the player. Roth says that when the late mega-donor Myrtle Woldson bequeathed millions to the school, she cited its treatment of the incident as a factor in her generosity.
“You never know how the decisions we make or the things we do over our careers impact other people,” he says.
Yes, college athletics is fraught with abuse and excess and misplaced priorities, from cheating programs to overpaid coaches. But like a lot of us, Roth believes that at the core, there’s a fundamental goodness in the enterprise.
“I completely buy into changes that have to be made, I completely support NIL,” he says. “I just want us to make sure we don’t make so many wholesale changes that we lose college athletics, and instead of it, we just have some version of the G League. Or just some version of minor-league baseball or minor-league soccer.”
Roth, 64, decided on retirement about a year and a half ago, and it was kept quiet until an announcement in June, surviving an attempt by GU president Thayne McCulloh to talk him out of it.
That to-do list? Roth and his wife Linda love the outdoors and have a place up on Lake Pend Oreille. There’s bird-hunting in his future, an archery pastime introduced to them by a son, snow sports, woodworking, maybe even a return to trying to play piano, something he gave up as a kid when an exasperated instructor “fired” him.
Few long ago surpassed him as a fly fisherman, but Roth aims to make up ground. Referring to the extended, Covid-caused precautions at the 2021 NCAA tournament in Indianapolis, Roth says, “When I was sitting in a hotel room for 24 straight days, I sat there and tied dozens and dozens and dozens of flies.”
Of course, that stay ended in crashing disappointment for Gonzaga, and what a storybook ending it would have been for Roth if the Zags had overcome Baylor. Instead, swingman Joel Ayayi, one of the few who knew of Roth’s impending departure, threw himself into Roth’s arms leaving the floor and kept saying, “I’m sorry. I’m sorry.”
No apologies needed, either that night or for Mike Roth’s 24 years.
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