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Bud Withers' Blog

The promised land sheds a new light for Gonzaga

Tommy Lloyd’s evening’s work was done at the SAP Center in San Jose. Gonzaga had outslugged West Virginia, and in the nightcap of the 2017 NCAA West Regional the Gonzaga assistant coach was scouting, Arizona had a seemingly comfortable lead over Xavier.

So Lloyd scooped up his papers and headed for the exits, per his custom, at the final TV timeout. With just under four minutes left, Arizona’s Parker Jackson-Cartwright made two free throws for a 69-61 Wildcat lead, and now it was going to be what had seemed pre-ordained, a matchup of No. 1-seeded Gonzaga against No. 2 Arizona.

“We’d been on a collision course since December,” Lloyd said, referring to Arizona. “They’d literally watched every one of our games.”

So Lloyd made his way out of the arena. He likes to beat the crowd, hustle back to the hotel and settle in for a long night of preparation. But in the car, the play-by-play on the radio was saying different about a Gonzaga-Arizona game. Here came Xavier, the 11th seed, winning 73-71 with a stirring run down the stretch, flipping Lloyd’s mindset.

It would be a different challenge, but one for which Lloyd staunchly believed the Zags were ready. He had recently watched games involving heavyweights -- “Kansas and Duke,” he recalled. “I’m saying, ‘We’re better than they are.’ I knew we had the horses.”

As surprised as he was about Arizona, then, Lloyd was saying to himself, “Good for Xavier. But they’re gonna get their ass kicked in two days.”

That came to pass on a late-March Saturday, as the Zags crashed their first Final Four, 83-59. As he remembered Thursday night at a Gonzaga tip-off preview in Seattle that day and the week that followed, Lloyd briefly got emotional. I’d never seen him like that.

“You do things a certain way, you put your life’s work into something, you do it the right way,” Lloyd postulated. “You come up short a few times, and you wonder, ‘Is it not meant to be?’ “

But it was, and Thursday night in Phoenix, there was the gala Gonzaga put together, bringing back former players and coaches.

“Those guys would have wanted to do it themselves (make the Final Four), but they were so happy,” said Lloyd. “It was truly, truly special.”

There was the confluence of events that prolonged Przemek Karnowski’s college career -- the back injury of December, 2015 that forced a redshirt season -- without which Gonzaga probably comes up short of the Final Four a year later.

“That back injury was a blessing in disguise,” Lloyd said. “I thank him for coming back for a fifth year.”

Now, the year after that is fraught with both promise and uncertainty. Already, it’s different. For the first time since the 2000-01 season, Gonzaga isn’t the pick of WCC coaches to win the league title. Saint Mary’s is.

For any Zag willing to accommodate a chip on his shoulder, that intel will be drilled home.

“Bring it on,” said Lloyd, emphasizing each word.

It will be a thinner, but more athletic roster at Gonzaga. There will be a premium on staying healthy, so it’s not good news that freshman guard Jesse Wade has been out with shoulder injuries related to a nerve issue.

Elsewhere, Lloyd credited Johnathan Williams III with an “amazing off-season” and said, “He’s ready to be a star.”

Guard Josh Perkins “is ready for his moment in the sun,” and backcourt mate Silas Melson “has done everything we’ve asked,” and is poised to “show what he’s capable of.” Forward Killian Tillie can be “the next great Gonzaga player.”

Gonzaga’s use of Williams and Tillie in a lot of offensive sets will remind fans of how GU deployed Elias Harris and Kelly Olynyk.

Nobody is more intriguing than forward Rui Hachimura, but it was just a year ago that Hachimura came from Japan speaking -- and understanding -- only sporadic English.

“I don’t think you guys have any idea how talented he is,” said Lloyd, speaking raw skills. “He’s probably, physically, the most talented guy we’ve ever had.”

Lloyd recalled a moment at Gonzaga’s “Kraziness in the Kennel” event when Hachimura launched himself 6-8 inches inside the free throw line off his right foot and dunked with his left hand. When you’re right-handed, the left foot is dominant.

“There’s probably not 10 guys in the world that can do that,” Lloyd said.

Maybe the X factor will be Corey Kispert, the 6-6 freshman from little King’s High in Seattle. The Zag coaches are clearly taken by him. “That kid was born to be a Zag,” Lloyd said. “A stud.”

Zach Norvell is a shooter who can go off and has shown cleverness off ball screens. Unsung Jeremy Jones reminds Lloyd of Mike Hart and David Pendergraft, “a tough, hustle guy.” The caveat on Jacob Larsen is that he’s coming off tendinitis and a knee injury, but he’s a legit seven-footer with a capable right- and left-hand jump hook and mobility.

Logically, if it can stay healthy, this will be a team playing best toward the end of the season. The bad news is, the games against teams like Villanova, Florida (potentially), Creighton and San Diego State are early.

“It’s going to be an adventure,” Lloyd said. “But it’s going to be a fun adventure. We did lose a lot. It might not be a smooth ride to get there, but we’ll be ready.”

Whimsically, Lloyd said he awoke from a dream that morning. Domas Sabonis, off to a roaring start in his second year in the NBA, was back at Gonzaga for his senior year. Nigel Williams-Goss, playing now in Serbia, had also opted for a final season at GU. Zach Collins was a GU sophomore, not a rookie with the Trail Blazers.

“We’re No. 1 in the country,” Lloyd said in that apocryphal world. “We’ll take it.”

In reality, the Zags are No. 19, and that’s only a sketchy guess of what might lie ahead. But what last season proved is that there’s no glass ceiling at Gonzaga. For seasons to come, the process there was validated.

“We’re not delusional, expecting Final Fours every year,” Lloyd said. “But when you’ve done it once, why not do it again?”

#wcchoops #unitedwezag #zagsmbb #theslipperstillfits #zagup

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A Few good minutes with the Gonzaga coach ...

It’s mere weeks now -- less than 30 days -- until Gonzaga opens its 2017-18 men’s basketball season. The one after the big breakthrough.

I caught up with head coach Mark Few Wednesday to talk about life after the Final Four, after making the ’17 national-title game, after losing a nail-biter to North Carolina in Glendale, Ariz.

Does it feel different now, after the long-running narrative that Gonzaga, for all its cuddly underdog-ness over the years, hadn’t made a Final Four?

“Yeah, it feels different,” he said. “Obviously there was a lot of vindication in some people’s mind. It wasn’t really in my mind, but certainly in some. We were able to do something we had never done. (But) it’s also one of those deals, once you’ve done it, you’ve got to (get ready to) do it again. The world doesn’t stop. It does feel different, but I’m also kind of a realist, especially when you’re in any profession in sports. Give it a year, and the knock’ll be: ‘They haven’t won a national championship.’ ‘’

The Zags lost Nigel Williams-Goss, Przemek Karnowski, Zach Collins and Jordan Mathews, so it’s a recast -- if extremely talented -- team this year. I asked Few if the message is: That’s in the past, and you start anew.

“I don’t think you forget about it,” he said of the ’17 season, marked by a school-record 37 wins. “You try to draw on all the great experiences last year, but also figure out why we were so successful. There was a reason our defense was No. 1 in the country (in KenPom’s adjusted ratings), and that we were deadly efficient on the offensive end.

“We communicated fantastically out there on the floor. A lot of that was Nigel commanding it. We protected the rim great, we took care of the ball. We’re kind of going through that process of relearning why we were so good. A lot of that was personnel.

“One guy that probably never gets enough credit is Karnowski. He was just unbelievable. When he was healthy, he got us three or four minutes from a Final Four one year (in 2015) and to one last year.”

So in his heart of hearts, when he reflected back on 2017, did he recall the wonders of doing something magical, or is he nagged by the thought that inside the two-minute mark, the Zags had a one-point lead to win a national championship?

“Ninety percent the former,” he said, “10 percent the other. When you coach, that’s the game. Sometimes there’s a little breaks-of-the-game, luck, fortune. (But) it’s 90 percent, unbelievable what we’ve been able to do. We’ve been telling everybody we could win a national championship here, and we can. Standing on the sidelines, if we played a best-of-seven series (with North Carolina), it would go seven. It was two very evenly matched squads.”

Nearing completion at Gonzaga is the Volkar Center, to include a practice floor, academic center, strength and conditioning facility and hall-of-fame component. Describing what he called “massive facilities changes,” Few also cited improvements to the current locker room including the addition of hot and cold tubs, a kitchen area and changes to the shower room.

“To kind of keep that up to industry standards,” he said, adding, “I think we’ve always done a really good job of not getting carried away. We don’t need to be the fanciest house on the block.”

As he begins his 19th season as head coach at Gonzaga, some Few observations on personnel:

-- Johnathan Williams III, who entered his name in the NBA draft before opting out: “He’s somebody we’re going to have to run a lot of our stuff through. He’s kind of primed for a big year.”

-- Josh Perkins: “We’re trying to get him to look to score a little more. I think, for whatever reason, he’s undervalued just how well he shoots it and has always kind of fancied himself more of a playmaker and distributor. For a point guard, I think he shoots it at an elite level. The playmaking (for Perkins) needs to be kind of secondary.”

-- Jacob Larsen, the Dane coming off a redshirt season due to a knee injury: “He’s a work in progress, kind of ‘project-y.’ He had knee tendinitis when he was back home (before entering Gonzaga). He was one of those seven-foot kids that was a work in progress before all that.”

-- Rui Hachimura: “He’s great in the open court, great in space and just a physical specimen. But he’s got some ways to go to be able to function in the half-court and use all this God-given athleticism.”

-- Jeremy Jones: “He can really help us in that undersized small-forward role, getting him flying around. Defensively, he’s a real talent. We’re thinking we can put him 1 through 4 (defensively) and be pretty darned good.”

-- Zach Norvell: “He’s a streaky kind of kid. He does a nice job making plays with the basketball, but he’s still got some areas defensively to work on.”

-- Corey Kispert: “He’s going to be really good. He’s tough, athletic and has great size.”

This will be a different Gonzaga team, not as deep, not as imposing up front, and very likely, not as good. But the seasons change, all a little different from the last, and so it goes.

“We’re smaller, leaner, not nearly as much depth,” Few said. “Practices, we’re trying to be real cognizant of those (to stay healthy). We don’t have the bodies, the numbers we had last year. But we’re really athletic, especially on that front line.”
#zagsmbb #unitedwezag #wcchoops #zagup #theslipperstillfits

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