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Lotta teams have a bone to pick in the Zag regional

thread
Call it the Retribution Regional. At least, that’s the potential for -- and to -- Gonzaga, as it begins its stab at March Madness, 2018.

The Zags drew a No. 4 seed and face 13th-seeded North Carolina-Greensboro in the West Region first round Thursday. If they advance, and fifth-seeded Ohio State does as well against South Dakota State, Gonzaga and the Buckeyes would meet in a second-game Saturday, and that would be a rematch of their first-round PK80 tournament game Thanksgiving night, won by GU, 86-59. ESPN analyst Dan Dakich: “If Gonzaga beats Ohio State, I think Gonzaga goes to the Final Four.”

If I were the Zags, I’d pretty much hate a game with the Ohio State under those circumstances, but the selection rules don’t protect against second-round rematches. Seems to me the psychological edge would be with the Buckeyes, although (a) the game would be in Boise, vastly favorable to Gonzaga, and (b) it’s not like Ohio State would be especially appealing to the non-Zags in attendance. Ohio State, enrollment 66,000, football colossus, would be a difficult embrace as cuddly underdog.

Of course, there’s also the potential for Gonzaga to meet No. 2 seed North Carolina -- which denied the Zags a national title last April -- and the Zags could eventually face, for the right to go to the Final Four, Xavier, precisely the two who met for the same Holy Grail last March when GU advanced convincingly.

More random thoughts on the bracket and the Zags:

-- Let me be the 73rd millionth person to say I hated TBS’ revised Selection Sunday format. Consider: We went from an elongated format in which CBS revealed a quarter of the bracket, then kept everybody on edge while it had to discuss that quartile. What it was doing was withholding the news. So now we’re shuffling out the participant field -- in a very anticlimactic, yawning fashion. What would be wrong with striking a balance -- reveal each quartile briskly (get the news out of the way) and then go back and analyze it in depth?

-- Oklahoma’s inclusion drew the heaviest derision, based on its sagging finish. Which surely dulls the shine on the Sooners, but the selection rules explicitly say the finish means nothing (the last 10 used to be a factor). For what it’s worth, Oklahoma went 6-9 against other teams in the field and jilted Oklahoma State went a comparable 8-11.

-- Stop with the conspiracy theories, that the system is rigged, yadda, yadda, yadda. There’s too much money at stake and too much integrity on the committee -- not always perspicacity, but integrity -- to put that enterprise at risk.

-- Zags coach Mark Few just extended his NCAA record to 19 consecutive appearances in the tournament to start a head-coaching career.

-- The night of Feb. 10 in Moraga, Calif., Gonzaga stole something from Saint Mary’s, and the Gaels never got it back.

-- You’d think that repeated brushes with the bubble would drive the point home to SMC coach Randy Bennett, but it doesn’t. It has to upgrade the schedule, even if it means going on the road with no return game.

-- Texas Southern started 0-13 and didn’t win a game until New Year’s Day. And it’s in the NCAA tournament. What a country.

-- TSU’s win in the Southwestern Conference tournament means Gonzaga beat four teams in its non-league schedule -- TSU, Ohio State, Texas and Creighton -- that made the NCAAs. As noted previously in this space, the average for GU in its 20-year golden run is 2.47 such wins.

-- Over and over, we hear pleas for more reliance on the eyeball test as an undervalued tool for the committee, but I’ve never bought in. For one, anybody knowledgeable will tell you matchups are critical, and you might be seeing a team against an opponent that’s a bad matchup. Or you might be catching a team on a night when it simply mails it in. Seems to me, it’s dangerous to have a subjective element that can’t be backed with facts.

-- On that mail-it-in subject: I saw Washington beat Kansas early in December, and haven’t been able to shake the recollection that the Jayhawks looked like the most disinterested outfit imaginable. I know they’re a No. 1 seed that’s had a very nice season: Go ahead and pick them.

-- One coach who has something to prove: Purdue’s Matt Painter. Three years ago, the Boilermakers lost a seven-point lead and dropped their NCAA opener to Cincinnati. Two years ago, they led Arkansas-Little Rock by 14 with 4:06 left and lost in double overtime. Last year, they made the Sweet 16 and then got smoked by 32 by Kansas.

-- It turned out that those RPI-awful matchups with Howard (No. 339) and Incarnate Word (347) didn’t cost Gonzaga. But the Zags need to take more pains in scheduling those guarantee games, so they’re lining up more 200-range opponents rather than the game’s derelicts.

-- The West Coast Conference brass has to be sporting long faces these days. Not only does the exclusion of Saint Mary’s cost the WCC more than $1.5 million over six years (plus that amount each time the Gaels might have won a game), one of the league’s up-and-coming programs, San Diego, just offed its promising coach, Lamont Smith, after an alleged domestic-violence incident.

-- Last time Gonzaga was a No. 4 seed? It was 2009, when the Zags beat Akron and Western Kentucky to reach the Sweet 16. And in 20 years of basketball prominence, Gonzaga still has never been a 5 seed.
#zagsmbb #wcchoops #theslipperstillfits #unitedwezag #zagup

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Which Zag streak does it for you?

thread

So the train rolls on. Gonzaga blisters Brigham Young, after walloping San Francisco, after muddling past Loyola Marymount, and the Zags await Selection Sunday with the luxury of being able to exhale for a few days. (Come to think of it, when was the last time Gonzaga had to sweat that day, other than the particulars of where and whom?)

We come at you then, with a question: Which streak is most impressive by Gonzaga?

-- No. 1: the run of 20 NCAA-tournament appearances in a row.

-- No. 2: the streak of nine consecutive victories in opening-round games.

-- No. 3: the darkhorse, the Zags’ string of 21 straight appearances in the West Coast Conference tournament final.

Some background on each before I muddy the debate with my choice:

With that 20th straight appearance in the NCAA tournament, the Zags will rise Sunday to undisputed sixth on the all-time list of such streaks. Inclusive of Sunday, it will look like this: Kansas 29, North Carolina 27, Arizona 25, Duke 23, Michigan State 21 and Gonzaga 20. The streaks by North Carolina (1975-2001) and Arizona (1985-2009) are not ongoing, so GU is No. 4 on the current list, and its co-holder for lo these many years, Wisconsin, will see its streak end.

When I researched “Glory Hounds” a couple of years ago, I computed that GU had forged a tie for No. 10 on the all-time list of consecutive years having won at least a game in the tournament. And when the Zags dispatched South Dakota State last year in the first round on the way to the Final Four, their streak of nine straight years of NCAA wins gave them sole possession of No. 10 on the list. (North Carolina, with 18 from 1981-98, is the king.)

But, of such ongoing streaks, only Kansas, at 11, has a better one than Gonzaga’s nine. A victory this year in the tournament would move GU to a tie for No. 7 all-time with Duke (which has done 10 twice) and Stanford (of all teams, from 1995-2004).

Then there’s the streak of appearances in the WCC final, which has reached 21. A couple of notes on that: The last time the Zags didn’t play in the conference final was 1997, when Saint Mary’s beat USF for the title. The tournament MVP? Seven-foot-three behemoth Brad Millard of Seattle. Coach of that Gaels team? Why, Ernie Kent. (For the record, the Zags, fifth-seeded, bowed to San Diego in the first round.)

Which is most impressive? I’d give a slight lean to the second one -- consecutive years winning games in the Big Dance.

First, let me be clear: Getting to the tournament 20 straight years is a sensational number. If you had proposed to a buddy back in 1999 or 2000 that this would be possible, he would have had you committed.

And it’s obvious that without the sustenance of streak No. 1, there is no streak No. 2. But, to defend my choice against No. 1, it’s true that in a handful of cases, the Zags wouldn’t have made the NCAA tournament without a conference-tournament championship, and that wouldn’t be possible if the league weren’t forgiving.

To my contention: In the recent past, the Zags’ national profile has blossomed, and it’s been getting high seeds -- No. 1 in 2013, No. 2 in 2015, No. 1 again in 2017 and probably a 4 seed this year. So it’s easy to forget that among these nine straight opening conquests in the tournament were some coin-flip type games -- and especially against teams with a daunting portfolio.

-- In 2010, Gonzaga faced Florida State, which had the nation’s No. 1 field-goal percentage defense.

-- In 2011, the Zags drew St. John’s, 21-11 and 12-6 in the Big East (albeit without injured swingman D.J. Kennedy).

-- In 2012, GU got paired with West Virginia, whose forward, Kevin Jones, was averaging a double-double, and the game was 75 miles from the WVU campus in Pittsburgh.

-- In 2014, Oklahoma State was the Zag challenge, a Marcus Smart-led team that had beaten Kansas and taken the Jayhawks to overtime in a Big 12 that was the rage of the nation.

-- In 2016, Gonzaga faced Seton Hall, which was 25-8, 12-6 in the Big East and had just won the Big East tournament.

The FSU and Oklahoma State games paired 8-9 seeds. The Zags were an 11 seed against St. John’s and Seton Hall. They were a 7 against West Virginia’s 10.

The point is, those were tossup games -- at best -- for Gonzaga, and it won each one. NCAA-tournament victories are like gold, and nobody knows it like Zag fans, who have in the past absorbed all sorts of shrapnel from the program’s naysayers.

Indeed, the WCC-finals streak is mind-bending, even as, from 2003-2013, the league afforded double byes, which pushed the top two teams into the semifinals. So about half the time in those 21 tournaments, it’s been necessary to win two games to get to the final, never having an off-night, never suffering the killer upset.

You could argue that the streak of NCAA-tournament appearances is about body of work, rather than single games. Fair point. At the same time, the win-or-else nature of the NCAA victories tilts me to that streak.

You?
#zagsmbb #wcchoops #theslipperstillfits #unitedwezag #zagup

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The Zags and college hoops' nervous days

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What an ominous, edgy, crazy time for college basketball. And one pregnant with implication for dozens of programs.

That includes Gonzaga. In fact, maybe especially Gonzaga. More on that notion later.

Who’s eligible? Who isn’t? Will Sean Miller coach another game, or will they just detain him in a public square in Tucson, put him in the stocks and let the suntanned locals jeer and throw rotten tomatoes at him?

Speculation is cheap, and in some cases, disposable. One national analyst stated flatly Saturday that Deandre Ayton wouldn’t play for Arizona Saturday night, and of course, he did. But when he did, and Miller didn’t coach, it made for a head-scratcher.

ESPN analyst Seth Greenberg says the FBI will continue to dribble out the information for maximum effect. Somebody else noted that a judge is calling parties to the bench to quell the early leaks. Which will it be?

It seems fair to say there will be more revelations, at least eventually, because those to date have reflected the misadventures surrounding only one rogue agent, Andy Miller, and an underling, Christian Dawkins.

Among the intriguing aspects is how many programs have quickly decided that players named in the Yahoo!Sports story will remain on the floor. Did they really have enough time to explore the question fully? Or could they possibly be concluding that the agent/player issue is so pervasive that the NCAA can't penalize scores of programs?

What to do, big picture? I fall in with those who would be fine with reform in allowing player-agent financial relationships. Twenty-five years ago, when Washington was busted by the NCAA/Pac-10, what got them to sniffing around was the revelation that quarterback Billy Joe Hobert had received a $50,000 loan based on future earnings. Ultimately, what’s so nefarious about that, other than the NCAA long ago decreed you can’t do it?

Granted, the change would take some getting used to. One analyst posited it might mean the local car dealer pays your top player five grand to use him to promote, while the 12th man gets nothing. Fine. But what does the fifth or sixth man -- a lesser player, but still essential -- get? If it’s nothing, what does that do to the workings of the team?

Or, if a shoe company reaches a couple-of-million-dollars agreement with an NBA-bound college player, and the player develops a sore knee, who decides when he’s coming back, the shoe company or the coach?

Whatever. Those obstacles are mere collateral damage for righting a system that’s, well, not right.

Meanwhile, if somebody could tell me a way universities could pay athletes, I might be more amenable. But that’s a dilemma not so easily solved.

College athletics is often described as a business, which, in its size, it is. The NCAA tournament reaps billions.

But whatever your favorite school, the men’s soccer program and women’s field hockey don’t make money. If this were a business, they wouldn’t exist because they’re subsidized by money-making programs. Point is, most colleges aren’t making money, and some are severely in debt (true, in part because some spend cash like a kid who just got his allowance).

The NBA could solve some of the current problems by doing away with its insane 19-and-under rule, the one that props up the one-and-done phenomenon of college basketball. Follow the baseball model and allow kids to go to the NBA out of high school, or restrict them from the draft for two or three years.

But that's only one element. Implementing a baseball-style model might serve only to keep the NCAA’s plastic president, Mark Emmert, preaching a horse-and-buggy amateurism model.

But about Gonzaga: As a gilded run that began in 1999 continues, it seems to me that a pillar underpinning one of the game’s best stories is that it’s a program that “does it right.” Or so we think, until told otherwise. If there were serious impropriety, it would certainly put a dent in that notion.

If I were a Zag fan, I’d feel good about this: That Mark Few is a preacher’s kid -- Norm Few did that for 54 years -- and if you’re going to stay at Gonzaga and turn down multiple offers of salaries paying double, you might just be the kind of guy inclined to believe you can make it happen by the book.

And I can tell you this: Words I’ve heard from Zag coaches in private and public conversations would reflect that they believe the program is clean.

There’s no doubt that’s the mandate from athletic director Mike Roth, who is fastidious about the rule book, and a compliance office headed by Shannon Strahl. More than once, I’ve vetted questions through them, and they don’t operate on the margins.

Of course, if you were tempted to stray from the mandate, you wouldn’t be running your hypotheticals through the compliance office. It would be foolish for me, or anybody, to blithely declare that any program can pass the white-glove treatment.

And so we wait, while a fascinating, unseemly and unprecedented drama plays out in college basketball.
#zagsmbb #wcchoops #theslipperstillfits #unitedwezag #zagup

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Huskies, Cougars and the Zag schedule

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Washington is 18-9 and seated squarely on the NCAA-tournament bubble. Washington State is mucking through a 10-16 season and the only real motivation of consequence is to unhinge itself from Cal, its fellow Pac-12 cellar-dweller.

What, if anything, do the respective seasons at Washington and Washington State say about how Gonzaga ought to schedule in the near future?

Plenty, in my mind.

Some backdrop first: In Glory Hounds, Zags coach Mark Few made it plain to me he was done with the Cougars, and inclined to be done with the Huskies. I don’t think it’s mischaracterizing his thoughts to say he believes his program is past all that.

So, what do we take from the 2017-18 seasons of the Zags’ in-state brothers?

First, WSU: Somehow, after taking down Saint Mary’s on Thanksgiving weekend, and then San Diego State, the Cougars have turned a 6-0 start into mush with a lot of bad basketball. They’ve done nothing to discourage the Zag view of playing the Cougars every other year in Pullman as a trip -- albeit a short one -- akin to going to Loyola Marymount or Santa Clara, with absolutely nothing to gain and everything to lose, in front of a largely hostile crowd.

I agree with Few on this one.

Think about some numbers here: Last spring, Gonzaga very nearly won six NCAA-tournament games in 18 days. The Cougars have won six NCAA-tournament games in their history.

If you take away the three years of Tony Bennett (2007-09), and go back two decades to the 1997-98 season, WSU is, in Pac-10/12 play, 162 games under .500.

The Cougars haven’t so much as won a game in the Pac-12 tournament since Bennett’s last year of 2009. Since then, Gonzaga has won 15 games in the NCAA tournament.

I get the argument from the traditionalists (hey, I’m one too; the Christmas tree not only has to be live, but big). You’re neighbors, and neighbors should play through thick and thin, and this was a series started 110 years ago. Indeed, that’s a valid argument.

But times change. Needs change. Gonzaga gets nothing out of playing Washington State, except risk, and don’t counter with the notion that the Cougars always used to accommodate Gonzaga in different times. Only in the early ‘80s, when WSU teams under George Raveling won NCAA at-large berths and were playing Gonzaga, was there real risk involved. By the time the Cougars next made the tournament (1994), Kelvin Sampson had shut down the series with the Zags.

With a mere couple of exceptions, then, over the decades the only thing the Cougars risked was a loss of face. You know, big school loses to little school.

If there were a shred of commonality between the two programs -- if, say, WSU had a computer rating of 115 instead of near 200 -- I might be persuaded otherwise. The Zag-Cougar collisions during the Bennett years were truly seismic. But until WSU rises to mid-Pac-12 level, I wouldn’t schedule the game, either.

Meanwhile, I’ll take the same tack on the Huskies as I took in the book: You play them.

True, Gonzaga has dominated Washington mercilessly during its glory run, including a 97-70 beatdown in December at Hec Ed. But here are the Huskies, threatening to make the NCAA tournament in Mike Hopkins’ first year.

(A couple of observations on that: As marvelous as have the Huskies performed, and Hopkins debuted, in some measure it’s flattered by the fact that Washington massively underachieved last year, going 9-22. Second, in coaching the zone defense, Hopkins has discovered something stunning and confounding: Many offenses are evincing no clue what to do when they get the ball to the high post, with options. Who knew?)

Few’s contention a couple of years ago was that Gonzaga needs high-profile pelts for its post-season resume, and the Huskies, under Lorenzo Romar, began falling short of that standard. True, but many years in the recent past, Washington has been at least within shouting distance of NCAA-tournament level. And they were a tournament regular in Romar’s early years.

Too, the prospect that Hopkins’ regime continues on a positive arc, combined with the rich Seattle prep talent pool and the likelihood that Washington continues to prosper from it, argues for keeping that series intact. It seems to be a fan favorite (especially Gonzaga fans).

Even if Gonzaga stays dominant, it can’t hurt the Zags to showcase that superiority to the west side.

For Few, this could be the sticky part: If he should choose to curtail relations with the Huskies, he might well be seen exactly as Washington was when it announced a stoppage in the series in 2006. The Huskies were roundly criticized for it, and I think the outcry took Washington aback.

You’d like to think Hopkins, a likable figure who seemed to give Gonzaga great respect in December, has shown enough chops in his first year for the Zags to want to make that an arrangement into the future. Especially if the separation with the Cougars is a lasting one.
#zagsmbb #wcchoops #theslipperstillfits #unitedwezag #zagup

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Zags decided: Make theirs a double

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Just about every sentence rehashing Gonzaga’s latest joust with Saint Mary’s has included the term “double-teams,” to which Tommy Lloyd finds himself saying, “What’s the big deal?”

After all, Gonzaga, with Mark Few as head coach and Lloyd as assistant, have now faced Saint Mary’s, with Randy Bennett as head man, a staggering 45 times. That’s Dean Smith-Mike Krzyzewski repetition, with seemingly every conceivable move and counter.

But the big deal was this: In a spot when it seemed that Saint Mary’s might be wresting West Coast Conference supremacy from the Zags -- when it seemed the Gaels might be at the program’s all-time apex -- Gonzaga delivered a searing, 78-65 welt to Saint Mary’s Saturday night that was more emphatic than the score suggests.

On Feb. 1, a story in Bay Area papers made a credible case that this is Saint Mary’s best team in history. Another account quoted Bennett on opponents’ supreme dilemma of trying to neutralize big man Jock Landale or his supporting cast, which have combined to lead the nation in field-goal percentage.

Gonzaga’s answer was to clinicize -- my word, not Webster’s -- the Gaels. Consider that that once GU had broken from the gate to an 11-4 lead, the game would never again feature less than a three-possession
margin. Or that when Corey Kispert’s attempted three from the corner swirled out, it deprived Gonzaga of a 20-point lead less than eight minutes into the game.

“The program has a lot of pride,” Lloyd said Monday. “Our backs were against the wall.”

Not that Saint Mary’s doesn’t have a lot of pride as well. And not that there won’t be ample occasions to prove it, probably starting with a seemingly inevitable third meeting in March in the WCC tournament.

But this was jarring stuff, at the same level in my mind as the 82-59 blowout of Utah in the NCAA tournament two years ago, when Gonzaga was a No. 11 seed and Utah was a 3.

It was keyed, of course, by the Zags’ aggressive double-team of Landale in the post, and make no mistake, that’s a tape that’s going to be worn out by opponents seeking to pick the lock on Saint Mary’s black box in March.

Lloyd expresses some surprise at the post-game emphasis placed on the double teams. But that’s what happens when a stratagem holds Landale to just four shots.

As he explains it, Gonzaga has had that tool in the box. But against past Saint Mary’s centers Omar Samhan and Brad Waldow, the Zags had sufficiently imposing posts in Robert Sacre and Kelly Olynyk to mostly stay away from the double.

Too, because Landale abused the Zags for 26 points in Saint Mary’s 74-71 victory last month in Spokane, there’s a tendency to recollect that he was incessantly backing Johnathan Williams down for baskets. A lot of his damage came on pick-and-roll action and thus wasn’t very applicable to double-teams.

However it happened then, as Lloyd says, “He kicked our ass.”

When the Zags did double in the first meeting, it looked either (a) late, or (b) half-hearted.

“I felt we needed to get our double there quicker,” Lloyd told me Monday. “And we needed something way more aggressive.”

When Landale caught the ball on the block in this latest rendition of Zags-Gaels, with Williams or Rui Hachimura pushing him away as much as allowed, he was rushed by a second defender. Here’s how the first half-dozen double-teams unfolded:

-- Zach Norvell, joining Williams.

-- Killian Tillie, with Williams.

-- Williams, in concert with Hachimura.

-- Tillie, with Hachimura.

-- Kispert, with Hachimura.

-- Silas Melson, converging with Williams.

“It wasn’t like we invented a new defense,” said Lloyd. “When someone is better than you (in the first meeting), you have to come out and be more aggressive and try something with conviction, not hope. Our guys started feeling it was working and started believing in it.”

It seemed to fluster Landale, so they kept doing it.

It was suggested in some quarters that it was merely the failure of Saint Mary’s perimeter shooters -- five of 20 on threes -- that made it all look good. Well, only to a point. Most of those threes were contested with quick rotations. Often, the double teams on Landale resulted in him passing to the same side as his field of vision, which resulted in another perimeter pass to the next man, and the methodical response by Saint Mary’s helped the quicker Zags recover defensively.

When two programs have met 45 times, some things have to remain house secrets. When I asked Lloyd about preparation for the double-teams approach, he said, “We’ve worked on it a few times the past few weeks.”

You can probably infer that 10 minutes of prepping for Pepperdine may have gone by the boards in favor of banking some time for a random opponent with a dangerous big guy.

By Monday, everything looked different, although Gonzaga’s path to a WCC regular-season title is still tougher than Saint Mary’s, with trips to BYU and San Diego. But suddenly, the Zags could be hunting a preferred seed in the NCAA tournament, which would probably mean a favorable site in Boise (the other Western sub-regional is in San Diego).

First things first. As Lloyd insists, there’s a good bit of territory before a possible third game with Saint Mary’s.

“If we do play ‘em again,” he said, “I’m sure they’re going to have something up their sleeve, and they’ll make adjustments.”

Count on it. Because this last one left a mark.
#zagsmbb #wcchoops #theslipperstillfits #unitedwezag #zagup

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Zags decided: Make theirs a double

thread
Just about every sentence rehashing Gonzaga’s latest joust with Saint Mary’s has included the term “double-teams,” to which Tommy Lloyd finds himself saying, “What’s the big deal?”

After all, Gonzaga, with Mark Few as head coach and Lloyd as assistant, have now faced Saint Mary’s, with Randy Bennett as head man, a staggering 45 times. That’s Dean Smith-Mike Krzyzewski repetition, with seemingly every conceivable move and counter.

But the big deal was this: In a spot when it seemed that Saint Mary’s might be wresting West Coast Conference supremacy from the Zags -- when it seemed the Gaels might be at the program’s all-time apex -- Gonzaga delivered a searing, 78-65 welt to Saint Mary’s Saturday night that was more emphatic than the score suggests.

On Feb. 1, a story in Bay Area papers made a credible case that this is Saint Mary’s best team in history. Another account quoted Bennett on opponents’ supreme dilemma of trying to neutralize big man Jock Landale or his supporting cast, which have combined to lead the nation in field-goal percentage.

Gonzaga’s answer was to clinicize -- my word, not Webster’s -- the Gaels. Consider that that once GU had broken from the gate to an 11-4 lead, the game would never again feature less than a three-possession
margin. Or that when Corey Kispert’s attempted three from the corner swirled out, it deprived Gonzaga of a 20-point lead less than eight minutes into the game.

“The program has a lot of pride,” Lloyd said Monday. “Our backs were against the wall.”

Not that Saint Mary’s doesn’t have a lot of pride as well. And not that there won’t be ample occasions to prove it, probably starting with a seemingly inevitable third meeting in March in the WCC tournament.

But this was jarring stuff, at the same level in my mind as the 82-59 blowout of Utah in the NCAA tournament two years ago, when Gonzaga was a No. 11 seed and Utah was a 3.

It was keyed, of course, by the Zags’ aggressive double-team of Landale in the post, and make no mistake, that’s a tape that’s going to be worn out by opponents seeking to pick the lock on Saint Mary’s black box in March.

Lloyd expresses some surprise at the post-game emphasis placed on the double teams. But that’s what happens when a stratagem holds Landale to just four shots.

As he explains it, Gonzaga has had that tool in the box. But against past Saint Mary’s centers Omar Samhan and Brad Waldow, the Zags had sufficiently imposing posts in Robert Sacre and Kelly Olynyk to mostly stay away from the double.

Too, because Landale abused the Zags for 26 points in Saint Mary’s 74-71 victory last month in Spokane, there’s a tendency to recollect that he was incessantly backing Johnathan Williams down for baskets. A lot of his damage came on pick-and-roll action and thus wasn’t very applicable to double-teams.

However it happened then, as Lloyd says, “He kicked our ass.”

When the Zags did double in the first meeting, it looked either (a) late, or (b) half-hearted.

“I felt we needed to get our double there quicker,” Lloyd told me Monday. “And we needed something way more aggressive.”

When Landale caught the ball on the block in this latest rendition of Zags-Gaels, with Williams or Rui Hachimura pushing him away as much as allowed, he was rushed by a second defender. Here’s how the first half-dozen double-teams unfolded:

-- Zach Norvell, joining Williams.

-- Killian Tillie, with Williams.

-- Williams, in concert with Hachimura.

-- Tillie, with Hachimura.

-- Kispert, with Hachimura.

-- Silas Melson, converging with Williams.

“It wasn’t like we invented a new defense,” said Lloyd. “When someone is better than you (in the first meeting), you have to come out and be more aggressive and try something with conviction, not hope. Our guys started feeling it was working and started believing in it.”

It seemed to fluster Landale, so they kept doing it.

It was suggested in some quarters that it was merely the failure of Saint Mary’s perimeter shooters -- five of 20 on threes -- that made it all look good. Well, only to a point. Most of those threes were contested with quick rotations. Often, the double teams on Landale resulted in him passing to the same side as his field of vision, which resulted in another perimeter pass to the next man, and the methodical response by Saint Mary’s helped the quicker Zags recover defensively.

When two programs have met 45 times, some things have to remain house secrets. When I asked Lloyd about preparation for the double-teams approach, he said, “We’ve worked on it a few times the past few weeks.”

You can probably infer that 10 minutes of prepping for Pepperdine may have gone by the boards in favor of banking some time for a random opponent with a dangerous big guy.

By Monday, everything looked different, although Gonzaga’s path to a WCC regular-season title is still tougher than Saint Mary’s, with trips to BYU and San Diego. But suddenly, the Zags could be hunting a preferred seed in the NCAA tournament, which would probably mean a favorable site in Boise (the other Western sub-regional is in San Diego).

First things first. As Lloyd insists, there’s a good bit of territory before a possible third game with Saint Mary’s.

“If we do play ‘em again,” he said, “I’m sure they’re going to have something up their sleeve, and they’ll make adjustments.”

Count on it. Because this last one left a mark.
#zagsmbb #wcchoops #theslipperstillfits #unitedwezag #zagup

People Who Wowed This Post

Zags decided: Make theirs a double

thread
Just about every sentence rehashing Gonzaga’s latest joust with Saint Mary’s has included the term “double-teams,” to which Tommy Lloyd finds himself saying, “What’s the big deal?”

After all, Gonzaga, with Mark Few as head coach and Lloyd as assistant, have now faced Saint Mary’s, with Randy Bennett as head man, a staggering 45 times. That’s Dean Smith-Mike Krzyzewski repetition, with seemingly every conceivable move and counter.

But the big deal was this: In a spot when it seemed that Saint Mary’s might be wresting West Coast Conference supremacy from the Zags -- when it seemed the Gaels might be at the program’s all-time apex -- Gonzaga delivered a searing, 78-65 welt to Saint Mary’s Saturday night that was more emphatic than the score suggests.

On Feb. 1, a story in Bay Area papers made a credible case that this is Saint Mary’s best team in history. Another account quoted Bennett on opponents’ supreme dilemma of trying to neutralize big man Jock Landale or his supporting cast, which have combined to lead the nation in field-goal percentage.

Gonzaga’s answer was to clinicize -- my word, not Webster’s -- the Gaels. Consider that that once GU had broken from the gate to an 11-4 lead, the game would never again feature less than a three-possession
margin. Or that when Corey Kispert’s attempted three from the corner swirled out, it deprived Gonzaga of a 20-point lead less than eight minutes into the game.

“The program has a lot of pride,” Lloyd said Monday. “Our backs were against the wall.”

Not that Saint Mary’s doesn’t have a lot of pride as well. And not that there won’t be ample occasions to prove it, probably starting with a seemingly inevitable third meeting in March in the WCC tournament.

But this was jarring stuff, at the same level in my mind as the 82-59 blowout of Utah in the NCAA tournament two years ago, when Gonzaga was a No. 11 seed and Utah was a 3.

It was keyed, of course, by the Zags’ aggressive double-team of Landale in the post, and make no mistake, that’s a tape that’s going to be worn out by opponents seeking to pick the lock on Saint Mary’s black box in March.

Lloyd expresses some surprise at the post-game emphasis placed on the double teams. But that’s what happens when a stratagem holds Landale to just four shots.

As he explains it, Gonzaga has had that tool in the box. But against past Saint Mary’s centers Omar Samhan and Brad Waldow, the Zags had sufficiently imposing posts in Robert Sacre and Kelly Olynyk to mostly stay away from the double.

Too, because Landale abused the Zags for 26 points in Saint Mary’s 74-71 victory last month in Spokane, there’s a tendency to recollect that he was incessantly backing Johnathan Williams down for baskets. A lot of his damage came on pick-and-roll action and thus wasn’t very applicable to double-teams.

However it happened then, as Lloyd says, “He kicked our ass.”

When the Zags did double in the first meeting, it looked either (a) late, or (b) half-hearted.

“I felt we needed to get our double there quicker,” Lloyd told me Monday. “And we needed something way more aggressive.”

When Landale caught the ball on the block in this latest rendition of Zags-Gaels, with Williams or Rui Hachimura pushing him away as much as allowed, he was rushed by a second defender. Here’s how the first half-dozen double-teams unfolded:

-- Zach Norvell, joining Williams.

-- Killian Tillie, with Williams.

-- Williams, in concert with Hachimura.

-- Tillie, with Hachimura.

-- Kispert, with Hachimura.

-- Silas Melson, converging with Williams.

“It wasn’t like we invented a new defense,” said Lloyd. “When someone is better than you (in the first meeting), you have to come out and be more aggressive and try something with conviction, not hope. Our guys started feeling it was working and started believing in it.”

It seemed to fluster Landale, so they kept doing it.

It was suggested in some quarters that it was merely the failure of Saint Mary’s perimeter shooters -- five of 20 on threes -- that made it all look good. Well, only to a point. Most of those threes were contested with quick rotations. Often, the double teams on Landale resulted in him passing to the same side as his field of vision, which resulted in another perimeter pass to the next man, and the methodical response by Saint Mary’s helped the quicker Zags recover defensively.

When two programs have met 45 times, some things have to remain house secrets. When I asked Lloyd about preparation for the double-teams approach, he said, “We’ve worked on it a few times the past few weeks.”

You can probably infer that 10 minutes of prepping for Pepperdine may have gone by the boards in favor of banking some time for a random opponent with a dangerous big guy.

By Monday, everything looked different, although Gonzaga’s path to a WCC regular-season title is still tougher than Saint Mary’s, with trips to BYU and San Diego. But suddenly, the Zags could be hunting a preferred seed in the NCAA tournament, which would probably mean a favorable site in Boise (the other Western sub-regional is in San Diego).

First things first. As Lloyd insists, there’s a good bit of territory before a possible third game with Saint Mary’s.

“If we do play ‘em again,” he said, “I’m sure they’re going to have something up their sleeve, and they’ll make adjustments.”

Count on it. Because this last one left a mark.
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In at least one key metric, the Zags measure up

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While you were readying the fois gras and chateaubriand for your Super Bowl party, the Washington Huskies slipped in a transformative upset of Arizona Saturday night.

Welcome back to college basketball, Huskies. Where ya been?

Even Gonzaga --well, some of Zag Nation anyway -- cheers your re-entry to relevance in the sport, even if it’s less about being kindred Gortex-lovers than the fact the Zags throttled Washington, 97-70, on Dec. 10, at Hec Edmundson Pavilion. And thus, Gonzaga reaps the reflected glory from that night -- at least on Selection Sunday, it assumes it will.

With the Arizona win, the Huskies thrust themselves into the NCAA-tournament reckoning and ought to make it, unless they have some major slips against a less-than-daunting finishing schedule. CBS.com’s Jerry Palm even has them as a No. 7 seed in his bracket this week.

That may carry some significance for the Zags, because Washington could represent a fourth GU victim that should make the NCAA tournament, and that number would rank among the best collection of pelts Gonzaga has assembled in what should, in March, become a 20-year streak of making NCAA tournaments.

Lots of the regular season remains to be played, but if the committee were birthing the bracket today, four teams the Zags (21-4) have beaten would be in the field -- Ohio State (20-5), Creighton (17-6), Washington (17-6) and Texas (15-8). That number figures to be important when the committee goes about seeding Gonzaga, especially in a year when victories over Saint Mary’s could be scarce (the Zags again hunt one at Moraga Saturday night).

How does four non-league wins over NCAA-tournament teams rank in Gonzaga’s history? Glad you asked. Having no life, I researched GU’s annual haul of them since it began putting March Madness on its to-do list in 1999.

In 19 seasons, Gonzaga has had 47 non-conference victories over NCAA-bound teams, or 2.47 a year. So four, if it happens, would be a robust number.

Five times, Gonzaga has had four or more such non-league victims. The only time it had more was the Elite Eight year of 2014-15, with five, and it came with a bit of an asterisk, as Texas Southern won the Southwestern Athletic Conference title to make it. (It could happen again, even as itinerant TSU is 6-17 overall, including an opening-night blowout at the hands of Gonzaga. Arkansas-Pine Bluff currently leads that league with a 9-2 record, but at 9-16 overall with a 312 RPI.)

On four of those five occasions, Gonzaga got a preferred (four or better) seed from the committee. The exception was in 2008, when the Zags got a No. 7 seed and were sent to play in Stephen Curry’s backyard near Davidson, and we all know how that turned out.

So could those four non-league wins this year equate to a preferred seed? Palm actually gives Gonzaga a No. 4 seed in his bracket reckoning. I’d call that unlikely, unless the Zags were to run the table, with two victories over Saint Mary’s.

There are two major hedges to a lofty seed right now: The possibility of no damage done against Saint Mary’s, which was usually inflicted in years past; and the existence of 300-and-above RPI anchors on Gonzaga's resume -- Howard (339), Incarnate Word (348), Pepperdine (328) and IUPUI (316).

During Gonzaga’s NCAA-appearance streak, there has often been a correlation between the number of non-league victims who danced, and GU’s seed; one or two such wins usually means an 8 seed or poorer. Yet it’s anything but iron-clad, because there are other factors at play.

One outlier was the 2005-06 Adam Morrison-led club that earned a No. 3 seed. In a memorable non-league schedule, Gonzaga played three ranked teams in the Maui Invitational and beat two, played Washington to the wire on the road, won against Oklahoma State, Virginia, St. Louis and St. Joseph’s -- and yet, when it was all said and done, ended up with a single non-league victory over an NCAA-bound team. That was Michigan State, in the famous triple-overtime howler in Maui.

Another factoid about the 2017-18 Zag resume: Assuming Washington makes the field, Gonzaga will have two 27-point victories over NCAA-bound teams (Ohio State is the other), neither on GU’s home floor. As it happens, that margin is bigger than any of those 47 non-league aforementioned, save for a 40-point win over Texas Southern in 2014-15.

Just one more imponderable for the committee, as if it didn’t have enough.
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Just who are the Zags this year?

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Perhaps it’s the incessant drip and gray of winter that seems to underscore the downside. Or maybe it’s the inevitable, lingering hangover from a golden season when Gonzaga barged all the way to college basketball’s championship game.

Maybe they've just set a very high bar. They could be their neighbors to the south, Washington State, flailing to establish some sort of identity in the fourth year of a coaching regime.

Something doesn’t seem completely in sync with the Zags, even as they’re ranked 14th in the country, which is roughly where a lot of people pegged them in October. Even as they’re 19-4, which surely isn’t far from what their most beatific forecasters would have projected.

It’s been a fits-and-starts, herky-jerky season, the kind of year when a seemingly solid, nine-point second-half lead against Saint Mary's dissolves into defeat at home.

Let’s say up front that it all may be understandable, when several key pieces from that memorable ’16-17 campaign are no longer around, starting with rim-protector Przemek Karnowski and the engine room of the ship, Nigel Williams-Goss.

It’s just that this outfit has produced more head-scratching moments, more non sequiturs, than you might have expected. Consider:

-- The Zags held their three PK80 tournament opponents, Ohio State, Florida and Texas, to a combined .402 shooting percentage (all three are in the RPI top 50). Yet San Francisco comes to town the other night and shoots 51 percent. Villanova broke the Zags’ 64-game streak, dating back almost two years, of not allowing an opponent to shoot 50 percent from the floor, and now three more teams have done it -- including North Dakota. That North Dakota outfit, which had the Zags on the ropes in a December game in the Kennel, is now 7-14 and tied for 10th in the Big Sky.

-- If there was going to be a newcomer casting his name in lights, it was going to be Corey Kispert, the freshman from little King’s High in north Seattle. Instead, partly because Kispert dealt with a December ankle injury, that shining newcomer has been redshirt freshman Zach Norvell, who is scoring 12 points a game but more surprising, has a 63-to-31 assist-turnover ratio.

-- Jacob Larsen, the seven-foot freshman, played 24 minutes against powerful Villanova Dec. 5 and had 10 points and five rebounds. For some reason, he has played only 21 minutes in the last five games. It says here that if March is going to be remembered at all fondly around GU, he needs to be coaxed back into prominence.

-- Even the advanced metrics are at war over this team. KenPom has Gonzaga No. 7 (sixth in adjusted offense, 37th on defense), while GU is No. 57 in the RPI. ESPN’s BPI argues the Zags are No. 8, while KPI Sports -- one of the new metrics to be used by the NCAA selection committee -- has GU No. 55.

Coach Mark Few has bemoaned his team’s lack of consistency. At times, it seems a matter of focus, of good judgment, almost of common sense. In the last minutes of a nervous win over USF, guard Josh Perkins chooses to throw a backhand, wrap-around pass to 6-10 Killian Tillie on the perimeter, and puts the ball at Tillie’s ankles.

It’s not as though the sky is falling. The Zags boast the rarity of six players averaging double figures and in stretches are a sight to behold offensively. Step it up in February and early March, and there's a good chance Gonzaga will like its position in the bracket on Selection Sunday.

But numbers like .376 -- opponent three-point percentage (as opposed to .290 a year ago) -- are a screaming alarm that this team, on the wrong day in March, could be the first in a decade at Gonzaga to lose a first-round NCAA game. That three-point defense is statistically poorer than any in the 19-year streak of NCAA appearances.

Today, it’s still pretty much a blank canvas for the Zags, 2017-18. That could be both a good and bad thing.
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Next for Zags: You-know-who, with an itch to scratch

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If ever Saint Mary’s might be spoiling for a fight with Gonzaga, you’d think it would be Thursday night in Spokane, when the two WCC unbeatens renew unpleasantries. As steady as the Gaels have been under Randy Bennett, there’s always Gonzaga looming out there, ready to back-burner Saint Mary’s out of the national consciousness.

Not that Gael frustration with Gonzaga is a recent phenomenon, but consider what’s happened in just the past four years:

2014: Gonzaga beats Saint Mary’s, 70-54, in the WCC tournament final, sending SMC to the NIT.

2016: Got to think this might have been the apex of exasperation for Saint Mary’s, which for the first time since 1995 sweeps the home-and-home series against a Gonzaga team trying to find itself. Well, the Zags do indeed do that, and their 85-75 win in the WCC tournament wins them another NCAA berth and again shunts the Gaels to the NIT for a third straight year.

2017: Saint Mary’s pieces together a marvelous 29-5 season, winning a game in the NCAA tournament and giving Arizona all it can handle in the round of 32. But any acclaim due Moraga is drowned out as the Zags mount their first run to the Final Four, and all Saint Mary’s gets out of it is the check Gonzaga annually earns for the rest of the WCC.

It seems staggering to think that Bennett and Mark Few have jousted 43 times in 16 seasons as head coaches -- and who can forget Bennett's blow-by handshake after a game not long ago -- with Few having a 34-9 edge. But the games pile up when virtually annually, you’re playing three times.

Not to say the Gaels haven’t had their moments. They had a court-storming 89-81 victory in Adam Morrison’s sophomore year of 2005, Bennett’s first win over Few. Omar Samhan led them to an 81-62 victory in the WCC tournament final of 2010, the rare year that Saint Mary’s went farther in the NCAA tournament (Sweet 16) than Gonzaga (round of 32). There was Mickey McConnell’s runner in Spokane near the buzzer of a 73-71 SMC win in ’11, followed by an 83-62 rout fueled by Matt Dellavedova in 2012.

Funny, but it strikes me the wins by the Gaels seem to stand out more, which may be a way of saying as much as this is a rivalry, Gonzaga has mostly dominated. When the Zags win, it’s business as usual.

Now, Gonzaga’s profile has receded (some, anyway), and the Gaels have rebounded from a crummy November. So they have to believe they have a puncher’s chance in Spokane.

A handful of numbers tell us why:

52.4 -- Saint Mary’s leads the nation in field-goal percentage. Its floor spacing is tough to guard, and the Zags struggled at times at San Francisco to keep the Dons’ guards away from the basket.

1.85 -- The Gaels’ assist-turnover ratio is No. 2 in the nation. They commit only 9.6 turnovers a game. On the other hand, playing at a methodical tempo ranked 343rd nationally by KenPom, they create only 10.5 turnovers.

.777 -- Don’t foul them; they rank 16th at the free throw line.

.449 -- Saint Mary’s defensive field-goal percentage doesn’t flatter the team’s profile; it’s 242nd in the country. The Zags shoot .512 themselves -- against a better schedule -- and they’ve tended to shoot well against Saint Mary’s. It’s usually what happens at the other end -- Zags defending the Gaels -- that writes the script in this series, and that’s probably where it’s at Thursday night in the Kennel.
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