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Just as we all figured, Gonzaga again ranked No. 1

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So Gonzaga is No. 1? Again?

Meh.

(If this website had a "facetious" emoji, right now I’d insert it.)

I tweeted this earlier Monday: Honk, if back in 1980; or 1993; or 2012 even, you’d believed by the end of the millennium’s second decade that the Zags would have made excursions to the top of the polls in four different seasons – with four virtually different casts.

Surely you jest.

Before Gonzaga made it to the top in the polls in 2013, I’d always sensed among its fandom that getting to No. 1 was nigh-impossible, even on a handful of occasions when the Zags edged into the top five. There were too many Dukes and Kansases and Kentuckys in the way.

(In fact, real Zagnuts may remember that as GU stood poised to claim the No. 1 spot with a late-season Indiana loss in '13, here came third-rated Duke, beating No. 5 Miami, and there was a large measure of belief that voters wouldn't, couldn't vote in the Zags given such fresh Blue Devil tracks. But they did.)

So I well remember when it happened in early March, 2013. I was in the office of GU president Thayne McCulloh, interviewing him, when he got the affirmative text. Hours later, there was the 20-foot-long blue-frosted sheet cake on a table in mid-campus with a “1” etched in. There was the quote from ex-Zags coach Dan Monson, when I asked him over the phone if, long ago, he and his staff had ever envisioned such a day. He said no, adding, “We drank a lot of beers together, but we never drank that many.”

I recall writing, “It means everything and it means nothing.” Everything, because it was so symbolic of Gonzaga’s improbable rise. Nothing, because a No. 1 ranking doesn’t help you win games (and in fact, it may have helped augur one of Gonzaga’s most painful losses, to Wichita State in the NCAA second round).

So what does being No. 1 mean today? Well, the “nothing” part still holds. And “everything” isn’t quite as forceful as it was that day in 2013, but it still invites a look at the bigger picture.

In the here and now, I’m shocked this team got to the top. I surmised it was overrated when preseason polls shoved it into the top 10. All it had lost from last spring were two NBA first-round draft picks, another NBA hopeful and the school’s career assist leader. Then came the Bahamas tournament and a startling succession of injuries. But still, wins over Oregon, and Washington and Arizona, none at home.

And in a season where the No. 1 ranking has been treated like a live electrical wire, here they are again.

This marks the 13th week Gonzaga has been ranked No. 1, including 2013, 2017 and 2019 (two stretches).

For perspective, consider the program whose story might come closest to Gonzaga’s – Butler. The other Bulldogs crashed the NCAA final game twice in a row, in 2010 and 2011, so they’ve had more high-end success than Gonzaga. But Butler has never been No. 1 in the polls. In fact, it’s only nosed into the top 10 a couple of times.

Downsides? Of course, there’s the old target-on-your-back standby. And inevitably, cue the legion of yard-barkers. Gonzaga-baiting – always great sport on the Internet -- may now crescendo. Just because it does.

I’ll say this: If Gonzaga’s lesser schedule going forward invites discussion that an onrushing Ohio State or Kansas or Louisville is more deserving in January, so be it. You don’t get to stay No. 1 by statute. This isn’t like royalty in England. And if you want to argue that one of those teams is a better choice for No. 1 today, knock yourself out. But you can’t dismiss Gonzaga’s eligibility – its worthiness – for the top spot on Dec. 23, 2019.

So big picture, taking into account everything from its NAIA roots, to Hank Anderson to John Stockton to Dan Fitzgerald, where does that leave us?

At the corner of stupefying and preposterous.
#zagmbb #wcchoops #theslipperstillfits #zaghoops #zagup

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There's magic in that Zags resume

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The word on the street in college basketball, 2019-20, is that there are no great teams, only some good ones. It’s not breaking news that Gonzaga seems to be one of those, but it is slightly startling to see GU among the teams at the forefront of the discourse this season.

Winning, of course, is hardly new to Gonzaga, but there is something that distinguishes the current Zags from their recent predecessors – and probably all of them – in school history.

They’re soldiering through adversity and winning on the road, in some of the toughest environments in the West.

Gonzaga’s 84-80 win at Arizona the other night got me to wondering: In what years did GU assemble its most convincing non-league resume, and when have the Zags acquitted themselves better on the road than this year, with victories in Tucson and at Washington?

I scoured the decade starting with the 2009-10 season, so we have 10 years of results. I used Ken Pomeroy’s authoritative, final-season rankings, and in that, there’s a bit of unfinished business – as in, how do the rankings play out for the rest of the 2019-20 season? It could be that Oregon, Arizona or Washington turns out vastly overrated, and that would skew what we might believe to be true now.

Here’s the rub: Over the years, the vast, vast majority of Gonzaga’s resume has been worked up at neutral sites. Last year, for instance, the Zags had the prodigious victory over No. 4 (KenPom) Duke in Maui, and their best wins otherwise were over Washington (48) and Creighton (55).

It’s likely that when the dust settles, this year’s 11-1 Gonzaga outfit will have accomplished more in non-league road games than at any time in history. Arizona is ranked No. 15 in KenPom this week, Washington No. 50, and if that sounds relatively modest, it’s more than I could unearth in looking at the past decade’s worth of GU resumes. (Besides, it’s my guess that Washington’s number improves as a young team matures, even as it’s possible that Arizona’s worsens somewhat – although that’s also a young team.)

Over a decade’s worth of true road games – we’re not including neutral or not-so-neutral courts – I could find only five times in which the Zags have beaten a KenPom top-60 team out of conference. The most notable such win was over Oklahoma State in the No. 1-seed year of 2012-13, when the Cowboys finished No. 24. The others were UCLA, 2014-15 (40th); Xavier, 2011-12 (53rd); Creighton, last year (55th) and West Virginia, 2013-14 (58th).

To the NCAA basketball committee, road victories are the Holy Grail. If it’s important to perform on a neutral court, because that’s where NCAA-tournament games are played, quality wins on the road far exceed that threshold – and speak more loudly than the dry “Quad 1" metrics can. And that’s why Gonzaga suddenly surged to a No. 1 seed Monday in Joe Lunardi’s bracketology, something I never would have thought we’d be discussing this season. But it must be conceded that Gonzaga can put itself in that debate, ahead of a Wednesday-night game with North Carolina and the usual West Coast Conference trap doors with Saint Mary’s and BYU.

Now couple the two road wins with the one-point Bahamas victory over Oregon, and the Zags have some head-turning possibilities, especially with the Ducks having upset Michigan on the road the other day, and about to have available 6-11 five-star prospect N’Faly Dante. Oregon is 12th in KenPom right now, and my money would say that rating improves.

How does the Zags’ overall resume to date compare with its three years of No. 1 seeds? Well, it appears there will be fewer top-100 wins, even if Gonzaga beats North Carolina. But there are various ways to measure; beyond the Duke conquest last year, you had to go all the way to No. 48 Washington and the Creighton victory for supporting evidence.

The 2016-17 Final Four team had the highest-end resume of any Gonzaga teams, with neutral-court wins over Florida (5), Iowa State (17) and Arizona (18). And the first GU top seed in 2012-13 had three conquests of Big 12 teams, all 20s-ranked. But none of those previous top seeds had the road sway of this team.

Sometimes it’s a fine line. Seton Hall led Oregon by 19 points and could have survived a one-possession game against the Ducks in the Bahamas. So instead of playing and beating a team that itself looks like it could have a case down the road for a No. 1 seed (Oregon), the Zags would have faced one that’s now 6-4, struggling and without one starting forward until February because of a broken wrist.

Gonzaga coach Mark Few must feel like he’s playing with house money. The victory at Washington went down to the wire. The Zags were an underdog at Arizona.

They won both, and in the future, Gonzaga gets those teams in Spokane with – ostensibly, anyway – a better roster.
#zagmbb #wcchoops #theslipperstillfits #zaghoops #zagup

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UW would win a rematch with Zags by double digits?

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On KJR 950 in Seattle this morning, host Chuck Powell weighed in on the Gonzaga-Washington game Sunday, and the progress Washington’s young team will likely make.

“If they played later in the season,” Powell said, “the Huskies would win by 10 or more.”

Hmm, well. Powell is insightful and imaginative, but after Gonzaga took down Washington, 83-76, at a boisterous Hec Edmundson Pavilion, that statement bears examination.

From my seat high in the arena (damn, my press-level seats were never like this), I’d take issue with Powell’s observation. Yes, Washington, with freshmen Isaiah Stewart and Jaden McDaniels, figures to be more formidable in February and March.

But Washington won't be doing that in a vacuum. Gonzaga, like Washington, replaced four starters from a year ago. One of the newbies, Anton Watson, was returning from an ankle sprain sustained in the Bahamas over Thanksgiving and clearly isn’t at full strength yet. Guard Admon Gilder dinged a knee in the Bahamas and hasn’t really played aggressively since. So if the Zags can regain full health, there should be some upside in store as well.

If the teams were to meet again – and surely it’s possible in the NCAA tournament --- it wouldn’t be on Washington’s home floor. And the prospect of Washington winning by 10 or more? That hasn’t happened in 20 games in the series – all the way back to 1974.

More second-day notions after a grinder of a game:

-- As noted in this space more than once, Gonzaga had an astonishing streak of having shot 50 percent or better against Washington eight straight times leading into last year’s thriller in Spokane. Now, the Zags have shot less than 50 percent in two straight against the Huskies.

-- So the key statistic in this one was Washington’s 19 turnovers, a highly unusual number for a quality opponent against Gonzaga, which has never been built to force turnovers. Nineteen is the most turnovers by the UW in the series this millennium, and it’s the most by a Power Six opponent against Gonzaga in seven games.

-- Washington’s nine threes was a season-high, and Zag fans would no doubt be stunned to know that the Huskies had a four-game stretch earlier in which they were 13 for 62 from deep (including 0 for 11 against Montana).

-- Ryan Woolridge committed five turnovers, but he was otherwise clutch for the Zags, with 16 points on 8-of-11 shooting, 4 rebounds, 3 assists and 3 steals. He had a fearless, successful take to the basket on the 6-9, 250-pound Stewart with the Zags up 75-73 and 2:18 remaining.

-- Naz Carter kept the Huskies in it with two late threes. On the second of those UW possessions, Bill Walton urged on TV, “Come back to Jaden McDaniels, come back to Isaiah Stewart. You go away from ‘em for . . . “ Right then, on cue, Carter bombed in a three.

-- There was one 7-0 run by Gonzaga. In the second half, the best either team could do was a five-point run.

-- One stat making the rounds was that it was Gonzaga’s seventh straight victory over a Pac-12 team. By my math, it’s eight: Wins over Oregon and the UW this year; Arizona and Washington last season; UW in 2017-18; Arizona and the UW in GU’s title-game year of 2016-17; and Utah in the 2016 NCAA tournament.

-- Mark Few and Mike Hopkins shared a half-hug at mid-court after the game. Randy Bennett, take note.

-- Washington fans won’t want to hear this, but the victory is probably more important to the Zags than the Huskies, underscored by the result from Phoenix hours before the game – Saint Mary’s boat-raced by Dayton. While Gonzaga has precious few remaining opportunities to build a resume – including Arizona Saturday and North Carolina Dec. 18 – the Huskies have all sorts of chances. The KenPom.com ratings have seven other Pac-12 teams in the top 70.
#zagmbb #wcchoops #theslipperstillfits #zaghoops #zagup

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Gonzaga-Washington: Where's the snark?

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So I was rooting through a disorganized bookcase recently and happened upon a Seattle newspaper from October, 2009. A piece had to do with the then-truncated Gonzaga-Washington basketball series, and the UW’s proposal to renew it over three seasons at KeyArena.

I got wistful. The column detailed how – after the series was tabled by Washington with the 2006-07 game – the Huskies were offering up the idea to play three games at the Key in Seattle, with an equal split of gate receipts. Washington, then under athletic director Scott Woodward, leaked the proposal to a local radio guy and it was all the talk that afternoon, and the e-mail detailing it hit the inbox of GU athletic director Mike Roth at about 5 p.m. that day, so late he didn’t get to it until the next morning.

A decade later, as the Husky-Zag series continues Sunday afternoon at Hec Edmundson Pavilion, I’m left to wonder: Where’s the snark? Where’s the shade? What happened to snide and petty? What kind of rivalry is this?

If you’re just tuning in, as they like to say on television, for decades Gonzaga-Washington was the typical big-school-versus-compliant-little-neighbor series. They began playing back in 1910, and the Huskies impressed bracketologists everywhere with a 23-14 victory. They won 16 of the first 18 games back when GU played at a lower level, then lost three straight during World War II. There may be a war story hidden therein, but today isn’t the day to try to unearth it.

Washington then won 12 of 13, and there was a 26-year hiatus in the series (1945-71), something that, years later, likely would have pleased Washington coach Lorenzo Romar.

It all changed on an early-December night in 1998 at Spokane Arena, when Gonzaga won, 82-71. That would be Gonzaga’s liftoff year, and it was a UW team that had gone to the Sweet 16 the previous season. Jeremy Eaton had 25 points and Richie Frahm 21 for Gonzaga. For the Huskies, Todd MacCulloch had 28, but they were without injured guard Donald Watts.

Suddenly, the Zags were in control, winning against Washington, and winning by double digits. Then came the bombshell in the fall of 2002. The Zags were among a handful of schools that turned Washington in to the NCAA for recruiting violations by Romar assistant Cameron Dollar, chiefly in the wooing of Clarkston product Josh Heytvelt. Dollar was eventually busted for 23 instances of NCAA violations, also including Bremerton prospect Marvin Williams.

Relations turned Arctic-icy between the two schools. Washington was miffed that Gonzaga didn’t try to work out the Dollar indiscretions with the Huskies instead of taking the issue public.

The teams played one of the great games in the series 14 years ago, which is Washington’s sole victory in the previous 13 games – a 99-95 screamer in which the Huskies, at home, had to survive Adam Morrison’s career-high-tying 43 points. The Zags, meanwhile, might very well have a clean slate against the UW this millennium but for a back injury that took out point guard Derek Raivio midway through the first half.

A year later, the Huskies announced they were taking a timeout. They ended the series. They said they wanted to pursue a more national schedule – you know, Gonzaga not being national enough for UW tastes. A TV station caught Zags coach Mark Few on camera, saying, “If I’d lost seven of eight, I’d want to cancel the series, too.”

With the break in the series still relatively a front-burner topic, the Huskies then floated their KeyArena trial balloon. If possible, that inflamed Gonzaga as much as the cessation announcement three years earlier – the mechanics of the announcement, the chutzpah the Zags felt it took to propose a “neutral court” four miles from the UW, 290 miles from Spokane. That’s when Few made the memorable observation that Bigfoot would have his baby before Gonzaga agreed to that.

Oh, for those days of those quotes.

Years passed. The Zags got stronger in this decade and the long Romar regime gradually went bust. So it wasn’t great timing for Washington, but the two sides got back together and renewed the series. First, they met in a Thanksgiving tournament in 2015, and Gonzaga breezed. Then the Zags blitzed Washington by 27 points the next two years. The Huskies scared the compression shorts off GU last year before Rui Hachimura’s last-second jumper won it by two.

Now the series is at an odd juncture. By all appearances, Few and third-year UW coach like each other. Of all the turns. On ESPN 710 radio in Seattle Friday morning, Hopkins called Gonzaga “one of the top programs in the country. They’ve kind of set the bar in West Coast basketball.” Few, Hopkins said, “has built one of the strongest basketball cultures in the country.”

Beyond that, the two teams are vastly different from a year ago, erasing the prospect of institutional knowledge from players’ minds, and in Washington’s case, perhaps even a strong revenge motive.

Meanwhile, west-side media interest in the series seemed to fizzle with Gonzaga’s dominance. If the rivalry wasn’t going to be hot, well, there were other things to obsess over, like Pete Carroll’s record in 10 a.m. games against AFC teams coached by guys named Kirk, when the moon is in the seventh house and Kevin Burkhardt is announcing for Fox.

Like they say, it can’t be a rivalry when one team wins all the time. Except for that 2005 thriller at Washington, Gonzaga has won everything – the public-relations war and the games. No doubt Hopkins will try to persuade his young guys this is turf worth reclaiming.
#zagmbb #wcchoops #theslipperstillfits #zaghoops #zagup

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Gonzaga's road map to Spokane Arena

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Or, you could title this: “Now The Lifting Gets Really Heavy.”

Spokane Arena in March plays host for the sixth time to the NCAA men’s basketball tournament first and second rounds, and although nobody is saying it, a reasonable goal for Gonzaga ought to be getting there. It takes a protected seed in the tournament – that’s a No. 4 or better, although you’ll hear basketball committee members sometimes fudge a little and begrudge a No. 5 seed – and that would seem a realistic aim for the Zags, now ninth-ranked and 9-1 after a rout of Texas Southern Wednesday night.

It would be a hoot to see it happen, just to hear the yowling from some poor, unsuspecting fan base in Ohio or Pennsylvania, when it finds out it’s journeying to a gym that’s only a good walk from the Gonzaga campus. (And, if you’re wondering, by rules of the bracketing procedure, the committee only has so much latitude in opposing those principles. In other words, if Gonzaga earns the home cooking with a protected seed, it shouldn’t be denied the placement.)

Funny, but during Gonzaga’s gilded run of 21 straight NCAA-tournament appearances, the Zags have managed to miss the Spokane Arena host years – almost uncannily so. GU has been a No. 4 seed or better nine times – in 2004-06, 2009, 2013, 2015 and 2017-19, and none of those lined up with the five Arena host years. The Zags play a mean game of basketball, and in this case, seemingly, dodgeball.

A refresher on Spokane Arena’s host years:

2003 – The Zags, a nine seed, were off playing that double-overtime hair-raiser against Arizona in Salt Lake City.

2007 – This was the Heytvelt-bust season, when a drained and thin roster got a 10 seed and lost to Indiana.

2010 – An eight seed got the Zags shuffled to Buffalo, where they got schooled in the second round by Syracuse.

2014 – Kevin Pangos’ turf toe, another eight seed in San Diego, a plucky win over Oke State before a blowout at the hands of Arizona.

2016 – Only a late-season awakening got Gonzaga in at all, as an 11 seed that crashed the Sweet 16.

So the years when the Arena has hosted have been almost a curse to Gonzaga’s outlook for a deep run.

What’s dead ahead of the Zags figures to go a long way toward determining whether they can end that long trend. Next up, in a 10-day stretch starting Sunday, are Washington and Arizona on the road and North Carolina at home. It’s a treacherous enough run that the possibility exists of going 0-3.

It’s a fool’s errand to try to project in early December how the three games could impact the chance of a four seed or better, but what the hell, let’s be foolish. Here’s how I’d handicap it:

If Gonzaga can win two of three, that’s a major step toward a protected seed.
Win one of three, and it’s an iffy future unless the Zags dominate the WCC, which logically means a handful of wins and no more than one loss (WCC tournament included), two max, against the Saint Mary’s-BYU bloc.

Winless, or 3-0, against the Huskies, Wildcats and Tar Heels will pretty much speak for itself.

None of these propositions comes with a guarantee. There are always unseen, one-night provocateurs in the WCC. There’s the befuddling string of injuries that hit recently. But a move on Spokane Arena in March would cross off another box on Gonzaga’s to-do list.
#zagmbb #wcchoops #theslipperstillfits #zaghoops #zagup

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