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Haters gonna hate, and some still dog the Zags

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My late father had an expression for those drivers who didn’t meet his standards, who were going too fast or who made an ill-advised turn.

“All the idiots are out today,” he would say.

Decades later, it occasionally still holds true. Some days, the idiots seem to collect on the roads. When they’re not on Twitter bashing Gonzaga.

So here are the Zags, in another Elite Eight in advance of their Saturday matchup with Texas Tech for a second Final Four in three seasons. And they’re still batting away barbs from naysayers mad at Gonzaga’s seeding, mad at the fact the Zags lost to Wyoming in the first round in 2002, mad, from all indications, at the world.

Duke probably is the most polarizing team in college hoops, by virtue of dominating the sport for three decades. Second in dissenting opinion might be Gonzaga, for reasons only the Twitterati can fathom.

Probably, Gonzaga’s rush onto the tournament scene from 1999-2001 – two Sweet 16s and an Elite Eight – set the whole thing up. There was considerable blowback when, from 2004-06, GU had early, sometimes unseemly, exits from the tournament. So the Zags became the outfit that always choked in the tournament.

Now the narrative has shifted. Gonzaga is the NCAA basketball committee’s favored child, somehow getting undeservedly high seeds, which, of course, guarantees advancement straight to a Final Four interview podium.

Truth be told, I think there’s room for debate on whether Gonzaga should have copped a No. 1 seed in this tournament; its resume is thinner than some power-conference heavies. But on the side of the Zags is a basketball committee now giving considerable weight to advanced metrics and Gonzaga’s portfolio there sparkles.

One Seattle sports-radio jock dogs Gonzaga on the seed issue. So should the Zags have gotten a 3 or a 4? No, the other day he said he would have given them a 2.

Like it would matter. If the Zags have proved anything over the years, it’s that seeding is vastly overrated. In its 21-year run of making the tournament, GU is 18-3 in the first round, and it’s won multiple times as a 7, 8 and double-digit seed. It went to the 2016 Sweet 16 as an 11.

But by all means, let's obsess over something that's maybe 10th on the narratives around Gonzaga basketball.

Mike DeCourcy of the Sporting News tweeted the other day, “They built their program to what it is out of nothing. Just some tiny mid-major in an isolated part of the country. It’s the most amazing story in the history of college basketball.”

DeCourcy conceded that any mention of the Zags in his dispatches seems to inspire fury from a segment of the populace.

“Amazing how many people keep insisting this success is all a matter of their league,” DeCourcy added.

Of course, it’s amazing 30-some percent of the country believes the leader of the free world is just an all-around admirable figure.

“Three Elite Eights in five years,” tweeted Seth Davis of CBS Sports. “One of the most amazing stories in all of sports.”

That missive Thursday night after GU’s victory over Florida State unleashed the predictable torrent of critics, as always well-informed and well-spoken. Herewith, some of the snarling, with comment.

“Seems like an exaggeration. They’ve been on the national scene 20 years. Made 1 Final Four.”
And of course, when they stepped onto the national scene two decades ago, they began on the same footing with Duke, Kentucky and North Carolina.

“Seth, they don’t play anyone.”
Indeed, Gonzaga’s been dodging Golden State and the Oklahoma City Thunder for years.

“But not bigger than Butler, back-to-back title games.”
Great story, Butler, and surely one of Gonzaga’s kindred spirits. It made the title game in both 2010 and 2011. But it has missed the tournament three times since then, and the breadth and consistency of the Zags would outstrip the Butler saga.

“Why is this an amazing story? The one and done era in college basketball has allowed small schools to develop strong programs cause they are the senior laden and transfer laden (sic) so I think that amazing story is not a story no more.”
Yeah, all around the country, from Missouri-Kansas City to Stetson to Texas-Rio Grande Valley, the same upstart programs are busting brackets every year.

“That’s a bit hyperbolic, Seth. Good for the Zags but that’s not THAT impressive. It’s not even all that impressive for college basketball let alone ALL OF SPORTS”
Whatever you say. But it’s at least impressive for teams in Spokane County.

“Could be the year they finally make a Final Four”
True. The wait since that last one in 2017 has been interminable.

“(Expletive) that team should’ve not be number 1”
Relatively cheaply, you can find English classes on-line or through junior colleges near you.


#marchmadness #zagmbb #wcchoops #theslipperstillfits #zaghoops #zagup

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Zags: Late bloomers in an old game

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On the occasion of another NCAA tournament, I decided to take a dive into the NCAA Final Four record book, which is full of great information (you can find it on www.ncaa.org, go to statistics and follow the links). With Gonzaga’s tournament success in recent years, I wondered how its all-time record in the event – 31 wins, 21 losses – stacked up nationally.

I already knew this: It’s hard to compile a glittering record in the tournament, simply because you’re guaranteed a defeat unless you win the whole thing. So if you get to the round of 32 – precisely what GU did from 2010-2014, you’re going .500.

Here’s the big takeaway from a perusal of the numbers: As if we didn’t already know it, they’ve been playing college hoops a long time. On the victory list, Gonzaga is only tied for 34th. Of course, the Zags didn’t break through on that list until 1999, and though I didn’t have time to compute this, you can bet they’re top-ten in wins since then.

Have to admit some surprise at the distance between some of those schools and Gonzaga. Obviously, the others had a big head start. But remember, the 64-team tournament didn’t come into being until 1985, so that’s just 14 years of that format before GU began to win.

Before that, it took five wins, four, and – going way back – just three to win the NCAA tournament. In other words, there were far fewer wins to go around. (The first NCAA tournament was in 1939, and Gonzaga didn't playing Division 1 hoops until the 1958-59 season.)

Below is a list of the teams with more victories than Gonzaga’s 31. Thirteen have lesser winning percentages, so Gonzaga ranks 21st among that group. Note that they're listed in order of victories, not winning percentage.

Kentucky, 128-52, .711; North Carolina, 124-46, .729; Duke 111-37, .750; Kansas, 107-46, .699; UCLA 106-42, .716; Louisville, 76-43, .639; Syracuse 68-39, .636; Indiana, 66-34, .660;

Michigan State, 65-31, .677; Villanova, 64-36, .640; Michigan 59-27, .686; Connecticut 59-30, .663; Ohio State, 56-31, .644; Arizona 56-34, .622; Georgetown 47-29, .618; Florida, 46-19, .708; Cincinnati 46-31, .597; Arkansas, 42-32, .568;

Maryland, 41-26, .612; Oklahoma, 41-31, .569; Marquette 41-33, .554; Illinois 40-31, .563; Purdue, 39-30, .565; Wisconsin, 38-22, .633; Oklahoma State, 38-27, .585; Utah 38-32, .543; Notre Dame, 38-40, .487;

NC State, 37-26, .587; Kansas State 37-34, .521; Texas, 35-37, .486; Memphis 34-26, .567; Temple 33-32, .508; UNLV 33-19, .635; Gonzaga 31-21, .596; West Virginia, 31-29, .517.

Some observations:

-- The first 19 schools on the list have won a national title.

-- It’s striking that both Notre Dame and Texas have sub-.500 records in the tournament.

-- West Virginia, the school Gonzaga is tied with, has a pretty rich basketball history, dating to Jerry West.

-- FYI, Washington’s NCAA-tournament record is 18-17. Its first-round opponent this week, Utah State – with a pretty good tradition of its own – is just 6-22.

-- It continues to amaze me that Nebraska, a Power Five school that has pretty solid fan support, is 0-7 in the NCAA tournament.

-- Also 0-7: Boise State.

-- Most wins among Big Sky teams? Surprise, it’s Idaho State, at 8-13.

-- Only Ivy League school with a winning NCAA record is not Penn or Princeton, but Dartmouth, at 10-7.

-- BYU, another school recognized to have a fairly healthy basketball tradition? It’s 15-32 in the tournament.
#zagmbb #wcchoops #theslipperstillfits #zaghoops #zagup #marchmadness

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Zags need to be a virtuoso at versatility

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However Gonzaga’s basketball season ends – raining confetti or forever lamenting a shot that wouldn’t drop – this much is certain: The Zags have taken their fans on a hell of a ride.

Only part of has anything to do with 30 victories.

At its most alluring, Gonzaga has elevated its hoops to an art form. The Zags have been a symphony as much as a basketball enterprise.

Cue the visuals: Josh Perkins, floating a little lob pass to a soaring Rui Hachimura. The fast break, lanes filled, inevitably to end well. Zach Norvell splashing wanton threes. Brandon Clarke standing sentinel over the hoop. Geno Crandall, going behind the back -- French pastry, Al McGuire used to call it – for an assist. They lead the nation in scoring (88.8 a game) and in field-goal shooting (.532).

In their best moments, they’ve played beautiful basketball, probably the most pleasing in Gonzaga history. Mark Few, the coach, has always been wired that way, seeing the game not as slugfest, but a measure of skill, and recruiting to that ideal.

You could say he grew up that way. Fifty-five miles from where he came up in Creswell, Ore., was Oregon State, No. 1-ranked for weeks in 1981 under Ralph Miller. Few's senior year, Creswell too was No. 1 in the Oregon Class AA polls, and for teenage kids, it was impossible not to notice the Beavers, who were also one of the most esthetic outfits around. They made the game simple, pressing, pushing the pace and executing half-court offense with great facility.

More than one person has told me the Bulldogs – the Creswell Bulldogs – saw a little of themselves in Oregon State, a high-scoring high school version of the top-ranked team in the land.

But that was then and this is now. The Zags are coming off an almost unthinkable loss to Saint Mary’s, casting a disquieting note over their fandom on the eve of the NCAA tournament. Not only didn’t GU exhibit any of the artistry that has marked its game, it didn’t win.

And that’s the flip side of appealing basketball. There are days you have to grind, and that seemed beyond Gonzaga’s inclination, or at least its capability.

In the moment, I doubt that players have any sense for how esthetic their team’s play might look. But surely something tells them when the rhythm is disjointed or when the opposition is mucking up the preferred pace.

You can see how it might be difficult for a player; you have to find that sweet spot between speed and discretion. Everything (including maybe the coaches) is telling you to quicken the tempo, yet the failure to make the extra pass or to probe just a couple of seconds longer before hoisting a shot is often exactly what the defense desires.

Few was impatient with the media in that Saint Mary’s post-game session. I wasn’t there, but I can infer his frame of mind: This is a team capable of winning a national championship. He might never have this stacked a roster again. Gonzaga had just played nowhere near that level, and everything between that night and Thursday’s game (with Fairleigh Dickinson or Prairie View A&M) must be focused on ensuring that the next time the Zags get beat, it won’t be because of such extreme shortfalls in execution -- but more than that, perseverance.

Sometime in the NCAA, the Zags are going to have to grind to win. In fact, it’s probably going to come as soon as Saturday, when they could line up against Syracuse, the club that ousted them in 2010 and 2016. They’re going to have to get dirty. It can’t all be high-flying. Sometimes, it’s hammer-and-tongs, jam the ball inside, get in a defensive stance and prove your will is greater than the guy with the ball.

My mind drifts to that memorable 1981 Oregon State team. It went 26-0, then on senior day in Corvallis, was rudely brought to earth by a talented Arizona State team in a blowout – the psychological equal of the Zags’ loss to Saint Mary’s. You can imagine what consternation that wrought on the Beaver believers.

Five years before a shot clock, OSU faced Kansas State in its first game of the NCAA tournament. It was an exercise in drudgery. The Beavers led 26-19 at halftime, K-State kept spinning its control web, and never was OSU’s gorgeous game of that season in evidence. It was 50-50 with two minutes to go. OSU missed a one-and-one, K-State held the ball the rest of the way and Rolando Blackman finished it with a jumper, the most devastating moment in Oregon State basketball history.

Shortly, the Zags will see somebody bent on extinguishing the rhythm from their game. They need to make sure that if the poetry isn’t there, the resolve is.
#zagmbb #wcchoops #theslipperstillfits #zaghoops #zagup

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Zags-Huskies in the NCAA: It could happen

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So … might it happen this March? Might the Gonzaga-Washington series, previously truncated and occasionally tortured, resume in the NCAA tournament?

And would Gonzaga want that?

OK, I get it: It’s way premature and there are other bigger fish to fry. Gonzaga is licking wounds applied by Saint Mary’s Tuesday night. Washington is still doing business in the Pac-12 tournament. But hey, in the days leading to Selection Sunday, let’s speculate. It’s not just whistling in the wind, it’s a real possibility as a second-round matchup. Don't anybody get overly lathered about it, but file it away, just in case.

It appears there’s more than a passing chance that the two could line up in the second round. The Zags’ WCC-finals loss either leaves them as a No. 1 seed, or, depending on other results, drops them to a 2. So if Washington rates from a 7-10 seed, the possibility is live. Gonzaga is going to be placed in the West, and Washington would need to join GU there, and they'd each have to advance.

Remember, a good many bracket analysts through January and February have had the UW as an 8 or 9, and the Zags a 1, in the same region.

Here is probably a good place to insert the disclaimer that we don’t know with certainty that Washington is in the tournament, but its quarterfinal win over USC Thursday in Vegas surely helped. And its fate Friday night (and Saturday, potentially) will have a lot to say about its seed. My guess is that even winning the tournament wouldn’t kick them higher than a 7 seed.

Let’s dig deeper:

THEIR LAST MEETING

On Dec. 5, the two teams met in Spokane, and in an expected sizzler, Gonzaga pulled out an 81-79 victory on Rui Hachimura’s elbow jumper inside the final second. It was the Huskies’ first competitive effort against GU in well, years and years (owing partly to the nine-year hiatus in the series exacted by ex-UW coach Lorenzo Romar).

I reviewed that game tape and came away with several impressions, probably the most prominent that Washington seemed comfortable running its offense against the Zag defense. Indeed, the Huskies shot a healthy 47.5 percent to GU’s 42.9, and as noted in this space a couple of times, Gonzaga had historically shot the lights out against Washington – eight straight times of 50 percent or better.

The biggest problem for GU was Jaylen Nowell, who had 26 points and six assists. The Zags tried Corey Kispert, Zach Norvell and Josh Perkins on him at various times, mostly without success. Kispert isn’t quick enough and Perkins, needing to conserve energy for the other end of the floor, isn’t ideal. So if it happens, it’s probably going to fall largely to Norvell.

Essentially, the Husky offense flourished because of slashing drives by Nowell and Matisse Thybulle (18 points, four assists), and when they didn’t have openings themselves, they flung it out to the perimeter for teammates’ threes.

Other takeaways:

-- Filip Petrusev was hugely important for Gonzaga, with nine points and three rebounds in 14 minutes.

-- This was one of Brandon Clarke’s poorer games; he went 4 of 11 from the field and had five turnovers. He never looked comfortable on offense, including on scoring opportunities from the high post. (An aside: The Huskies seem oddly willing to concede damage from the high post, almost as if to say the shot is something opposition big guys can’t convert. And indeed, a couple of times, Clarke obliged with leaning attempts, trying to make a 13-footer an 8-footer.)

-- When Washington elevated its matchup zone defense – collapsing its bigs farther toward the foul line to confront penetration – the Zags hurt the Huskies a few times by getting the ball to the corner for baseline drives.

-- My guess is, upon review of tape, the Zags saw several cringe-worthy moments down the stretch, when they were, frankly, horrible. Perkins got caught at the end of a shot clock taking an off-balance mid-range attempt that misfired, GU didn’t get back and Washington pushed the ball and hit Thybulle for a dunk with 35 seconds left. Then Norvell, with 17 seconds showing and 13 on the shot clock, drove the baseline and missed a three-footer, not using the backboard, to give the UW a final possession on which it tied the game.

-- With 4:50 left and GU ahead 73-62, Kispert missed an open three that very likely would have turned the lights out on the Huskies. Instead, they returned fire with their own three, so a potential 14-point lead quickly became eight points.

WHAT'S CHANGED IN THREE MONTHS

For one, the presence of Geno Crandall and Killian Tillie, unavailable in the first game, would help GU. Crandall is a good match for UW guard David Crisp, who has shown the ability to get hot. Tillie, coming off his foot injury, should be ready for perhaps 20 minutes a game the first weekend, and he was a key figure when GU throttled Washington 15 months ago in Seattle.

Probably the biggest imponderable is this: How much has each team improved since Dec. 5? The Huskies made significant advancement, then struggled down the stretch before the USC victory. Perhaps the biggest strides have been made in Gonzaga’s defense, which was spotty early but is now top-20.

THE PSYCHOLOGY

My sense is that the rivalry has cooled. For one, Gonzaga has dominated the Huskies for a long time. And there’s that long interruption in the series from 2006-15. Too, Romar is out now, so there’s no immediate connection to the ruffled feelings of years past, although Cameron Dollar is on the UW staff. Mark Few and the UW’s Mike Hopkins seem to have a healthy relationship.

For two reasons, I don’t think it’s a good game for Gonzaga. First, Washington’s defense is a curveball for anybody it plays, and the last thing the Zags need after the schooling by Saint Mary’s and its possession game is curveballs. Having seen the zone this season probably would help Gonzaga, however.

Second, to whatever degree the rivalry provides a sideshow, there’s that amount less focus on the task at hand. Gonzaga would have to entertain off-day questions about the rivalry, about how much attention they pay the Huskies, etc., etc. For Washington, the nothing-to-lose element might be deepened by the chance to get back at a rival (a one-time rival, anyway).

I’d give it maybe a 25-30 percent chance of happening. Obviously, the selection committee has to comply. And each would need to win a game in the tournament to get there. At the very least, it's something to watch as the bracket is revealed Sunday.

Yeah, it would create a stir. But for Gonzaga, I suspect the thinking is: Who needs it?




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Zags: So is the sky falling now?

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Actually, no, it isn't, although a lot of Gonzaga fans could swear they heard some ominous rumbling above them Tuesday night.

They never would have believed that the Zags, a huge 14.5-15-point favorite over Saint Mary’s, could have stumbled, 60-47, in the West Coast Conference tournament, an event they’ve virtually owned in recent years.

Some thoughts:

-- The instant reaction among some GU fans is: Well, now there’s a blueprint out there on how to beat Gonzaga. Which, to me, is ridiculous. The biggest factor in this game was Saint Mary’s ability to control the tempo, or conversely, Gonzaga’s inability to speed the Gaels up. I’d bet at least 80 percent of Saint Mary’s possessions resulted in shots taken with single digits on the shot clock. As of Tuesday night, SMC is No. 347 in Ken Pomeroy’s adjusted tempo rankings. That’s what it does, and does very well. Unless a future Gonzaga opponent is similarly adept at massaging the ball
-- and hardly anybody is -- it shouldn’t be a major consideration.

-- Having said that, I agree with analyst Dick Vitale that Gonzaga’s defensive intensity didn’t seem overwhelming. GU never could apply enough heat to make Saint Mary’s uncomfortable.

-- Zach Norvell has had games where he starts out 1 for 6 from the field. That’s when he usually goes 4 for his next 5. This was the night he kept shooting, and kept missing.

-- Saint Mary’s had a 34-27 rebounding edge. Rui Hachimura had five boards in 34 minutes. He seemed to be without urgency.

-- Josh Perkins has had a marvelous senior year, but when analysts look at the Zags, he’s often the one questioned, and 4-for-14, five-turnover nights don’t dissuade them. He has the NCAA tournament to prove them wrong.

-- From Gonzaga’s standpoint, Saint Mary’s big guys did far too much damage down low, especially in the first half. I was surprised GU didn’t double more, although SMC’s facility with floor spacing might have discouraged Gonzaga from doing so.

-- Now the debate will be whether Gonzaga is worthy of a No. 1 seed. There’s a lot of sentiment that it remains so, but I suspect that will be contingent on the Power 5 conference results. Even if it slips to a No. 2, the damage probably is minimal. It will stay in the West and either begin in Salt Lake City or San Jose.

-- Typically, the days between the end of the WCC tournament and Selection Sunday have kind of a celebratory, anticipatory feel for the Zags. The guess here is that re-calibration and resolve will now be the operative elements.
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