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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.
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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Not so long ago, there was a time when Gonzaga couldn’t seem to make March Madness’ Sweet 16.
Now the thing can’t seem to go on without the Zags.
When they gnarled their way past TCU Sunday night, they crashed their eighth straight Sweet 16. That’s third all-time in college hoops, and to underscore the then-and-now of that streak, Gonzaga’s starting guards when it began were Kevin Pangos and Gary Bell Jr., and they're both 30 now. When the streak started, we were still five years removed from a worldwide pandemic.
Longtime Gonzaga watchers will recall some of the growing pains after the initial burst onto the college hoops scene – the ugly second-round 2004 meltdown at KeyArena against Nevada, the squandering of a double-digit lead to lose in the second round to Bob Knight’s Texas Tech team a year later.
In 2007 and 2008 came the first-round ousters (how quaint) to Indiana and Steph Curry’s Davidson, followed by a Sweet 16 breakthrough in Portland in 2009 thanks to Demetri Goodson.
But then came the Great Plateau, five years straight, when Gonzaga won first-round games but couldn’t convert 48 hours later to get to the Sweet 16. Looking back, GU turned in some terrific first-round performances – Florida State (2010), St. John’s (2011), West Virginia (2012) and Oklahoma State (2014) but their advances stopped right there.
Suddenly, getting to the second weekend is like second nature, and it begs for perspective.
Yes, Gonzaga will always be something less than complete until it hangs that big banner. But some of the numbers tell you what a heater the Zags have been on since 2015.
It began at KeyArena, and since then, Gonzaga is 24-7 in NCAA-tournament games, tops in the nation.
Some other tournament victory totals in that span:
North Carolina 21.
Michigan State 13.
Thing is, those are cold, hard numbers, apart from caterwauling about the WCC being a second-class league, discussions about tournament preparedness, etc., etc. You win games or you lose games, and there’s not a lot of room left for debate.
How do we wrap our heads around those 24 wins? Well, the NCAA tournament began outpacing the NIT as the sport’s event of relevance about 1950 or so. Until then, the NIT was held in equal or greater esteem (apologies to Oregon’s Tall Firs, who won the first NCAA tournament in 1939). So in the near 75 years since then, the last eight tournaments represent between 10 and 11 percent of that stretch, and Gonzaga is the nation’s winningest post-season program for that period.
Or this: The sport really blossomed in the post-John Wooden era, when TV became enthralled and Bird and Magic dueled in Salt Lake City in the championship game of 1979. If we establish that period at, say, the past 45 years, Gonzaga claims the last 18 percent of that era of booming interest in the game as the nation’s most irrepressible NCAA-tournament program. It’s all a little mind-numbing.
Yes, the absence of that elusive banner is still a big thing.
But no, it’s not the only thing
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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 HeatcheckCBB.com:
“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 KenPom.com – 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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On a trip last week to southern California, we ventured up the coast to Malibu to take the temperature of a Gonzaga basketball program that in 2023 seems to defy definition. But first, I can report that LA traffic is still awful, and the Pepperdine campus is more odd than it is stunning, notwithstanding the beauty just to the west.
Give me brick buildings and ivy adorning them and leaves that turn red, yellow and orange in the fall, and snow in December, and if that makes me lunatic, so be it.
Oh yes, basketball. Gonzaga is either going to do a face-plant in the NCAA tournament or it’s priming for another big run, and it’s either going to bolt to the Big 12 Conference or the Pac-12, or just maybe, nowhere. These days, GU isn’t easily pigeonholed.
More later on that last part, the future. The Zags’ present seems promising enough. They’re positioned to tie for the WCC title if they can beat Saint Mary’s at home this week. Before the trip to Pepperdine, they went to the gym of the first team to beat them in league, Loyola Marymount, and pretty much vandalized the place. It’s one thing to punk a team by 40; it’s another to lead by 40 at halftime.
There are nights when I think Gonzaga is headed for an ugly crash in the NCAA tournament, mostly due to a defense ranked No. 87 by KenPom. Rim protection isn’t there, and it’s far too easy for opposing guards to turn the corner, creating all sorts of grim outcomes.
Other games, they look capable of a march to, or through, the second week of the tournament. The uptick recently has a lot to do with Julian Strawther’s offensive breakout. He’s averaging 27 points over the past three games, shooting in the 50s both overall and on threes.
His explosion, if it continues, does a couple of things: It creates a dilemma for defenses that want to help inside on Drew Timme. And it at least poses the possibility that on a night when Gonzaga can’t stop the other guys, it could still win a shootout.
NBAdraft.net has pushed Strawther into the first round of its mock draft, which probably means he’s as good as gone. His matchup the other day against Pepperdine’s Maxwell Lewis, whom that website ranks No. 12 to Strawther’s 24, was choice viewing. (About that Waves team: It’s a mystery how it’s in the WCC basement with Lewis and a representative cast around him.)
Bubbling beneath the surface of the games and rankings, of course, is the looming question of realignment. Gonzaga is popularly thought to be on the Big 12’s short list of possible invitees, and perhaps the Pac-12’s. Inevitably, that choice will come down to money, as in, what’s the value add for the Big 12 if it beckons Gonzaga, and what sort of financial bump the Zags get for plunking their primo basketball program into the mix of the best hoops league in the country.
That’s assuming challenges like Gonzaga not having football, and how the rest of its programs would compete in a new league, can be worked out.
I think there’s something more to be considered, and that’s Gonzaga’s identity. And ultimately, what that’s worth (if anything).
The Zags made their bones by dominating a lesser conference. They divided and conquered, and built to better things. They stood out in a small kingdom, and layered every success on top of that. When TV networks line up a marquee matchup in December, there’s always the implied subplot that this was the program that rose from nothing to become something.
Does that go away if Gonzaga enters the Big 12 and joins teams like TCU and Iowa State and Texas Tech in the eternal chase of Kansas, in a league in which it would begin no better than No. 2 or 3? Would it just be one of the guys in that conference, losing the uniqueness that underwrote its candidacy in the first place?
You assume scheduling would be easier – no need to atone for a relatively soft schedule after the new year by loading up in November and December. But would that also feed into a loss of identity -- a mushier schedule early, creating less appeal to the networks, followed by two months in which the Zags are essentially unrecognizable from the rest of its new power-conference compadres?
Finally, pursuant to realignment and the Zags, the question has been posed: What happens to the program, post-Mark Few? Does it recede into irrelevance and thus offer its new conference bupkis?
Can’t see it. For Gonzaga, the last 24 years has been about upgrading its portfolio. That meant a new arena, charter aircraft for the road, a new building with a practice facility and other related amenities. The program’s prominence has earned it unqualified support from its administration. And it mined a fervent fan base, which today equates to NIL opportunities.
Those things don’t go away with a new coach. Every program makes mistakes in coaching hires, and Gonzaga is no more or less susceptible. At some point, a downturn is inevitable. But all those aforementioned features – and a rich history among the very best since the turn of the century – combine to make it an attractive job.
But that’s then. This is now, and as they say, let’s live in the moment. Awhile back, it occurred to me that the Zags were exploring new territory, that this season seemed different from every one since 2014. You have to go that far back, nine years ago, to find a time when Gonzaga’s outlook appeared so limited, to recall when the Final Four seemed out of reach.
The smart money would say that remains the case. But the Zags may yet have something to say about it.
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I’ll have to admit, I’m not much for advanced analytics in college basketball. My expertise in numbers tends to become strained somewhere just past the old maxim that a good free throw shooter will hit 70 percent.
So it was a bit of a relief for me – if not for Gonzaga – when I stumbled across a number that goes a long way toward describing the Zags’ uneven 5-3 start entering Monday night’s game with Kent State.
What gives with this Gonzaga team, you might wonder. How do you get destroyed at Texas, how do you get schooled shamelessly by Purdue? How, in a grinder where converted baskets are like gold, do you surrender an 8-0 run in the last 90 seconds to lose to Baylor?
When I was researching Glory Hounds, I recall being around Zags coach Mark Few during some fretful times early in the 2015-16 season. That was when Josh Perkins was a not-ready-for-prime-time redshirt freshman, and the guard play was unsteady, and Gonzaga dropped winnable home games against Arizona and UCLA, and suddenly found itself needing to win the WCC title to keep its NCAA-tournament streak alive.
To be clear, this isn’t that. Even lurching through the first month of the season, the Zags have collected three quality wins, against Michigan State, Kentucky and Xavier. They won’t be sweating Selection Sunday.
But a lot of other things, well, those seem very much on the table – like the Zags’ remarkable string of seven straight Sweet 16s. Dare we even think that a Washington team playing better could be a threat to win at Gonzaga Friday night, for the first time since, what is it, 1937?
Back to that telling statistic. The Zags have an assist-turnover ratio of 1.03, which is territory visited only by the irredeemables of college basketball.
Something up around 1.20 is a good number. Anything threatening 1.40 is very good. And anything beyond that is elite, a number that bespeaks a team that shares the ball well, knows how to get a good shot, knows how to pass up a good shot for a better one and generally beats the opponent into submission simply by its precision.
I suspect the number 1.03 drives Few crazy – not the number per se, but what it represents, which is the absence of all those attributes.
For perspective, the four Gonzaga teams from 2019-22 never dipped below a 1.49 assist-turnover ratio, topped by the insane 1.695 turned in by the 2019 team – Perkins as a senior, Zach Norvell, Geno Crandall off the bench – that lost to Texas Tech to go to the Final Four. Those guys threw a lot of profitable passes to Rui Hachimura, Brandon Clarke and Corey Kispert.
In Gonzaga’s gilded history, you have to go all the way back to 2010 to find a poorer number than 1.03. It was 1.027 then, with Matt Bouldin’s less than 2-to-1 ratio weighted down by some big turnover numbers from Elias Harris and Robert Sacre.
To date, the Zags don’t really have a complementary front-court scoring piece to go with Drew Timme. Anton Watson is a valuable player, but not a scorer. That’s why the emergence of Ben Gregg should be important going forward, especially in light of the back problems that have derailed Kaden Perry.
Essentially, when teams overplay Timme – and they’re likely to do more and more of that – the Zags are reliant on outside shooters as a means of retaliation. Julian Strawther has had his moments as a version of ’20-21 Kispert but he’s also committed 20 turnovers, compared to 26 all of last year.
The overshadowing factor in all this, of course, is the fact the Zags are breaking in a new point guard in sophomore Nolan Hickman. That’s an unusual strait recently at GU, which has become accustomed to Nigel Williams-Goss and Perkins-as-vet, and the dynamism of Jalen Suggs, and the joystick control the past two seasons of Andrew Nembhard, now in the NBA beating the Lakers with buzzer-beaters.
So here were the Zags last week against Baylor, suddenly down one in the dying seconds with Timme having fouled out. During a timeout, coaches peered at some notes and then sent players back onto the floor. As the sequence began, somebody appeared to shoo Hickman out on top.
There was an exchange of turnovers. In the last seconds, Rasir Bolton drove and put up a shot that wasn’t close.
The whole thing wasn’t Gonzaga’s finest look. And it reinforced another frailty of this team: There’s really nobody who can create his own shot.
Big picture, the profile of the program has become associated with Elite Eight or Final Four runs. The Zags have established an awfully high bar, and anything less seems unworthy. And even as out of sync as Gonzaga has sometimes looked, there they are with KenPom’s No. 2 offensive rating.
Last week, it was almost laughable when Peacock TV's announcers underscored the notion that a loss to Baylor might scuttle Gonzaga's chances at a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament. What snow-globe world was this they were visiting?
Perhaps, though, it’s a reminder that every season can’t be cherries jubilee for dessert.
Some years are going to be more like pudding. Absent some big improvement, this could be one of those.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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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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.
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