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Zags line up Jayhawks, a blueblood in a black hat

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When news broke the other day in the Spokane Spokesman-Review about a home-and-home series between Kansas and Gonzaga in the 2022-23 and 2023-24 seasons, it was met with predictable huzzahs from Zag fandom.

Kansas. While Zagnuts debate the qualifications for blueblood status, there’s no question Kansas has it. You can make a strong case that the Jayhawks have the longest, deepest tradition in college basketball, a place dripping with history and lore, and never mind UCLA, Duke or North Carolina.

Dean Smith went to school at Kansas. Before him, so did Ralph Miller. Before Miller, Adolph Rupp. After all of them, in the 1950s, Wilt Chamberlain.

Phog Allen coached there. James Naismith began there as a physical education instructor and later coached basketball at KU. He invented the game.

And of late, there aren’t a lot of streaks more impressive than Kansas’ run of 14 consecutive conference titles.

So on one level, it’s a signal achievement to snare Kansas for a home-and-home. Over time, the Zags have run through several stages in their scheduling. Once, they were a basketball nobody, consigned to playing cannon fodder in one-off games in opponents’ big arenas. Then, early in this century, they graduated to darling-but-dangerous, and even when they moved into McCarthey Athletic Center in 2004, they couldn’t immediately bag big-time home-and-homes. They weren’t enough of a “name,” and even for a "buy" game, they were hardly the definition of a sure victory.

But then they inched to the periphery of the game’s royals, and they marched through a virtual home-and-home who’s-who that included Michigan State, UCLA, Arizona, and the crowning touch last December, North Carolina.

On the nobility scale, that doesn’t leave too many more worthwhile pelts.

Meanwhile, not to be the skunk at the garden party ... but doesn’t something about this feel a little odd right now?
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Gonzaga takes pride in believing it has built a nationally prominent program “the right way,” without running afoul of NCAA rules. It doesn’t trumpet that ostentatiously, but I’ve heard it at booster events. And so far as we know, it’s true.

And here’s Kansas, which right now is one of the programs in the crosshairs of the NCAA as a result of the FBI investigation of college basketball. Earlier this month, Kansas responded vigorously to NCAA allegations of major violations at KU, including the dreaded lack of institutional control. KU alleges that coach Bill Self has promoted an atmosphere of compliance (insert laugh track here).

The FBI case weaves a tangled web in which it’s difficult to tell the perpetrators from the victims. However we parse that, we do know some things from the U.S. District Court trials, among them that Kansas dealt at least occasionally with Adidas bagman T.J. Gassnola, a former AAU-coach operative with a rap sheet including larceny, bad checks and tax fraud; that Self and longtime assistant Kurtis Townsend exchanged texts with Gassnola about recruits; that Gassnola testified to having paid about $90,000 to the mother of ex-Kansas player Billy Preston; and that Townsend, on a wiretapped call with another Adidas rep who told him that (future Duke star) Zion Williamson’s father was sniffing around about a job, money and family housing, responded, “I’ve just got to try to work and figure out a way, because if that’s what it takes to get him here for 10 months, we’re going to have to do it some way.”

Now, we know that the FBI has delivered less than it promised when it announced thunderously that it was going to pull back the curtain on college basketball. Some of that owes to the fact that it’s the college programs alleged to have been defrauded, and the trials have resulted in only low-level sentences. But the trials have also shone a light on some programs, none more unflatteringly than Kansas.

Yes, the NCAA case is pending. Innocent until proven guilty, yes. But in recent years, there were other KU players implicated with NCAA issues, declared ineligible while Kansas sorted it out, etc. Usually, if there’s smoke, there’s fire, and right now, Kansas is a five-alarm conflagration with units from three counties responding.

When, in trial testimony, an allegation surfaced that Kansas forward Silvio DeSousa’s guardian was paid $20,000, the Jayhawks suspended DeSousa while the matter was investigated. Sports Illustrated’s Michael Rosenberg questioned why DeSousa and not Self was suspended, writing, “Kansas knows as well as anyone how this works. The school seems to go through some version of this game every year. Players get held out of competition as a laughable show of ‘good faith’ that the school is serious about following the rules. Kansas is sacrificing a pawn (DeSousa) to save its king (Self) because that’s what the NCAA implicitly encourages schools to do.”

Perhaps you can’t turn the oily world of college basketball into a morality play. If you refused to play any school suspected of cheating, you argue, you might find yourself playing a nine-game schedule. Indeed, the Zags have had a relationship with Arizona, whose coach, Sean Miller, is under the gun as a result of the FBI probe. At least with that one, Gonzaga can say it scheduled games with the Wildcats, under Miller, almost a decade ago. So there's some history.

I suppose Gonzaga might make a case that the only thing that matters is what’s best for Gonzaga. And for some, at least, the fact Gonzaga has grown relevant enough to be able to schedule Kansas home-and-home makes a statement about GU that could be helpful in recruiting. And that its fans see too many high-profile games played on neutral courts, and deserve an occasional Kansas.

I would only ask: At what price?
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In a March without Madness, the WCC squirms

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As I’m writing this, between sessions of thatching the lawn, the first basketballs of the NCAA men’s tournament were to be bouncing in Spokane. Thursday and Friday, the best two days of the sporting year, were upon us.

Damn.

If you love college hoops, you can’t help but be a little wistful. But it’s safe to say, nobody is feeling more of a tug this weekend than the members of the West Coast Conference. (I’m referencing only the sporting side of the world, not the real-life victims in a perilous time, and hats off to the heroes of any stripe fighting the good fight.)

This was going to be a coming-out for the WCC, a statement that the league was blossoming, that there was more to the conference than Gonzaga. Between the Zags, the supercharged BYU attack and the wizardry of Saint Mary’s Jordan Ford, this could even have been the league’s brightest March/April since Bill Russell and K.C. Jones led San Francisco to back-to-back championships in 1955-56.

You can make the case that no conference suffers more in the gap from its 2020 tournament ceiling to its usual station than the West Coast Conference. Sure, the Big Ten was going to get 10 or 11 teams in the tournament, but it often gets seven or eight. This was going to be just the third time the WCC landed three teams in the bracket, and collectively, this trio was much more imposing than either of the threesomes of 2008 and 2012.

In these troubled times, pain is relative, but where it’s really going to bruise the WCC is in the pocketbook.

It’s still murky, the financial hit that colleges are going to take as a result of the cancellation of the 2020 tournament. The big dance, supported by a massive TV contract with CBS and Turner Broadcasting, is by far the largest moneymaker for the NCAA, which distributes most of the booty to the conferences. The tournament is insured against events such as we’re now enduring, but USA Today reports it to be for less than full value. How much less, we don't yet know.

Here’s what we do know: Each conference’s members would have earned about $290,000 per game in the tournament, and those units are banked over a rolling six-year window for each league. Let’s say Gonzaga had been the only WCC entry this year and the Zags bowed out in the second round. The WCC would gain two units – one for the automatic berth, and a second for the GU victory, each totaling about $1,740,000 over the six years ($290,000 times six), or $3,480,000 overall, to be thrown into the six-year annual-payout window from 2021-2026.

We can only speculate what might have been this year, but let’s speculate. Let’s give No. 1-seeded Gonzaga three victories and say that between them, BYU and Saint Mary’s earned two wins. (ESPN did a simulation based on Joe Lunardi’s bracket and its Basketball Power Index, and – cue the catcalls from Zag fans – came up with Wisconsin besting BYU in the final.)

Five wins total seems reasonably conservative. That’s six units (including the automatic berth by Gonzaga). At $290,000 each, that’s $1,740,000 for one year’s take. Multiply that over six years, and you have $10.44 million – the six-year yield from ’21-26 merely from this year’s tournament (and seven mil more than our example of a single-entry Gonzaga going to the round of 32).

That would have been a handsome return to couple with what most of us expected to be the good repute and exposure the league would have gained.

And think about this: In 2017, when Gonzaga went to the national-title game, the league earned seven units, including the auto berth. At about $270K per unit then, that poured some $11.34 million over six years into league coffers, the most in history for the WCC. So the ostensible haul in 2020 would have been a nice complement to that ’17 bounty over three years of the six-year window.

Why does it matter, you ask? Well, Zags coach Mark Few made a point a few years ago that WCC members needed to be investing some of that NCAA-earned cash into facilities upgrades to improve play in the league and thereby enhance the possibility of more teams making the tournament. Obviously, the more bread to each league member, the better fed they are, and the more likely to upgrade their programs.

Earlier this week, USA Today outlined the fiscal picture without a tournament, and its piece included this ominous quote from Barbara Osborne, a sports administration professor at the University of North Carolina: “All schools will be having huge belt-tightening because of this. This is going to affect higher education as a whole and school budgets overall. That’s going to impact the institutional subsidy for athletic programs. Athletic budgets will be smaller because conference payouts will be smaller. A lot of mid-majors desperately rely on these dollars. It’s not a pretty picture.”

If you take the optimistic view, you might argue that the league is “trending,” that, notwithstanding 2020, the signs are positive at programs like Pacific and USF. True enough. But the personnel losses are significant next season for BYU and Saint Mary’s. While the Zags will be preseason No. 1 in several precincts, Saint Mary’s will have to replace Jordan Ford, and BYU loses Yoeli Childs, T.J. Haws, Jake Toolson and Zac Seljaas.

As the arenas are silenced in this strange March, those aren’t the only losses.
#wcchoops #zagmbb #zagup #zaghoops #theslipperstillfits

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Zags: Requiem for a remarkable season

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My last dream on the night before Selection Sunday went like this: The office called and proposed doing a story on how the tournament might have looked, were it not wiped out. When I woke up, I realized that not only was there no tournament, there was no office, either. I left newspapering a few years ago.

Of course, the dream was no more tortured than the finish of the 2019-20 college basketball season. It was like the pari-mutuel window at the racetrack at post time, boom, that’s it, no more wagering, leaving us only to speculate – at a healthy six-foot distance, minimum.

Sunday, some on the Twitterati were incensed that the NCAA didn’t “release a bracket,” as if the selection committee was holding out, depriving us of one final morsel for conversation. Folks, when 72 hours’ worth of conference tournaments are scrubbed, there is no bracket. Go home.

CBS, I thought, missed a bet in not gathering its studio analysts for a proper sendoff to the truncated season, in the space usually allotted for the bracket reveal. They could have reviewed the unprecedented succession of events last week; discussed how the tournament might have unfolded; debated the impact of a proposed NCAA waiver that would return seniors to their schools next season; and shown highlights of the season. Perhaps that was seen as superfluous in a time of national crisis.

Ultimately, it took a global pandemic to keep Gonzaga out of an NCAA tournament. A question, admittedly of minuscule import: Does the Zags’ string of years making the tournament inch to 22, or stay at 21? Technically, they were in the field as of last Tuesday night, and the schools in front – Kansas (30), Duke (24), Michigan State (22) – still had business to sort out.

Another one: Does the grad transfer market change this spring? If, as widely forecast, a widespread societal shutdown continues for 2-3 months, do prospects freely get on airplanes and take visits, per custom? Or will it be recruitment-by-Tango? And for those on the fence about an early entry to the NBA, does that league's uncertainty in the months ahead in any way tilt such a player toward a return to school?

For Zag fans, the far bigger imponderable is how far their team might have barged through the ’20 bracket.

Mea culpa: I wasn’t especially sanguine about a deep run by Gonzaga. There were continuing defensive issues; the .422 field-goal percentage allowed is the worst at GU since the 2006 Adam Morrison-led outfit. Besides that, the Zags, using a tight, seven-man rotation, were one sprained ankle away from curtains.

On the other hand, you can argue this team was so good offensively – tops in the nation in scoring (87.4), scoring margin (19.6), second in field-goal percentage (51.5), fourth in assist-turnover ratio (1.49), that it could obscure the weaknesses at the other end. We’ll never know.

TV announcers would talk about the Zags’ depth, as a compliment. They must have been referencing six double-figures scorers, and close to a seventh, because GU wasn’t deep.

All of which, flipped on its head, underscores what a fabulous season it was at Gonzaga. On the first weekend of May 10 months ago, I ran into Mark Few in Spokane, when the Zags were hosting Admon Gilder. At that point, Gonzaga didn’t have Gilder, it didn’t have Ryan Woolridge, and it had no conclusive evidence Joel Ayayi would become a productive force. All that was, was the entire backcourt.

Gonzaga lost three guys who have played in the NBA, two prominently, plus its career assists leader. Freshman big Oumar Ballo was declared ineligible in October. A month later, touted guard Brock Ravet left the program. In and out of shoulder problems, freshman Anton Watson kept playing before yielding to surgery in mid-season. Killian Tillie’s ankle would occasionally render him unavailable.

A team I thought was overrated at preseason No. 8 got ranked No. 1 again and was headed for its fourth No. 1 seed. Looking back, it was preposterous, off-the-charts stuff. It was a testament to culture. This team won 31 times and lost twice, tying the 2017 Final Four team for fewest defeats in a season at GU.

Maybe the message in a March without Madness is that nothing is promised, that the journey is worth celebrating as much as the destination. For GU fans, that would mean the “smaller” triumphs – the Thanksgiving Day tightrope act against Oregon; the grit that shook loose a victory at USF; a rollicking 30-point win at Saint Mary’s – merit their own special attention.

Meanwhile, I’m scrolling ESPNU for today’s showings of classic college basketball. It's about to air the Cal State-Bakersfield/Georgia Tech NIT semifinal of 2017.

It’s come to this.
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For longtime Zag fans, it just gets weirder

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So you’ve wondered about those funky, end-of-October closed scrimmages that college basketball teams stage at neutral sites? The ones unfettered by media coverage, fans or fanfare? What must the atmosphere be like?

Well, I guess we’re about to find out, to the deep chagrin of Gonzaga fans and the Spokane business community. Like a snowball rolling downhill from high on Kilimanjaro, the concern over the coronavirus claimed another victim Wednesday, as NCAA president Mark Emmert decreed that tournament games would go on only with “essential staff and limited family attendance.”

(That’s if there’s a tournament at all. I wouldn’t bet your 401K on it.)

So, Zag fans, unless Ancestry.com can vouch for your tight relationship with Killian Tillie or Martynas Arlauskas, you’ve got no shot of getting into Spokane Arena next week.

Moments before Emmert weighed in, I heard a well known hoops analyst on Sirius radio say that he thought what was happening – at that time, attendance bans on conference tournaments – was overreaction. I think that’s a rash statement, tantamount to saying, “We know better. This isn’t that serious.” Well, we don’t know better. We don’t know what we’re dealing with, and when experts like Dr. Anthony Fauci, head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, issues sobering warnings, we’d be foolish not to listen.

Basketball is a pretty small slice of life right now, let’s be honest.

Still, Zag fans can only shake their heads at a numbing irony. For all the serendipity that has kissed them over the years with a ludicrously successful program, it’s seemingly beyond the pale for the Zags to play the first weekend of the NCAA tournament at Spokane Arena. With fans there, I mean.

This is going to be the sixth time Spokane Arena has hosted the subregionals. To stay home, a team needs a “protected” seed, which means no worse than a 5, probably a 4. Against reasonable odds, the Zags never have been able to line up one of their premier teams with one of those years when WSU or Idaho hosted the Spokane subregional (GU isn’t official host of those games, partly because that would cancel the ability to stay home).

The Arena has hosted in 2003, 2007, 2010, 2014 and 2016. Always, the Zags were betwixt and between. In ’03, Dan Dickau had just left. In ’07, the Josh Heytvelt drama hit. In 2010, they were a year past one of their best rosters. In ’14 and ’16, they were either a year before or after some of their most talented teams.

It was dodgeball gone bananas.

And then came 2019-2020, a confluence of Spokane hosting and an impending No. 1 seed by the Zags. It was going to be so cool. It was going to be one of the shortest distances in NCAA history from a protected seed’s campus to the host arena – what, maybe a mile and a half?

What could go wrong? Not Saint Mary’s or BYU, but … the coronavirus.

You have to hurt for the businesses this will impact. And for players like Tillie, who has soldiered through an incessant string of injuries to come out the other side a senior, ready to create a final bang. And yes, to a lesser degree, you hurt for the fans.

But they’re used to it. Remember how, when the Zags were only an ascendant force, not a national colossus, Gonzaga lobbied the WCC to play the league tournament at a neutral site such as Oakland rather than have to risk everything at a WCC bandbox? They played in the pre-McCarthey Kennel (capacity 2,600-2,800, according to athletic director Mike Roth), not big enough to host the tournament, so it annually went someplace like Santa Clara or San Diego.

Of course, they built the McCarthey by 2004, so at last they were voted the host berth for 2006, which, after all those years, only seemed poetic. To everybody, anyway, except USF coach Jessie Evans. Stating his case for a California school to host it, he said something very much like, “Who wants to go to Spokane?”

Sure, who would want to go to a basketball hotbed that cares passionately about hosting the event?

Bottom line: For all the celestial basketball that has graced GU fans over the years, marrying the Zags to a post-season event in Spokane has been akin to an ultramarathoner tackling a mountain trail with a 60-pound sack of concrete strapped to his back.

So here we are. What a break for the 8 or 9 seed opposite the Zags. It was going to have to face a noisy partisan crowd. Now, aside from the travel to Spokane, it has to overcome … crickets.

Small solace for Spokane, but know this: It’s going to get moved to the front burner when the next round of future NCAA sites gets awarded.

Unfortunately, the next such available games, as I read it, are in 2023. When each day brings so much uncertainty, that seems like a long way away.
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