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Bud Withers' Blog

A Halloween stab at a Zags all-villain team ...


So awhile back, I ran across an item related to University of Arizona hoops. Shockingly, it had nothing to do with indictments, depositions or taped phone conversations. It was a Wildcats all-villain team – you know, a writer’s cast of scofflaws who had foiled Arizona’s appointed mission to victory through UA’s rich recent decades. Offhand, I can think of several – Jerry Tarkanian, Isaiah Thomas, Frank Kaminsky.

Well, if ‘Zona can have an all-villain team, then surely so can Gonzaga. I’m sure Hank Anderson, Adrian Buoncristiani and Dan Fitzgerald had their own personal bete noires, but this one will be focused on the last couple of decades at GU, since (a) that’s my timeframe of (relative) expertise, and (b) that’s when most of you began paying attention, anyway.

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First team

Randy Bennett – Bennett probably deserves to be MVP of this exercise, as the CEO of the outfit that jousts most regularly at a high level with the Zags. Think about this: When Duke plays North Carolina, you think of Coach K and Roy Williams, and you might not even be able to recall when the rivalry featured anybody else on the bench. Well, consider that the Saint Mary’s-GU series features two head coaches, Bennett and Mark Few, who have been going at it against each other a full THIRD longer than Krzyzewski and Williams – 48 games to 36. Few has a 37-11 record against Bennett, and yes, Zag fans love to twit Bennett for post-game blow-by handshakes and soft non-league schedules, but he deserves major props for carving out a fiefdom in Moraga. And that mammoth upset over GU in the ’19 WCC tournament left a mark.

Verne Harris – He’s recognized as one of the best officials around, but I don’t know what got into him the night Gonzaga played North Carolina for the national title in 2017. He was part of a crew that turned in an uneven (both ways) performance unbefitting the season’s climactic game. Zach Collins got to play 14 minutes before fouling out; I contend that if he’d been allowed to play 20, Gonzaga would have hung a banner.

Corey Belser – The former San Diego Torero was a defensive specialist who had unforgettable one-on-one duels with Adam Morrison. When they went at it, it was anything-goes, arm bars and half-nelsons, including rampant trash talk. When they lined up before the 2006 WCC tournament at Gonzaga, Morrison greeted Belser with: “It’s nice that your family could be here for your last game.” I wrote in "Glory Hounds" about Belser, who went on to coach (he’s head man of the national team in the country of Maldives) and he was well-spoken and charitable. “At the end of the day, I’ve always wanted Adam Morrison to be successful,” he told me, “kind of like a piece of me was in Adam.”

Omar Samhan – What would an all-villain team be without Samhan, the former Saint Mary’s center, and his repartee with GU students, in person and on the Interweb? He said things like, at least Saint Mary’s got to leave when it was done playing Gonzaga; the students had to stay in Spokane.

Luc Richard M’bah a Moute – Somebody has to answer for Gonzaga’s most excruciating, win-that-became-a-loss, roundhouse-to-the-gut defeat in history, right? There were several conspirators in UCLA’s 73-71 Sweet 16 victory over the Zags in the 2006 NCAA regionals, but the chief instigator was M’bah a Moute, who not only had 14 points and 10 rebounds, he scored the go-ahead basket in UCLA’s wild comeback (after Cedric Bozeman tipped the ball from J.P. Batista’s elevated grasp), and then raced downcourt and knocked the ball from Derek Raivio to prevent a potential go-ahead basket. The memory still aggrieves Zag fans.

Second team

Lorenzo Romar – It almost seems like piling on to include LoRo, a fine man who tapped out at Washington. But in 2006, he raised GU hackles by announcing a cessation of hostilities in the Zag-Husky series. A decade’s hiatus didn’t do much for Romar or the UW, which, after his cease-fire proclamation, lost by 20, 16 and 27 to the Zags. Exiled by Washington in 2017, Romar has set up shop in a second run at Pepperdine.

Bronson Kaufusi – Yes, Kaufusi’s annoyance was brief for Gonzaga fans – just 20 games for Brigham Young in the 2012-13 season. But why did he have to unleash his 6-6, 280-pound self – a body headed to an NFL defensive-end job, currently with the Jets – on the innocents of the WCC? Kaufusi fouled 28 times in 128 minutes that year – that’s a lot – and at times, he seemed more hell-bent on wreaking destruction than making baskets. Today, there are extended-family Kaufusis all over the BYU map, three of them on the 2019 football roster. Side note: Bronson Kaufusi’s mother Michelle is the mayor of Provo.

Ron Baker – We hate to single out Baker, an earnest, hustling off-guard. But there has to be a culprit for one of Gonzaga’s most devastating losses, the 76-70 defeat as a No. 1 seed to Wichita State back in 2013, and Baker was as culpable as anybody, with 16 points, 6 rebounds, 4 assists and 4 of 6 on three-point shots. The Zags had scrapped back from a 13-point first-half deficit to lead 49-41, at which point the staggered Shockers called timeout. Baker hit a three and the battle was rejoined. Survive that game, and Gonzaga had a great path – LaSalle and Ohio State – to get to a Final Four four years before it first happened.

Rex Walters – The former San Francisco coach seemed to have a way of getting under the skin of Zag fans – and vice versa. Some of that owed to USF’s three straight home wins against Gonzaga from 2010-12, the first two in overtime, the third by a point, in often-bizarre circumstances. You could say Walters fought the Dons job to a standstill; when he got fired in 2016, he had a 127-127 record at the school. Since then, he’s been on the move, working as Grand Rapids Drive coach – that’s the Detroit Pistons G League team – then an assistant with the Pistons, an aide to Eric Musselman at Nevada, and he’s currently assisting Danny Manning at Wake Forest.

Matthew Dellavedova – Lot of Saint Mary’s representation here, but why not? Ol’ Mouthpiece was a persistent thorn in GU’s side before he landed in the NBA.

Honorable Mention

Matt Mooney – Texas Tech was the team that denied the Zags a second Final Four last March, and Mooney, a double transfer, had more to do with it than anybody, with 17 points, five assists and three steals.

John Clougherty, Curtis Shaw and Kerry Sitton – John Clougherty was one of the game’s most respected officials, especially late in the 20th century, doing 12 Final Fours. Shaw worked six, including every one from 2006 to 2010. But if you asked Zag coaches which of their NCAA games they feel were most affected by officials, they’d recall the 2004 second-round blowout at Seattle’s KeyArena against Nevada. Ronny Turiaf and Cory Violette figured to be the two-headed “big” attack the Wolf Pack couldn’t contain, but Turiaf was whistled for his third foul with 11:08 left in the first half, and played a mere 15 minutes, scoring 13 points. Violette told me in 2015, “If you go back and watch it, it’d really make you mad. Turiaf had two phantom fouls.”

Jimmer – Enough said. He had 34 points the day BYU torched Gonzaga out of the 2011 tournament in the second round in Denver. To this day, I’ve never seen a team – the Cougars – that looked more confident in warmups.

Lee Fowler – A beer on me at Jack and Dan’s if you can identify this man. OK, Fowler was the athletic director at North Carolina State and chairman of the NCAA basketball committee in 2002, when Gonzaga, expecting a seed in the 3-5 range, got assigned a No. 6, and worse, was sent to high-altitude Albuquerque to take on 11th-seeded Wyoming. After three introductory years of success in the tournament, this was the year of lost innocence for the Zags; not only was their seeding disappointment palpable, they fell to the Cowboys in an upset – one of just three first-round exits in the 21-season streak of NCAA appearances.

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Zags in the cross-hairs of the NIL issue


Already, on the subject of college athletics’ percolating name-image-and-likeness issue, Gonzaga occupied a position in the sporting landscape that was distinct, perhaps unique (much more on that later).

Then this week, GU basketball coach Mark Few threw a spotlight onto the topic in his interview with writer/analyst Jeff Goodman, saying it was “totally disappointing and disgusting” that the matter should have fallen into the hands of the California state legislature and governor Gavin Newsom, in the form of the Fair Pay to Play Act to take effect in 2023.

It was an odd intro into saying that he indeed supports athletes being able to profit on the NIL front, with a means to regulate it and somehow ensure a level playing field. Perhaps the most egregious error in his foray into “grandstanding” politicians is, it’s beside the point. What matters here is that the NIL issue is upon us and it deserves to be. The NCAA’s 19-person working group on the matter is due to deliver proposals to the NCAA board of governors later this month.

And a final word on “grandstanding”: The NCAA operates at about the same template as major league baseball playoff games – slow, slower and slowest. If it takes elected officials to apply a kick in the butt to college athletics’ august governing body, so be it.

But to Gonzaga’s stake on the proper landing place for the NIL debate: Two elements are at work that make GU’s station particularly intriguing.

One is the laser focus in Spokane on Gonzaga basketball, which has been known as the pro team in the city. We might be about to find out how fitting that description is.

The point has been made that a lot fewer athletes are going to be impacted by Fair Pay to Play than the doomsayers believe. Turning the example to my side of the state, think about the University of Washington football team of a year ago, one that won the Pac-12 and played in the Rose Bowl. The quarterback of any team is always a likely candidate (although in promoting him, you wouldn’t want to show any of Jake Browning’s turn-and-run-the-other-way videos against a pass rush). Myles Gaskin was a 5,000-yard career rusher who would have been worthy. But who else? Maybe one or two guys.

On the other hand, consider Gonzaga’s wildly popular outfit of 2018-19, with Brandon Clarke, Rui Hachimura, Josh Perkins, et al. It wouldn’t be unrealistic to envision four or five players hooking some type of endorsement deal in Spokane – although those last two words are pivotal. A city of about 200,000 proper has only so many business and corporate opportunities. Still, as Gonzaga athletic director Mike Roth points out, wouldn’t a guy nicknamed “Snacks” (Zach Norvell) have a great opportunity to cash in?

Or think about the cult-hero status Gonzaga’s last man off the bench attains (paging Rem Bakamus). It wouldn’t be out of the question that some sandwich shop enlists him to swear by its cold cuts. The pay obviously would be modest, yet it would need to be accounted for.

Did somebody say Rui? Or in past years, Domas Sabonis? Ronny Turiaf? Roth says of Hachimura, a folk hero in Japan, “Last year his endorsement deal probably would exceed his first year’s NBA salary. All you had to do was come to a post-game press conference. There were 20 media outlets in Japan there.”

Yeah, Sabonis might have snared a contract with a local car dealership. But he might have also done well in his homeland of Lithuania, especially as the son of Arvydas Sabonis. No doubt there are other overseas Zags who might cash in. (And an aside: Imagine, more than a decade ago, how Adam Morrison, a local kid with a national following, could have made out.)

Over the phone, I could almost hear Roth shuddering.

“Something’s going to change, there’s no doubt in my mind,” he says. “I’m a big fan of, we need to get more to our student-athletes. It’s been that way before we started cost-of-attendance (the NCAA upgrade that a few years back brought scholarships in line with actual costs). But I’ve never been in favor of pushing the envelope to professionalize. I don’t want to make the student-athlete an employee or anything like that. I don’t know how you capitalize on name-image-likeness without becoming a professional.”

Roth scoffs at the notion that the star quarterback is going to get in his car and drive out to the local auto dealership to pitch his value. Instead, he fears, the recruiting visit in the prospect’s living room “will include an agent. The question won’t be what major or what the schedule looks like or the shoes you’re wearing, but how much you’re guaranteeing the son or daughter in name-image-and-likeness at your institution.”

The debate sparks a recollection. Back in the ’70s and ‘80s, schools going rogue with the NCAA rule book had boosters who would hire the star halfback, and he’d make big bucks for turning on the automatic sprinkler system and turning it off on his way home from the golf course. Then two things happened: The NCAA eventually cut back on allowing jobs, and schedules in most college sports got so jammed year-round, holding a job was out of the question anyway.

Name-image-likeness revisits this. The athlete, by lending his name, abets the business enterprise in the same general manner as he would if he were working in the company’s warehouse. And now the NCAA has to make it all work.

Is it a given that NCAA enforcement must increase, that schools’ compliance staffs will be bumped up?

“Either it’s increase compliance, or you do away with compliance,” Roth says. “You just say, ‘Why bother?’ “

One model likely to get some run is that of requiring athletes to put endorsement gains in a trust fund that can’t be accessed until he/she leaves college. Then there’s the notion of putting a cap on what athletes can earn. Those are concepts that, if enacted, seem certain to find their way into a courtroom.

Lots of imponderables. You could imagine this working group working overtime.

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Zags, NCAA put heads together on freshman Ballo

Oumar Ballo, Gonzaga's 6-foot-10, 245-pound freshman center from Mali -- nicknamed "Baby Shaq" -- hasn't yet been declared eligible for the 2019-20 season, as the Zags and the NCAA assess his academic years prior to his enrollment at GU late this summer.

"We're still working on that," GU athletic director Mike Roth said Friday. "He's here, he's enrolled, he's practicing, now it's just a matter of, let's figure this last piece out. Eventually, no matter what, he'll be eligible. The question is when. Is it next week, or after the semester [which ends in December], or is it after the season?"

Ballo spent part of his high school years at a British private school in Spain, Later, he moved to the NBA Training Academy Latin America in Mexico City, There, he obtained his high school diploma.

Ballo turned 17 only in July. In the summer of 2018, he averaged 21 points and 17 rebounds at the FIBA Under-17 World Cup, and in the summer of '19, helped Mali to a second-place finish behind the U.S. in the FIBA Under-19 World Cup, leading all rebounders with an average of 11.8. rated Ballo a five-star prospect and 247 Sports assigned him four stars.

"He's going to be special," said GU assistant coach Roger Powell.

It's not unlikely that Ballo's playing time would be limited in 2019-20 in any case. GU coaches have described him as being raw -- as well as young -- and the Zags' strength this season appears to be in the frontcourt.
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The Zags in the era of free agency

A longtime friend has expressed to me his angst over the here-today-gone-tomorrow nature of college athletes, compared to, you know, the good old days. He’s a Cal guy who long ago appreciated the stability of a program that won the Bears an NCAA basketball championship in 1959.

Guys came, they stayed, they were there long enough to be part of the fabric of the university. Freshmen were ineligible, the process was measured, guys paid their dues, they stuck together to form unbreakable bonds. No transfer portal then. And mostly, no transfers.

My old friend squirmed when Jordan Mathews opted out of Cal for Gonzaga in 2016-17, and no doubt was further unnerved when Mathews hit, what, maybe the most important shot (at least No. 2, anyway) in GU history to beat West Virginia in the NCAAs.

I feel his pain. As a kid, my team was the Cincinnati Reds, and back then, rosters usually changed only slightly year-to-year. But you held out hope doggedly, and when one season it all came together, the joy was unmatched.

So there were the Zags, in April adrift without proven guards for 2019-20. And two months later, here came grad transfers Admon Gilder and Ryan Woolridge, from Texas A&M and North Texas, respectively. Magically, a new backcourt.

Is this what James Naismith intended? Phog Allen? Henry Iba?

One of the side benefits – a massive one – in Gonzaga’s rise over a generation is that it flipped its station in life from college basketball have-not to “have.” So instead of being the victimized mid-major seeing its best players walk out the door, it’s been scoring major pieces for its roster in players like Byron Wesley, Mathews and Geno Crandall.

It’s occurred to me: What if the grad transfer rule had been in effect when Gonzaga began turning the ship 20 years ago? Might we have seen Matt Santangelo bolt the program for, say, a Pac-10 school? Could the whole Gonzaga aria have been muted before it ever broke out in song?

“Personally, I was trying to play in the NBA,” Santangelo told me. “I probably would have reflected on that: Hey, this is my last year, these are the knocks on me, and if I go to a bigger school, this is a way (to increase visibility).”

Still, he concedes, “There weren’t very many schools doing much better than what we were doing. Looking back, I would never ever think to trade that experience.”

I reached out to Santangelo and Dan Dickau, a couple of Gonzaga's best guards, to pick their brains on the grad-transfer phenomenon. Dickau admits to being conflicted over it, seeing the damage it causes lower-level programs.

“You look at Geno Crandall’s situation, and he was their everything at North Dakota for three years,” he says. “You take him off and all of a sudden, they’re not that good anymore. I do like it because it’s helped Gonzaga – absolutely, without a doubt.

“The rule is what it is. If these student-athletes buckle down and graduate early, why not make the most of it? I see both sides.”

As GU’s opening salvo toward renown played out a generation ago, it seems unlikely that either Santangelo or Dickau would have left Gonzaga early.
Santangelo was a junior on the 1999 team that crashed the Elite Eight. Having pushed Connecticut in the game to get to a Final Four, with key pieces returning, the Zags were in get-back-here mode the next season. Santangelo might have perceived a greater individual showcase out there, but suddenly, Gonzaga had carved out a platform of its own.

By the time Dickau came along from Washington, GU was established. Or at least, the foundation was in. His junior year was the third straight Sweet 16 season, so there was ample motivation to stay and see how far Gonzaga might take this thing.

Santangelo mentions Quentin Hall, the sparkplug senior on the 1999 team, but adds, “It would have been hard to fathom a better situation somewhere (after 1998). For us, we were such under-the-radar overachievers. We could barely describe what was happening to us, let alone dream bigger. We were all shocked.”

It’s possible that Gonzaga’s noted chemistry, then and now, has curbed egress to other programs. GU has been a good reason to be careful what you wish for.

Back to the bigger picture: The grad transfer rule was imperiled in the spring, when a proposed NCAA rule change would have required schools to commit a scholarship to such players for two years unless the player completed the graduate program in one year (which isn’t happening very often). The proposed change fell flat.

It’s the way of the world, folks. It’s a form of free agency, and in case you hadn’t noticed, NBA players are conspiring to form future champions, and Bryce Harper gets signed for $330 million by the Phillies (why, I’m not sure, but that’s another story).

Yes, it was wonderful to pull for the Reds in the days of Frank Robinson, Vada Pinson and Gus Bell, and as a fan, you fought the good fight, learning to live with the valleys while savoring the peaks. It was all a noble exercise, until you realized those guys were earning eight or 10 grand a year and it was the owners making out while the players were chained to their franchises.

At the college level, increased freedom is the watchword these days. Seemingly every decision made is a nod to the student-athlete, and it’s hard to say that’s a bad thing.

Santangelo can even rationalize the hurt that comes to mid-majors when they lose a player like Crandall.

“What’s the expression? He gave at the office,” Santangelo says. “He did a lot to build that program up. There’s a sense of fair trade, even. He left the program in a better place than where he found it.”

As good as the grad transfer trend has been to GU, you can easily make the case it kept Gonzaga out of a second Final Four a few months ago.

When the Zags met Texas Tech in the Elite Eight, Matt Mooney had 17 points and five assists for the Red Raiders, who advanced. He was a grad transfer from South Dakota. Tariq Owens, a grad transfer from St. John’s, had nine points, seven rebounds and three blocks.

Meanwhile, Crandall played eight scoreless minutes. He never quite seemed to be what he might have been at Gonzaga, probably owing to his late arrival.

Now come Admon Gilder and Ryan Woolridge, the insta-backcourt, a major part of Gonzaga’s makeover.

“It is a makeover,” agreed Dickau. “But you know what? Coach (Mark) Few has done a masterful job remaking rosters. I don’t think he gets enough credit for that.”

And these days, the remaking comes fast and furious.
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First Zag game I covered? Pull up a chair . . .

I was there at KeyArena for the “launch” of Gonzaga basketball in 1999. Sat courtside in Lahaina for the triple-overtime screamer against Michigan State in ’05, probably the best game I ever covered. Bore witness to many of the GU highs as well as the heartbreaks.

But maybe it’s the very first time I covered a Gonzaga basketball game that I’ll remember the most – not for anything the Zags or their opponent did, but just for . . . the night.

(Side note: I’d love to be able to tell you which school Jalen Suggs is going to choose or how much of a force Oumar Ballo is going to be, but failing that, this is what you get in this space in the dead of July, from a waiting area while a Subaru Forester is being serviced.)

I figure I probably saw Gonzaga live a couple or three times in the late ‘60s as an undergrad at Washington State. But as a senior, it was my privilege to “string” WSU home football and basketball games for the Seattle Times.

That brought me to Dec. 1, 1969, the date not only of the season opener for WSU and Gonzaga at Bohler Gym, but also a small slice – little-remembered and roundly unlamented, I suspect – of Americana.

This was near the height of the Vietnam War. Protests raged in the U.S. Students got “2-S” deferments while enrolled, but once out of school, they were fair game for the Selection Service System and the military draft.

Both to try to equalize an inherently uneven playing field and to ramp up numbers to support the war effort, Congress passed HR 14001, a bill proposed by the Nixon Administration that included a draft-lottery system, the first of which would affect those born between 1944-1950. Later lotteries – and they lasted only until the draft was abolished in 1973 – targeted 19-year-olds.

In mid-November, Defense Secretary Melvin Laird stipulated that once the bill was passed, the lottery would take place within 45 days. A voice vote in the Senate completed passage on Nov. 19, 1969.

The Selective Service chose Monday, Dec. 1 for the event, which took place at its Washington headquarters. It didn’t appear to give a lot of thought to the fact the Cougars and Zags were opening the basketball season that night.

I probably don’t need to underscore here how momentous the night was for millions of people who would be draft-eligible in 1970. By the most arbitrary of circumstances, your first post-college experience could be toting a rifle in the Mekong Delta, with all the ominous and life-altering implications therein.

The lottery was televised nationally. Memory says the mechanics of it were something like today’s NBA draft lottery. Some 366 draft capsules containing a year’s dates were placed in a deep glass container and pulled out, one-by-one.

It must have started at 4 or 4:30 p.m. Pacific time; I recall seeing the early stages. But then I had to be somewhere – Bohler Gym, for the GU-WSU freshman game.

The varsity game approached. A friend or two came by my station near courtside to compare notes on what numbers we’d gotten. I knew nothing. I also knew the last thing I wanted was to have somebody come up and tell me my number.

Of course, this wasn’t Generation Z. Think of it: No phones, no texts, no quick Google search to ferret out your lottery number in a moment’s break during a timeout. You could go hours upon hours blissfully (if edgily) unaware of where in the queue your capsule was grabbed.

I batted out an 11-paragraph story on that game, referring to “the tall Spokane team, at times sporting a front line of three 6-foot, 8-inch players.” GU’s skid toward an 85-69 defeat was greased by an alarming 21 turnovers in the first half. The Zags would make 28 before it was over, beating their total of field goals by one.

Gonzaga was led by the 15 points apiece of big guys Bill Quigg and Blaine Bundy. Jim Meredith, a productive Montanan, had 19 for WSU’s Marv Harshman in Harsh’s penultimate season at WSU.

Hank Anderson coached the Zags, who went 10-16 that year. The Cougars went 19-7, Harshman’s best record in 13 seasons at WSU, and tied for second behind UCLA in the Pac-8. Today, that team is about a No. 6 seed in the NCAA tournament. Not then.

They had announced that lottery results would be posted at a couple of locations on campus. One was at Arts Hall (renamed Murrow Hall in the 1970s).

I drove up the hill. By now it was well past 11 p.m. The campus was quiet, Arts Hall deserted. There, on a stairway landing, were the lottery results, illuminated dimly by an overhead light.

I scanned down to April 20 (some carefree kids from San Rafael High would one day codify my birthday). There it was: No. 345. The Selective Service system would get down through No. 195 in 1970.

I headed downtown to Rico’s, bought a six-pack of Lucky Lager, and like Jim Valvano, looked for somebody to party with. Like him, I couldn’t find anybody. I drove back to the apartment and drank in the darkness, no gloating, just grateful.
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The Zags' west-side story: It's a head-scratcher

This blog is coming to you courtesy of the mysteries of computer technology, 2019. Specifically, you’re reading it now after (a) I lost some computerized notes awhile back, and (b) I found them the other day. I’m not especially tech-savvy – OK, not at all – but for the life of me, not only do I not know how I lost the notes, I don’t know how I found them.

But there they were, background on a subject I’ve always seen as fascinating – Gonzaga’s struggles penetrating the consciousness of the west side of the state of Washington. Despite the 21 straight NCAA tournaments. Despite the 11 straight seasons of winning in the NCAA tournament. Despite five straight Sweet 16s and three Elite Eights among those five.

Here’s how I perceive it: Against all odds, Gonzaga hoops occupies a bigger place in the psyche of fans two or three time zones away than it does in the world of the fan-but-not-a-GU-fan west of the Cascades. Or maybe what I’m feeling is the notion that a basketball follower in Indiana or Pennsylvania probably envisions Zag hoops as being a bigger deal along the I-5 corridor than I sense that it is.

Recruiting remains a challenge in that sector, and there's precious little discussion of Gonzaga hoops on the airwaves, whether it's good times or bad at Washington.

I wrote about this in some detail in “Glory Hounds.” But what revived the subject last season was the what’s-wrong-with-this-picture juxtaposition of two east-side Division I hoops programs in the Seattle radio market.

One was Washington State, which was slogging through an 11-21 season, and which, for the love of Isaac Fontaine, hasn’t won a game in the Pac-12 conference tournament in a decade.

And the Cougars were broadcast on 710 ESPN in Seattle, a 50,000-watt station that, even before its transformation to all-sports radio a decade ago, was one of the region’s heavyweights.

Because of WSU’s tie-in with 710 ESPN, you were able last winter to pick up the Cougars’ game at Stanford, in which they trailed 52-15 at the half to a club that finished with a losing record.

Then there are the Zags, who are on KIXI in Seattle, a retro-music station that cuts power at night. In fact, it cuts power so much that, despite the fact I live about 20 miles from Seattle, the signal fades and weaves and is sometimes unintelligible. If you want to pick up a coach’s post-game radio comments, it can be difficult.

Let’s acknowledge a couple of things: First, there are a lot more WSU alums in the Seattle area than Gonzaga alums. Second, it’s questionable how many fans of either ilk follow their team on a radio station. Still, there are times when you’re in your car, say, and that’s the stop-gap.

As it happens, there’s a sub-plot.

In essence, when you hear the Cougars on 710 ESPN, it’s an infomercial. Because WSU is footing the bill.

Let’s go back in time.

Not so long ago, like 20-25 years ago, the arrangement for carriage of colleges’ athletic teams went like this: Stations bid for the rights, which went to the highest bidder, and then the station’s salesmen sold the advertising to recoup the investment. In Seattle, Washington football always commanded a jaw-dropping number, sometimes tops in the nation, owing to the excellence of the program and the fact that the UW held a major place in the region’s sporting consciousness despite all the pro competition.

Then things changed, as multimedia companies like IMG College and Learfield set up shop. They represented schools and negotiated with stations for a broader-based contract that includes things like stadium and arena advertising. (Those two entities merged several months ago.)

A WSU spokesman forwarded details of the school’s arrangement with 710 ESPN. The Cougars are in the middle of a three-year contract that requires them to pay $119,000 annually to have 710 broadcast all football and men’s basketball games. Some $40,000 of that commitment annually is picked up by IMG.

All I can envision is a station executive at 710 gritting his teeth for two hours as the WSU basketball team is losing to Montana State. Or as the Ernie Kent coach’s show is airing (that’s part of the deal, too.)

One of those execs is Dave Pridemore, and I asked him if it would be a non-starter to split football and basketball (opening a spot, ostensibly, for GU basketball) since WSU football prospers and basketball struggles mightily. Via e-mail, he responded: “It’s a fair question, but if ‘struggling’ programs/teams/clubs were a criteria for our play-by-play partnerships, since 2000 and up until now we would have no Seahawks, no Mariners, no Huskies nor Cougars on our broadcast platforms . . . “

OK, but the more cogent reason is that in such industry deals, it would be highly unusual to make football and basketball separate entities. As Pridemore acknowledges, “IMG understandably won’t separate them and we’ve never asked . . . so no room on 710 for GU.”

Mark Livingston, general manager for Gonzaga’s Sports Properties – the Learfield/IMG arm of the department – confirms that’s industry custom, saying, “When I talk to my peers at IMG, I haven’t talked to anybody that’s broken it up.”

Indeed, another radio exec says in some negotiations, Learfield/IMG will even attempt to bundle other programs, like women's basketball and baseball, with football and basketball.

Any sort of apples-to-apples comparison is impossible here, because GU, as a private institution, doesn’t release its contract terms. And conceptually, the obvious driver for 710 ESPN is football, which Gonzaga doesn’t offer. As Livingston puts it, “If I’m at WSU and I’m writing them a six-figure check (annually), you’re taking both.”

Is $119,000 annually a substantial check in the realm of such deals? “Yeah, it is,” replied Livingston.

So, for Gonzaga, the question is: How badly do you want your games aired on a major player in the market? “Currently,” Livingston says, “we are not writing a check to be on the airwaves. Some schools do and some don’t.”

I’m making the assumption that’s simple cost/benefit math – that the Zags aren’t convinced there’s enough to be gained from buying the exposure.

That may merely reflect the difficulty in penetrating a large market. Says Livingston, “It is tough in the major markets. These markets are really tough to crack.”

He says some schools in those markets have to satisfy themselves with getting basketball games streamed because the demand is low. “You’re not going to bump Jim Rome or Rush Limbaugh or somebody like that to get on the air (in a major market),” Livingston says.

I ran the phenomenon by Rich Moore, the station manager at KJR in Seattle, another all-sports station that might seem a likely candidate to carry GU.

Said Moore, “I mean, I would be interested . . . it’s hard with college basketball. The games are so inconsistent time-wise, and late at night. They’re all on TV for the most part now. The value is not what you think it might be . . . I don’t know how big the audience is on this side of the mountains for Gonzaga basketball.”

There’s also the fact that a lot of GU basketball games are at 6 p.m., which is a nice TV slot, but an invasion of the important afternoon-drive radio window.

“We would probably lose money if we carried the games,” Moore says.

Meanwhile, Mike Roth, the athletic director, takes a generally beatific view of the west-side radio situation. He remembers, pre-streak, meeting with individual radio stations to plead Gonzaga’s case, trying to wring every inch of turf possible.

Now, he says, “We really like the fact people can get the games throughout the state of Washington in your car.” (And, to be precise, apps allow you to avoid the flighty nature of night-time radio signals.)

Roth points to other developments that have raised Gonzaga’s profile on the west side, like the donation by late philanthropist Myrtle Woldson of some prime downtown-Seattle real estate, being leased to provide a steady source of income for the school.

Of course, there’s the Battle in Seattle, which played to generally popular houses at KeyArena – but which is on hold at least until the redo of the facility is complete in a couple of years.

“Compared to where we were in ’95, ’96, ’97, to where we are today, it’s light-years different,” Roth says. “I’m not sure how many people on the west side knew we existed. Now every game we play is on TV. Now, with the ability of streaming, people can watch us all over the place.”

Let’s not overstate the point here. If you asked 100 Gonzaga fans, 100 would probably tell you the ability to see their team on TV far outstrips any concerns about radio. And that’s fully understandable.

It may even be that west-side radio is so distant on the priority list of GU marketers, it’s not even back-burner. Perhaps, in the sweep of media considerations, it's just an accessory, like your belt or pocket square.

So be it. But last winter, the Zags were a team capable of winning a national championship. That, and the media market on the far side of their own state, remain frontiers yet to conquer.

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Through those hazy spring skies, there's Huskies-Zags


Only the most degenerate among us know this is possible, but it’s true: A college-football fan can, if he’s a risk-taker, get down a bet this summer in some Nevada casinos on any game on his favorite team’s 2019 schedule. You can, for instance, bet on the Apple Cup, with whatever (highly speculative) odds are listed.

Of course, such a bet is fraught with uncertainty, about injuries, about team development, about any number of factors that would affect the line if it were instead the next game. To continue with the Apple Cup example, at this time a year ago you would have had no way to forecast the wonders of Gardner Minshew, or even count on him being named the WSU starting quarterback.

All of this is a roundabout way of getting to today’s treatise: If you could do this in college basketball, what sort of line would you post today on Gonzaga’s visit to Washington?

The spring storm blew through, figuratively, and what’s left at either place is hardly recognizable.

Put it this way: Last December, the Zags escaped with an 81-79 win over Washington on Rui Hachimura’s last-second jumper. In the last 12 minutes of that game, the only points scored by players returning to either team are Corey Kispert’s five (on a three and a couple of free throws) for Gonzaga and Sam Timmins’ layup for Washington. The rest of it – gonzo.

At Washington, that means the top four scorers, the top four rebounders and the top four assist guys have left. Gonzaga loses, as early entries to the NBA draft, Hachimura, Brandon Clarke and Zach Norvell, plus seniors Josh Perkins, Geno Crandall (actually, he was a grad transfer) and Jeremy Jones. Among those six guys are 70.6 points of the 87.7 averaged by the Zags last year.

Right here, we’ll stipulate that there’s no reason for Zag fans to obsess over Washington. A loss to the Huskies surely wouldn’t be a season-breaker. But there’s at least a modicum of interest in them, owing to proximity, GU’s recent dominance of the series, and the fact, as I wrote in “Glory Hounds,” Mark Few was doing some faint murmuring a few years ago about discontinuing the series because of the UW’s lagging competitiveness in the final stretches of the Lorenzo Romar era, something I never got on board with.

The most screaming unknown at both programs is who’s going to play guard. Quade Green, a five-star transfer from Kentucky, gets eligible for Washington only midway through the season, presumably after the UW-Zags game. That means the most obvious candidates in the backcourt are Elijah Hardy, who played all of 18 minutes last season, and a couple of freshmen.

Gonzaga would appear to be better positioned in the backcourt, but it’s not exactly rock-solid. There are holdovers Joel Ayayi and Greg Foster, neither of whose play has jumped up and shouted, “I should be getting more run, dammit!” Fortunately, there’s Texas A&M grad transfer Admon Gilder, and there’s the provocative freshman, Brock Ravet. Still undecided is USC grad transfer Derryck Thornton. Could Kispert steal some minutes as an off-guard in a pinch?

The buzz at both schools is the frontcourt. Washington has attracted two five-star studs in Isaiah Stewart and Jaden McDaniels. They’re dancing with the devil again on Montlake (not that Few wouldn’t do precisely the same thing). Under Romar, the Huskies were famously unsuccessful with translating one-and-done talent to, uh, success on the floor – from Spencer Hawes to Tony Wroten to DeJounte Murray to Marquese Chriss to Markelle Fultz.

(Upon McDaniels’ announcement for the UW, a Seattle talk-radio host said approvingly, “Build a fence around the state.” Hmm. Gonzaga might have something to say about that, since both Ravet and Anton Watson are rated top-100 nationally. But forgive him the slip of the tongue; the same jock awhile back acknowledged Gonzaga as one of the great stories of all-time.)

Not that GU doesn’t have a front-court bounty incoming as well, from Watson to Drew Timme to a couple of others.

The X-factor in this hazy equation is Killian Tillie, who has played 1,599 minutes at Gonzaga; started 35 games as a sophomore; has never shot worse than 50 percent in three seasons; and has never hit less than .438 on three-pointers. He’s the best player on the floor in this matchup, if the Zags can just get him out there healthy. Not to be forgotten is Filip Petrusev, who played well against Washington last December before Killie’s return from injury pushed him to the back burner. (Huskies will counter that they have a couple of forecourt pieces in Nahziah Carter and Hameir Wright.)

Have to say, I’m surprised at the loftiness of some forecasts for Gonzaga, which reflect the Zags’ staccato consistency in recent years. Not that it can’t happen, just that it would need to happen with a roster never so dramatically flipped since . . . since when? Athlon just pegged Gonzaga No. 9.’s Jeff Goodman puts GU 12th.

So many imponderables. That mythical betting line? I’ll give Washington the obligatory home-court points and call it Gonzaga minus one. Without a shred of conviction.

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Zags flying in college hoops' turbulent skies

On the Saturday morning of Bloomsday weekend, with the spring sun glorious, we breakfasted at Chaps, Celeste Shaw’s terrific hangout off State Rt. 195 just south of Spokane. Farmhouse feel, pastries to die for, and an overall good vibe – the place never disappoints.

That fact apparently isn’t lost on the Gonzaga basketball staff, which regularly brings GU recruits there. On this day, Admon Gilder, the transfer guard from Texas A&M, was in the house with the rest of the Zag staff as part of his visit to Spokane, and you know what happened a day or so later.

“Every time they bring a recruit here, he commits,” Celeste said, between busing outdoor tables.

Mark Few, the head coach, happened by and half-lamented how the seasons have been turned upside down. Used to be, April and May were kick-back times for coaches. Now, he said, spring is the most topsy-turvy time of the year, one that requires constant monitoring and decisions on the fly about transfers and roster-shaping.

“During the season,” he said, drawing contrast, “you get into a rhythm.”

As Few spoke, the Zags had no fewer than five players who had plunged into the NBA draft or evaluation process. Since then, Zach Norvell has said he’s full-speed ahead with it, and it wouldn’t be a shock if Killian Tillie, albeit limited by injury, goes forward as well. So they could lose four players to early entries, a Duke- or Kentucky-sized attrition. You hope Admon Gilder knows this is what he signed up for.

I called Fran Fraschilla, the ESPN analyst and sometimes Sirius radio host, for a read on Gilder. They’re both from Dallas.

“He’s a combo guard,” Fraschilla said. “More of a scorer than a playmaker. But that’s never bothered the Zags.”

One of Fraschilla’s specialties is evaluating overseas talent for ESPN, so I asked him about three GU recruits for 2019-20: 6-10 Oumer Ballo of Mali, 6-10 Russian Pavel Zakharov and 6-7 Lithuanian Martynas Arlauskas.

“The guy with the most upside is probably Ballo,” Fraschilla said. “A big monster, a baby Shaq. Very athletic, strong, raw, but has a chance to be very good. Zakharov is different, a very agile, young guy who’s already been acclimated to the States because of Montverde (Academy). Zakharov is athletic and agile but also in need of physical maturity, the other guy (Ballo) is physically mature but in need of skill development.”

Of Arlauskas, Fraschilla said, “I don’t know as much about him. If I were in the States, I’d probably give him a three-star. Not a super athlete, but a tough, hard-nosed player.”

This will be one of Few’s greatest challenges yet. He has to account for the loss of three or four veteran studs, with the backdrop of all those streaks – the 21 straight years of making the NCAA tournament, the 11 straight first-round successes, the Sweet 16s five years running.

Theres a yin and yang to it all. Gonzaga is attracting – and losing early -- guys like Rui Hachimura and Brandon Clarke because it has entered a new realm in college basketball. (What was it Fraschilla called GU, “near-elite”?)

On the other hand, that elevated status confers immediate gravitas on the grad transfer market. Ask yourself: Would Gonzaga have been able to pluck a guy like Gilder – a double-figures scorer from a Power Six school – eight or 10 years ago?

Gonzaga is now running in the fastest lane. It’s both treacherous and exciting. It seems like a tightrope time for college basketball, underscored by John Beilein’s exit from Michigan to the Cleveland Cavaliers, accompanied by some reported unease with the constant roster churn he was seeing.

Maybe I’m misreading, but the trend, even among the marginal, is toward cutting college classes and taking a flyer on the NBA draft. Not very long ago, the operative guideline was: If you can get the guaranteed first-round money, you go. If not, you stay. Now, players like Norvell and Jaylen Nowell of Washington, widely projected as sub-first-round talents, are poised to stay in the draft.

Sam Vecenie of The Athletic wrote last week that the wide-open nature of this draft pool is leading more collegians to take a shot at it. Fraschilla also points to the G League’s improved salaries and affiliations with NBA teams as an avenue that’s become more enticing for those on the fence.

“The fact you can basically get pro coaching, you’re in a pro system and your team is connected to an NBA franchise allows you to be as prepared for the NBA as if you had played another year of college,” Fraschilla says. “That has changed over the last five years.”

All this comes in an era when the NCAA’s amateurism model has never been more under scrutiny. If you’re that close to making an NBA roster, and you can’t help but notice Damian Lillard and Kawhi Leonard downing climactic shots in the playoffs, you might be persuaded that you can do this, too, and oh yeah, get paid for it.

Meanwhile, the bulldozing of Gonzaga’s roster continues. Unlike Beilein, at least Mark Few isn’t going anywhere.
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Zags lament Texas Tech, and a lot of other things

When Gonzaga and Texas Tech advanced to the Elite Eight the other night, my mind turned to, of all people, Erroll Knight. The Zags were going to be facing a rangy, slashing off-guard in Jarrett Culver, and didn’t really have an obvious defensive antidote, somebody like Knight.

As it happened, Knight was a key figure the last time GU played Texas Tech in the tournament, in the second round in 2005 in Tucson. The 6-6 transfer from Washington went 7 for 8 from the field for 14 points, and the Zags raced to a 13-point lead early in the second half against a Bob Knight-coached team. Ultimately, GU didn’t look inside enough – it had J.P. Batista and Ronny Turiaf and a 44-32 rebounding advantage that day – and Tech scrambled back and won, 71-69.

Texas Tech. In the last 15 years, the Zags have beaten Duke, North Carolina, Indiana and Michigan State, national-championship programs all. For some reason, Texas Tech is beyond them. They also lost a game in the 2008 Great Alaska Shootout to the Red Raiders, just a couple of months before Bob Knight retired. So it’s 0-3 all-time.

Turned out, Gonzaga did fine with Jarrett Culver. It was a lot of other people who beat the Zags, including themselves. Some thoughts:

-- The pace was Texas Tech’s, except for some flashes by Gonzaga in the first half, and the Zags never seemed particularly comfortable with it. The controlled tempo seems especially troublesome to Zach Norvell, who was 1 of 11 against Saint Mary’s and 3 of 11 on this day.

-- Two junctures struck me as important, in an understated way. Strange as it sounds, one of them came when GU led 11-8 and had three straight good looks at threes, two by Norvell and the other by Corey Kispert. All three missed. Make a couple of those, and if the leads expands to say, eight, the game that never saw a margin greater than five until the last minutes might develop differently, especially if Tech had to respect perimeter shooters.

-- The other pivot point for me came with GU up 48-44. Brandon Clarke blocked a shot, Rui Hachimura got the ball and charged down the left side of the floor, head down, and took the ball into a thicket of Tech defenders near the rim. He got it stuffed and seven seconds later, Culver splashed a three for the Red Raiders.

-- A few times, Gonzaga was too casual getting around screens to contest three-point shooters. It was costly.

-- No revelation here, but the Zags’ 16 turnovers was far too many in a low-possession game – some unforced, some fumbled-thumbed against Tech’s excellent defense.

-- The Josh Perkins faux pas became almost larger than the outcome itself, partly because Perkins heaped so much blame on himself. Reality is, it should have been a footnote to the day. Still, anybody feel an eerie parallel to the late-game mistake, Wichita State, 2013, when Elias Harris and David Stockton miscommunicated inbounding the ball and turned it over?

-- One more thing on that touched-ball situation: The punishment – two free throws and choice of shooter – hardly meets the crime. Seems like a situation made for a single free throw, and possession.

-- Who knows about impact, but the Zags suffered on a couple of calls aside from the controversial, late Tariq Owens block and save. Killian Tillie’s foul on an offensive rebound was a head-scratcher (looked like Tillie could have contested the board harder, but it hardly looked like a foul), and Brandon Clarke was rightly agitated over a shot bouncing on the rim that appeared to be goal-tended.

-- Ahead might be the biggest transition in personnel in the 21 years of Gonzaga making NCAA tournaments. I’d imagine there will be a lot of hours put into jigsawing a new roster in place, with an eye to graduate transfers in the backcourt. On the other hand, incoming are three of's top 50 bigs nationally.

-- Among the challenges will be the Battle 4 Atlantis tournament, a home date with North Carolina and a roadie with Washington. With the Huskies losing four seniors and likely guard Jaylen Nowell, the look of the Zag-UW game will be dramatically different.

-- For all the overheated criticism of teams that don’t advance, don’t ever forget that the margin is often capriciously and cruelly thin. If Virginia doesn’t come up with a near-miraculous play at the end of regulation against Purdue, in some (lunatic) precincts Tony Bennett will always be a bum whose teams choke before the Final Four.

-- What adds to Mark Few’s melancholy is the fact this looked to be Gonzaga’s best chance to win a national title. And maybe it was. But let’s not be so certain. The bracket tends to have a mind of its own.

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Haters gonna hate, and some still dog the Zags

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.

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