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Bud Withers' Blog

Banchero and UW, where a little talent is a dangerous thing


The top-shelf basketball talent from the Seattle area just keeps coming. A year after Jaden McDaniels became a five-star recruit, coaches from around the country are coveting 6-9 Paolo Banchero of O’Dea High in Seattle, a 2021 prospect that ranks as the No. 2 player in the nation. Among others, that has the interest of schools like Duke, North Carolina, Kentucky, Gonzaga and of course, Washington.

There’s a thick connection to Seattle and the University of Washington. Banchero’s mom Rhonda played at Washington from 1992-95 and is No. 6 on the school career scoring list and No. 8 in rebounding. His dad Mario played football at the UW. And of course, there’s the close culture of basketball players who grew up in the 206; in a recent interview with KING-TV, Banchero made reference to the legion of other players who have made the city one of the wellsprings of basketball talent in the nation.

Only circumstance lends any hint about where Banchero might want to go to school. He hasn’t publicly named a list of finalists (while he has visited the first four aforementioned), and both parents say they aren’t inclined to push him in any direction.

Not that any coaches ever slip a dollop of negative recruiting into their pitch, but for people like John Calipari of Kentucky and Mark Few of Gonzaga, and the longtime head men at Duke and North Carolina, Mike Krzyzewski and Roy Williams, it has to be tempting to point out to Banchero what kind of season the local team is having. Indeed, the 2019-20 UW struggles serve to underscore a much longer, deeper trend at Washington.

Over the years, nobody has frittered away high-end talent like Washington.

The numbers are startling. This is something I researched a few years ago, and with the Huskies bogged down in an eight-game losing streak and looking at a challenge even to get out of the Pac-12 cellar, the subject merits updating.

Back in 2006-07, Washington had seven-foot Spencer Hawes. It started 10-1 and skidded to 19-13 overall and 8-10 in the Pac-10. The Huskies didn’t play in the post-season and Hawes decided to take his gifts to the NBA after one year.

So I looked at specifically that phenomenon: Schools that since 2007, have had a player taken in the first round of the NBA draft, while the school failed to make the NCAA tournament that season.

It’s not a pretty picture on Montlake.

If, as expected, Washington fails to make the NCAA tournament – and now its chance is reduced to winning the Pac-12 tournament – and Isaiah Stewart and Jaden McDaniels get taken in the first round of the draft as widely expected, the Huskies will have had nine such first-round picks who didn’t get to the NCAA tournament that season since ’07.

As we speak, no other school in the country has more than three. That’s a stunning gap in a sport in which the bubble is regularly viewed as soft, and which affords a lot of opportunities to qualify for the NCAAs.

These are the instances at issue, and the Huskies’ post-season destination, since ’07:

2007 – Spencer Hawes (no post-season tournament).
2012 – Terrence Ross and Tony Wroten (NIT semifinals).
2014 – C.J. Wilcox (no tournament).
2016 – Marquess Chriss and Dejounte Murray (NIT second round).
2017 – Markelle Fultz (no tournament).

The phenomenon happens more than you might guess. Since 2007, there have been 70 instances of first-round picks not getting to the Big Dance that season, or about five a year. But if there are five more in June, and the Huskies don’t pull off a miracle run and Stewart and McDaniels are history at the UW, that would be nine of 75 belonging to Washington. For Washington to have more than eight percent of such cases, when there are 75 Power Six conference schools, is jaw-dropping.

Next-most such shortfalls is three by Indiana and Syracuse, UW coach Mike Hopkins’ old school. There are another 10 two-time offenders.

Put Hawes aside, and it’s even more stark. Since 2012, there are six Huskies who fall into this category over a mere eight seasons. Nationally, in that period there are 40 such cases, so the UW owns 15 percent of them. And it’s very likely to jump higher soon.

Then there’s this: The worst-case scenario – no NCAA and departures by Stewart and McDaniels – would mark the third time in that 14-year stretch that it’s happened to a tandem of Huskies the same season. Elsewhere, it’s happened only once, to Kentucky in 2013, and that carries a bit of an asterisk since Nerlens Noel, a first-round NBA selection that year, went down with a season-ending knee injury on Feb. 12.

How possibly to explain this?

This season, the Huskies can look to the ineligibility of guard Quade Green, which is reasonable to a point. But it’s also become a convenient catch-all for a team that had four losses by Jan. 2 with him.

You could also say that because seven (of the potential nine without a Big Dance ticket) are/were one-and-done players, it’s not as much a black mark on the Huskies as it is the NBA procedure of drafting on potential rather than production.

My sense is that more than anything, what did in Lorenzo Romar after a successful start at Washington was his inability to tame the beast that is Seattle-area talent – that is, not only being able to recruit it, but to recruit it selectively, to construct rosters that included it, and ultimately, to coach it.

What Romar did is not Hopkins’ fault, but after a two-year start and nothing but hosannas thrown his way, Hopkins is overseeing a badly underachieving season that evokes problems of his predecessor.

Who knows what Paolo Banchero might do? If his mindset is being one-and-done, he might well conclude that it’s not worth the uprooting to go cross-country, or even across the state, for eight or nine months’ apprenticeship for the NBA. He might decide the local connections he would make going to the UW would be beneficial when he’s done playing basketball. He might also figure he can be the guy who successfully bucks Washington’s lengthy, head-scratching trend.

One thing you can probably count on: He’s going to hear about that history from other coaches.
#uwhuskies #huskies #godawgs #zagmbb #wcchoops #theslipperstillfits

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Zags now left to their own (considerable) devices

For Gonzaga basketball fans, it was an unusually enlightening Saturday. The Zags learned all sorts of things, starting with the morning’s annual basketball-committee bracket top-16 reveal, and ending with the obliteration of a good Saint Mary’s team 10 hours later in Moraga.

In the morning, Gonzaga discovered it has an edge on San Diego State, even as the Aztecs are undefeated, and that means it’s only logical the Zags will maintain that edge if they don’t lose before Selection Sunday. By night, we saw what a focused, healthy (or what passes for healthy in this gimpy season) Zags team is capable of.

Oh yes, the day reinforced something else. It appears that whatever’s out there for Gonzaga on Selection Sunday March 15 – seed, site, bracket quadrant – the Zags are going it alone.

Maybe there’s been another year when the most prized victims of November and December went so collectively south on Gonzaga, but I can’t recall it.

You know the drill: In the Zags’ “inverted” schedule – tough non-conference followed by a less rugged WCC – they do what business they can, and then hope those vanquished acquit themselves well as the season plays out, the more to burnish Gonzaga’s resume. Most years, it seems to me, what passed for quality wins before Christmas have stood up, often gaining greater resonance. As in 2003-04, when Maryland, a Zag victim, was limping along at 14-11 late in the season, trying merely to mount the NCAA bubble, when suddenly it blew through the ACC tournament victorious, all the way to a No. 4 seed in the NCAAs.

(Of course, at the other end there was 2001-02, when St. Joseph’s – ranked No. 10 in the preseason – and Fresno State seemed like major conquests, but each receded from prominence, fell out of the rankings, and on a sobering Selection Sunday, No. 6-ranked Gonzaga got a No. 6 seed.)

Opponent-wise, this year is looking something like 2002. Oregon, Washington, Arizona, North Carolina – meh.

The Ducks are sort of mucking through the season, overly dependent on Payton Pritchard and unconvincing up front. Against the 199th-ranked KenPom defense at Oregon State the other night, Oregon scored 53 points to fall to 18-6.

Washington? The Huskies haven’t won since about the last time Donald Trump told the truth. Their fall from grace has been spectacular – a team drawing mention for a Final Four to one that may struggle to get out of the Pac-12 cellar.

Like Oregon, Arizona (16-7) has been something of a fits-and-starts outfit, puzzling in that you’d figure those freshmen would be jelling by now. But the Wildcats were just schooled at home by 13 against UCLA. And North Carolina, well, we knew Carolina was a shell of itself when the Zags won convincingly in December, but just when the Tar Heels were about to salvage some self-esteem Saturday against Duke, they invented all sorts of different ways to lose.

The good news for Gonzaga is, it has enough juice to make it on its own. Obviously, winning will keep GU on the one line, and even another loss might not be fatal to its prospects for a No. 1 seed.

But there’s that developing joust with San Diego State for the top seed in the West – the winner prospectively going to Los Angeles for the regional (barring a complete collapse, GU will start the tournament at Spokane Arena) and the loser having to trek to New York for a second weekend, there possibly to encounter Duke and its second home at Madison Square Garden.

It has to be significant that Gonzaga was judged ahead of SDSU BEFORE its thunderous victory at Saint Mary’s, so whatever the margin was Saturday morning, it’s greater now.

For comparison, San Diego State has a road win at BYU (a challenge looming for Gonzaga Feb. 22) and neutrals over Creighton (by 31) and Iowa, 26th and 18th, respectively, in KenPom rankings. Notwithstanding Arizona’s inconsistency, the Wildcats are still worth a No. 15 KenPom (and No. 10 in the NET) and Oregon is 25th in both metrics.

Where might San Diego State slip up? An old Zag friend, Leon Rice, could help next Sunday at Boise State, and the Aztecs finish the regular season at Nevada Feb. 29.

Much remains to be decided, in Spokane, in San Diego, even in Eugene and Tucson. But by now, the Zags have to know that it’s in their hands. Which, all things considered, isn’t so bad.
#zagmbb #wcchoops #theslipperstillfits #zaghoops #zagup

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How the WCC's other half lives, and some questions


We’ve been hearing for years about what it’s like on the road for Gonzaga in the West Coast Conference. So I decided to find out for myself. Well, myself and my wife. We spent part of a long weekend in the Bay Area attending both GU games at Santa Clara and San Francisco.

I’d never seen a game in either house. Interviewed Steve Nash for a preseason piece back in the mid-‘90s in the SCU gym, but that’s it.

It was different. Different in just about every way imaginable, before you even get in the door.

You know already the fuss Gonzaga coach Mark Few raised a couple of seasons ago when he asked why more WCC programs weren’t plunging into facilities improvements the cash the Zags were earning for league members with their success in NCAA tournaments. Well, there’s another marker of how Gonzaga affects the league: The cost of seeing the Zags play those teams on the road.

At Santa Clara, you can’t merely buy a general-admission ticket. The Gonzaga game is “bundled” with another game – ours with Portland’s at SCU later this month – so you have to purchase two games, and you can donate the second one to charity. Those extra tickets were $13 apiece. Not a huge outlay, but an add-on.

At USF, War Memorial Gym is so small – 3,005 capacity, compared to 4,700 at Santa Clara – that the “surcharge” comes in another form. As in, we (and a lot of other people there following Gonzaga) paid $75 for a general-admission seat. Yes, $75. They can get it, so they charge it. And truth be told, the place is so small, that gets you a good seat.

Most noticeable thing about the atmosphere in these places? The predominance, or lack of, the pep band. Funny thing: We got into a discussion about, believe it or not, whether there had been a pep band at Santa Clara (in a game we’d witnessed from high up), and sure enough, there was. Two days later, at USF, the band was tucked up in a corner of the gym. But inscrutably, it didn’t play. The members sat sort of forlornly with their instruments, and might have played four times the entire 2 ½ hours-plus of pregame and game time. If you’ve been serenaded by rousing riffs of Barenaked Ladies at the McCarthey Athletic Center or Nirvana at the University of Washington, you don’t know how good you’ve had it. It adds immeasurably to the game-day experience.

(A primer on the Bulldog Band at Gonzaga, courtesy of associate A.D. Chris Standiford: GU’s band is all-volunteer and under the aegis of the athletic department, which pays for instruments, sheet music, uniforms and the services of longtime conductor David Fague, director of the jazz studies program. The band numbers about 130, none of whom are on athletic-department scholarships. Part of the allure for band members is not having to submit to student ticket procedures. GU’s band pre-dates the NCAA-tournament streak, but in sketchier form in early years. It was when the Zags began to be a regular player in the NCAAs that AD Mike Roth committed to an upgraded band.)

Sound systems didn’t seem suitable for either the Santa Clara or USF gyms. In our seats, I’m not sure I caught a distinct word from the P.A. in either game. In fairness, I can’t summarily swear the acoustics are better at the McCarthey, but I suspect they are.

Concessions were unspectacular at both venues. At Santa Clara, I went without. My wife opted for a garden burger, while the topic recalled a memory from something GU athletic director told me several years ago – that there was a motive to the 6 p.m. home starts engineered by Gonzaga when the games aren’t assigned to ESPN. Six o’clock gives most workers time to get to the arena, but not enough time to eat before they get there. So there are varied food choices at the MAC, and they provide GU a worthy revenue source.

Competitively, the legendary challenge Gonzaga has in these arenas is palpable even in warmups, where the hosts give off a determined, excited vibe and the Zags are only workmanlike. The visitors reflect something I’ve believed for a long time: Athletes usually play only as hard as they think they need to win.

At Santa Clara, it was obvious Filip Petrusev, with a career-high 31 points, could do just about anything he wanted. It was also obvious he did a lot of things he won’t be able to do against NCAA-tournament-level competition. Of course, Killian Tillie got hurt, and I say this without any research or foundation, other than having covered or been around teams for about half a century: I honestly don’t remember a basketball player having endured as many different injuries in a college career, one atop another.

With Tillie out at USF, it was going to be a dicey day for Gonzaga. There simply aren’t enough bodies for breathing room. USF took away the perimeter, took the fight to Gonzaga, and led for much of the game in front of a highly diluted crowd. It shouldn’t be a result that diminishes the Zags, given USF’s 80s ranking in both KenPom and the NET.

The weekend stirred in my mind a question that arose a long time ago. If you could gather the WCC presidents around a table and they’d speak what’s in their heart of hearts, would they tell you this isn’t what their school signed up for when they joined an alliance – a conference – of religion-based, non-football-playing West Coast schools? That one school would have charter flights and be a grabber on ESPN, and would nudge my school’s own particular enterprise away from being a sleepy little urban campus to needing to do something dynamic with athletics? Would they really rather not have to deal with the nuisance of athletics insinuating itself into the academic mission?

Around the WCC, there have been recent facilities upgrades. But here's obligatory perspective: Santa Clara’s crowd of 4,200 for Gonzaga was almost 2,000 more than the next-biggest SCU attendance this season, against Cal. The Broncos drew 1,202 for Washington State back on Nov. 12. If the interest is modest, it follows that so will be the investment.

In the men’s room, a philosophical Santa Clara fan said, “We’ll get ‘em next year.” Then, mindful that this was Gonzaga’s 21st straight win over the Broncos, he added, “Maybe.”
#zagup #zaghoops #theslipperstillfits #wcchoops #zagmbb

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In an unremarkable year, Zags still an eye-catcher

A pro scout I’ve known for a long time lamented the other day the state of the college game in 2020 – the mediocrity of it. He said he wasn’t viewing it from the lens of pro prospects available, but merely the quality of play. If he were issuing grades, he said, the best teams he’s seen – and he’s seen most of them, many more than once – wouldn’t rate more than a 79 or 81 on a scale of 100.

All of it dovetails with a national narrative that there are no great teams, and that this is a year of uncommon balance.

We didn’t discuss Gonzaga. I would assume GU would rate near the top of his list, and that ranking would be founded on its offensive acumen. For sheer precision, unselfishness and – for a lack of a better phrase – intuitive purpose, it’s hard to beat Gonzaga, and its nation-leading 120.1 (points per 100 possessions) offensive ranking in Ken Pomeroy’s statistics.

Up front, a disclaimer: There remain warts with this basketball team. Albeit improved defensively, it doesn’t scream that that element is sufficient to get the Zags to Atlanta and a Final Four berth. The foul shooting is occasionally cringe-worthy. The depth teeters on the edge of alarming, and you wonder if GU doesn’t need somebody like Martynas Arlauskas to emerge and be able to provide a yeoman 10 minutes if called upon two months from now.

But oh, that offense.

Obviously, it isn’t breaking news that Gonzaga runs good offense. That’s always been in the DNA of Mark Few. Go back to 2006, the Adam Morrison-mania year, and Gonzaga was No. 2 in KenPom offensive numbers (it was also a gag-inducing 174th in defense).

Last year, the Zags were No. 1 nationally in offensive efficiency at 124.5. Dating to 2013 – the first No. 1 seed year, the first No. 1 ranking year – Gonzaga has now occupied a top-five spot in offense four times.

But last year, Gonzaga had two uber-athletes up front in Brandon Clarke and Rui Hachimura. That meant a lot of offense at close range was created by athleticism.

The loss of those two players, plus Zach Norvell and Josh Perkins, would lend to the assumption that the Zags wouldn’t purr like a fine German engine in 2019-20. That it has – at least at one end – is a testament to the coaching wiles of Few and his staff.

They’ve always said they place a high premium on skill – on the ability to pass and shoot. But there has to be more than that. A lot of players are good passers and unselfish.

Remember that the backcourt for this Zag edition consists of two grad transfers with destinations unknown at the start of last May, plus a player (Joel Ayayi) who averaged 5.6 minutes a game last year. From that, from the guys who handle the ball the most – voila! – the nation’s leading offense in 2020.

I watch other teams, and there’s a randomness about their attack. Washington, understandably, wants to get the ball to Isaiah Stewart regularly. The rest of the time, shots go up for no apparent reason, other than maybe “I probably need to shoot it right about now.” Oregon State, with a veteran squad and a Pac-12 player-of-the-year candidate in Tres Tinkle, is an unremarkable 36th in offense, and the shots go up seemingly without regard for the notion that something better may await.

This Gonzaga team seems to know the difference between meh, good and better. Only occasionally do you see the imprudent shot. Players seem preternaturally willing to see an offensive sequence through to its logical conclusion, rather than rush up something low-percentage. It’s all in the numbers – six players in double figures, a .508 team percentage (fourth nationally), .391 from three (ninth) and a gaudy 1.63 assist-turnover ratio.

The Zags may get tested this week at Santa Clara (17-5), which you’d figure is tired of getting absolutely trucked by Gonzaga, and at USF (15-7). If you’re a Zag fan, you hope for defense, and appreciate the offense.
#zagmbb #wcchoops #theslipperstillfits #zaghoops #zagup

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The multi-layered legacy of Mike Leach


Several years back, an athletic director at a Pac-12 school surveyed Washington State’s hire of Mike Leach as football coach and told me the guy had a reputation in the business as somebody who didn’t want to have a boss.

Today, you hope John Cohen, the athletic director at Mississippi State, realizes that. He just hired Leach from Washington State, for better or for worse.

(To those who come to this space expecting the usual blog on Gonzaga basketball, indulge me. My experience is, there’s a sizable crossover in rooting interest between the Zags and WSU football.)

What a complicated legacy Leach wove at WSU, more nuanced than you realize.

Let’s start with this: The guy is a good football coach. While the easy (and erroneous) assumption is that he authors a pitty-pat finesse offense, his system is based on endless, repetitive drilling, to the point that reaction becomes automatic. He’s very good at what he does. In league play from 2015-18, his teams went 26-10, and it wouldn’t be outlandish to say that’s a standard nearly impossible to replicate at WSU.

He’s going to need every bit of sagacity he can summon to make it work at Mississippi State. He’s jumping into the fiercest division in football, the SEC West, where all you have to deal with annually is Alabama, Auburn, LSU and Texas A&M, and never mind the hoi polloi – Florida, Georgia – of the SEC East.

His supporters trumpet that WSU has never been to so many bowl games, and while that’s true, it’s also true that never have there been so many bowl games. Covering the Drew Bledsoe Cougars back in 1992, I distinctly remember writing that even at 8-3, fresh off the unforgettable Snow Bowl upset of Washington, it was unclear whether there was a post-season place for WSU and next spring's No. 1 overall draft pick. (Turned out, narrowly there was, in the Copper Bowl.)

Performances in the bowl games – he went 2-4 -- were regularly perplexing, from the New Mexico Bowl clock-mismanagement bloopers in 2013 to the ineptitude against depleted Minnesota in 2016 to the wipeout by Michigan State in 2017.

Besides bowl availability, he had other assets, including a splashy new football-facilities building (engineered before his arrival) that his predecessors could only have dreamed about. You wonder what somebody like Mike Price thinks of Leach pulling down $4 million-plus to go to Mississippi State. Price, who took the Cougars to two Rose Bowls in five years, and who couldn’t squeeze upper-six-figures from WSU in 2002, three years after Washington introduced Rick Neuheisel at a mil per year.

That’s why slotting Leach in WSU’s pantheon of coaches is difficult. When he arrived in late 2011, he was signed for $2.2 million a year. His predecessor, the much-maligned Paul Wulff, made $600,000. You get what you pay for.

Yes, Leach was a character, like a lot of other former WSU coaches. But there the resemblance ended (along with the resources available). Cougar coaches of yore would every now and then rise up and swat down a superior Washington team in the Apple Cup – while often struggling against the rest of the schedule. Meanwhile, Leach managed fine against Oregon and Stanford, but his complete meltdowns against Washington will remain one of our state’s great mysteries. Leach’s unwillingness to do anything different – run a reverse, run a flea-flicker, hey, run the ball against a five-man front – was a total head-scratcher. It was almost as if doing such a thing would repudiate the honor of his system. So he lost, and he lost by the same damn scores every year – 38-13, 41-14, 35-14.

What occurred afterward revealed more about him. He came to cite that Washington’s players were higher-ranked recruits, which of course gave no credit to his bete noire, Washington defensive coach Jimmy Lake. Which, of course, blamed indirectly his own players, something he was good at.

Not to turn this treatise political, but he did it first. It’s no coincidence that Leach has voiced public support for Donald Trump. They study the same playbook. You never accept blame. You never apologize. It’s never your fault.

I read a comment recently about Leach being a great interview. What a crock. Yeah, if you’re seeking his opinion on Genghis Khan or Robespierre or flash mobs. If you cared to learn something about his WSU team or Pac-12 football, you were out of luck. All those meandering riffs merely enhanced his brand. And even on those occasions when he lambasted his own players, the outbursts only served to embellish the brand. You know, what a character, that Mike Leach.

Like wasabi, he was fine in small doses. Some of us suffered him in much larger quantities – I covered his first three seasons at WSU -- and were privy to times when he didn’t always treat people very well.

His last real act at WSU was his post-Apple Cup rant against veteran columnist John Blanchette in November, which was vintage Leach, a lamentable blot against WSU, and if he’d ever stopped to think about it, Leach himself. Predictably, he dived for cover under First Amendment protection, but this was never about his right to speak his mind. Of course he had that right. It was about whether it was proper and the right time and place to say what he did and how it would reflect on the school that was uh, after all, paying him.

So his reputation as a loose cannon grew. Early on, it was little indiscretions like regularly being late for post-game press conferences, and then it was introducing candidate Trump at a campaign rally, and then tweeting out a doctored video of former President Barack Obama. But Leach was generally winning games and his players were behaving and doing relatively well academically. Nobody ever seemed to try to harness him, and indeed, it was hard to tell if he had a boss. At the end, he was pulling down close to $4 million from WSU and pretty much doing as he pleased, and you wonder how that sat with people of influence around the school who might have been under the impression it was an academic institution first.

You might chuckle, but I think WSU may be a better job than Mississippi State. If it is, then I surmise that part of Mike Leach simply concluded he had worn out his welcome at WSU.

If so, I think he’s right.
#pac12 #GoCougs

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

So Gonzaga is No. 1? Again?


(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.
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There's magic in that Zags resume


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.
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UW would win a rematch with Zags by double digits?


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 ratings have seven other Pac-12 teams in the top 70.
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Gonzaga-Washington: Where's the snark?


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.
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Gonzaga's road map to Spokane Arena


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.
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