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Bud Withers' Blog

Zags: Everybody's got a solution; but is there a problem?

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The off-season has begun at Gonzaga, with a twist. This period of self-reckoning, with the usual smattering of national scorn, commences with the buzz that the Zags might be outbound for the Big East Conference.

It seems to be a social-media creation, born of two elements: There were discussions several years ago of a Big East expansion to Gonzaga. And the Zags lost to Arkansas in the NCAA tournament.

Gonzaga in the Big East would be a hoot. Who wouldn’t line up for a Zags game in Philadelphia against Villanova, or relish a date in New York with St. John’s? Not only that, the schools are similarly religion-based, and football isn’t part of the equation.

The Big East could tout itself as the first national conference. Adding Gonzaga would buff up a league that’s already deeply respected nationally.

(Failing that, I like the idea advanced by CBS Sports’ Matt Norlander of Gonzaga doing a Notre Dame-football-style alliance with the Big East and/or Big 12 to play as many as four games in January and February – sort of, you know, dating without the commitment.)

The Big East would be perfect. Well, perfect except for the fact Gonzaga is 3,000 miles from the East Coast, creating all sorts of travel headaches, and that – believe it or not – there are other sports at Gonzaga that would either need to reconcile those travel issues or find another home. It’s logical to assume the West Coast Conference isn’t likely to be wowed by the idea of Gonzaga-without-basketball.

How did we get here? Well, the Zags went out and lost to Arkansas in the Sweet 16, and nobody inspires overreaction quite like the Zags. According to the narrative, because the WCC doesn’t include any teams of the quickness or defensive chops of Arkansas, Gonzaga wasn’t equipped to handle it in the tournament. And this is why Gonzaga will never win a national title, and it always chokes in the tournament, and well, it’s pretty much just a futile enterprise overall.

Thus, the conclusion that the Zags need to depart the WCC, post-haste.

You can make a pretty good case that all this is about nothing more than . . . wait for it . . . Gonzaga missed shots against Arkansas. It shot 38 percent and went 5 for 21 on threes. Many of those seemed like good looks.

Was it that, or was it more Arkansas’ defensive truculence? Well, back on Dec. 18, Gonzaga played the team many considered the best in the nation defensively, Texas Tech.

Conventional wisdom then was that Gonzaga didn’t have enough outside shooters; it had struggled from the perimeter early in the season.

So Texas Tech was within 42-40 in the second half, and in the span of two minutes, 33 seconds, Gonzaga drained four treys, easing out to a 14-point victory. Funny, playing a quick, defensive-minded team – Ken Pomeroy rated it No. 1 at that end -- didn’t seem to matter that day.

It’s become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Gonzaga loses in the NCAA tournament, so that’s the kind of style Gonzaga can’t handle, so that’s why Gonzaga needs to get out of the WCC. Okay.

A year ago, the Zags, in the title game, were rousted out of an undefeated season by Baylor – yes, a quick, physical team. It happens. And it’s worth noting that Baylor is probably in, say, the top quarter of NCAA-championship teams this century. It was on the same undefeated track into February before a three-week Covid pause took the shine off its season, temporarily.

“The discussion regarding Gonzaga’s conference schedule has only been further amplified by the school’s rocky NCAA-tournament history relative to their regular-season and conference-tournament records,” wrote Sports Illustrated (not your father’s Sports Illustrated, by the way).

“Rocky” translates to seven straight Sweet 16s and appearances in two of the last six title games. If anything, over the years, Gonzaga has been overseeded, which underscores the shortfall when it does lose. This year, it beat Texas, UCLA and Texas Tech before the WCC and lost to Duke and Alabama. Does that sound like a team that should have been the top overall seed?

This was never an especially deep team, and yes, it was more about finesse than toughness. As Seth Davis pointed out, that’s a shortcoming that shouldn’t be attached to all Gonzaga teams.

Anyway, cue the off-season. It finds Gonzaga back in prove-it mode, a place it knows so well.

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