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Bud Withers' Blog

Zags decided: Make theirs a double

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


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.’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?

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


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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The Zags don't exactly sing it from the rafters

I’ll have to admit, Isaiah Thomas has surprised me before. I never knew how he pulled off those intrepid drives to the basket as a 5-9 guard at Washington. I thought it was a little ballsy when he declared he was ready for the NBA after his junior year. I was floored when he became one of the NBA’s top scorers -- essentially becoming a better pro than a collegian.

Now he’s done it again. Next month, Thomas’ No. 2 jersey will be retired at Washington.

I didn’t see that coming, either.

So what’s a UW episode doing on a Gonzaga-themed blog? Well, it’s a worthy example of how there’s nothing in college sports as jagged, inscrutable and sometimes downright illogical as the process by which numbers are retired.

This is not meant as a knock on Thomas, who has carved out an astonishing career as an undersized player and has done good community work. But if you’re like me, you assess such things -- like the baseball Hall of Fame -- on two levels. You form an immediate gut reaction, yes or no, and then you’re willing to take a hard look at the accomplishments.

With Thomas, who is still in the prime of a pro career, I can’t yet get over the hump. Collegiately, he was a three-time All-Pac-10 selection and a two-time conference tournament MVP. But he was never a conference player of the year, not an All-American, and only once in his three seasons did the Huskies advance as far as the Sweet 16.

Clearly, a pro career of prolific scoring and his two-time appearance in the NBA All-Star game influenced Washington.

Gonzaga has been through this before -- well, a long time before. You wouldn’t retire John Stockton’s number on the basis of his college achievements; he was WCAC player of the year in 1984, yet the Zags were a pedestrian 27-25 in league his four years. But a prodigious NBA career put him over the top, a fact which speaks to the unevenness of how college numbers are retired.

In fact, when Stockton was named to the College Basketball Hall of Fame -- to be differentiated from the Naismith Hall of Fame -- he told the Spokesman-Review in Spokane, “I was surprised to be included, frankly.”

Anyway, Stockton was the last Zag to have a number retired, joining former national scoring leader Frank Burgess as the only two former Gonzaga players so honored. And with Thomas about to see his jersey in the UW rafters, I thought it worthwhile to pick the brain of Zags athletic director Mike Roth on the subject of GU retired numbers.

To sum up, it’s not exactly on the front burner.

“We haven’t even got to that yet,” Roth told me recently. “We’re not spending any energy on it, to be quite honest.”

You’d have to say Gonzaga’s history with retired numbers is like a lot of schools’ -- hit and miss. One of the chief challenges with retired numbers, of course, is that to have a cohesive, common-sense approach requires even-handedness over the generations.

Some schools treat retired numbers like a publicity grab. That’s how a lot of Zag fans look at Saint Mary’s retirement of the jerseys of Patty Mills and Matt Dellavedova. Meanwhile, Washington State football, for instance, shares similarity with GU basketball; it has retired only those jerseys of Mel Hein, a great center of almost nine decades ago; and Jack Thompson of the 1970s, who never led the Cougars to a bowl game but has been more notable in recent years as sort of a father confessor to some prolific WSU quarterbacks.

“It’s been discussed internally, and there will continue to be discussions,” Roth says. “I’m sure we’ll see some other numbers get retired someday.”

As Roth explains it, the Zags got busy with some other stuff.

They had a Gonzaga hall of fame, but he says its last class was in 1995. That’s, uh, a generation ago.

Shortly after came the turmoil that saw an NCAA investigation into GU’s athletic finances, and the demise of Dan Fitzgerald as athletic director. And then, in 1999, the Zags’ unforeseen burst onto the basketball scene with an appearance in the Elite Eight. There came two more Sweet 16 appearances, and soon, a new arena.

“Initially, it was just the circumstances,” Roth said. “And then, we were changing everything about who we were.”

First things first. As at most schools, a hall of fame takes precedence over the concept of retired numbers, which are sort of the crème de la crème. And at GU, there wasn’t really a place to celebrate a hall of fame. So for years, the school has made do with modest wall displays inside the Martin Center.

Soon, there will be an honest-to-goodness “hall of honor” inside the new Volkar Center -- the last feature of the new building housing a practice court, basketball strength-and-conditioning component and student-athlete academic support-services center. Some of those elements' christening are targeted for the return of students from the holiday break, but the hall of honor component probably won’t be ready until sometime in the spring.

(Side note: The celebration of Gonzaga’s rare basketball history in such a setting has been sorely lacking. A visitor from say, Indiana, wandering through campus encounters a McCarthey Athletic Center whose arena is locked and no evidence of what the Zags have pulled off.)

Roth says any serious discussion of retired numbers will come after the particulars of the Zags getting up to speed on their hall of fame. As he points out, “We’ve had a few players come through here since 1995. We’ve got to focus on that first.”

For the hall of fame, Roth refers to a “working group” of present and former staffers, identities of which he doesn’t reveal so as not to impose pressure on them. He said it’s in the range of five people, including an alum. Roth says he’s not a member.

But even this process is in its formative stages. Roth says some criteria for candidacy in the hall of fame must be established, such as time passed since the athlete left. The group, he says, will research best practices elsewhere, with the idea of distilling them into policy.

Retired numbers, then? Whom would you make No. 3 at Gonzaga?

Nobody had a more decorated season at GU than Adam Morrison (2006), but his NBA career doesn’t add much. Ronny Turiaf’s teams had some bad NCAA exits, but he’s probably the most popular Zag in history. Przemek Karnowski was a towering presence on two of Gonzaga’s most successful teams in 2015 (Elite Eight) and 2017 (Final Four). Blake Stepp (2003-04) is Gonzaga’s only two-time WCC player of the year.

Or maybe the Zags would give a shout-out to the student-athlete concept and recognize three who are among a select group in NCAA history of first-team All-Americans both academically and on the floor: Dan Dickau, Kelly Olynyk and Nigel Williams-Goss.

“We don’t want to rush into anything,” Roth said.

But you knew that.

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For what it's worth, Zags have an RPI problem

A TV analyst -- I believe it was Sean Farnham -- weighed in on Gonzaga’s post-season prospects on a recent broadcast. He said he thought that, playing well, the Zags were a “second-weekend” NCAA-tournament team, meaning one that could get to the Sweet 16 under those circumstances.

I can’t argue with that.

If, on the other hand, you were to judge GU’s outlook solely on the RPI computer -- the Ratings Percentage Index -- you’d be debating whether the Zags belong in the tournament.

Fortunately for them, a lot more goes into it -- more than ever, in fact.

Wednesday, the RPI has the Zags at No. 66 -- up from 70 earlier in the week, probably because of Florida’s pillaging of Texas A&M Tuesday night -- and if you took only that cold, hard number, Gonzaga would probably be on the outside looking in at the field.

At the risk of rendering the GU faithful apoplectic, we’ll point out here that Washington is No. 56 in the RPI and Saint Mary’s is No. 43 -- no matter that Gonzaga smoked the UW on the road, and that any sane observer would conclude that GU has more wins of quality than Saint Mary’s.

Scheduling is usually cast as tricky business, and the Zags seemingly missed the mark this year as regards their lower-end opponents. They beat two dead-weight, 300-plus RPI teams -- Incarnate Word at 335 and Howard at 331 -- as well as North Dakota (273) and IUPUI (267). (Never mind that No. 273 just about came into the Kennel and beat the Zags a few weeks ago.)

To you and me, playing somebody like Maryland-Baltimore County seems the same as playing Howard. But UMBC is No. 198, while Howard’s lowly ranking has the effect of being one more heavy drag on Gonzaga’s RPI.

In other words, all stiffs are not created equal.

The bad news for the Zags is that the RPI has the West Coast Conference ranked a miserable 14th, immediately behind scofflaws like the Colonial (13), Summit (12) and Mid-American (11). In its better years, the WCC has had a single-digit ranking.

Indeed, that 101-52 win over Santa Clara last weekend came against the RPI’s No. 345 team. This week brings Pepperdine, which is No. 321. All of it seems to say to me that if anything, the Zags’ RPI is apt to worsen, unless Gonzaga does something dynamic -- let’s say, lose only once between now and the end of the WCC tournament.

How important is the RPI? Well, the NCAA basketball committee has steadfastly maintained over the years that it’s only one tool in the selection/seeding process. I think it’s safe to say it’s true that a team’s RPI is only a modest consideration, but on the other hand, we constantly hear quoted a team’s record against the RPI top 50, the top 100, or how many (inconsequential) wins it had against teams 200 or lower.

Fortunately for Gonzaga, the trend is for the committee increasingly to use other metrics. I ran the question by David Worlock, the NCAA’s director of media coordination and statistics, and he responded that the NCAA will use KenPom, Sagarin, KPI (that was a new one on me) and ESPN’s BPI.

In marked contrast to the RPI, both KenPom and the BPI have Gonzaga at No. 9.

Meanwhile, as it concerns the RPI, the committee will use an altered formula starting this year. Instead of assessing a flat number of top-50 or top-100 wins, it will assign value to any game result and put it in one of four quadrants. Quoting directly from Worlock’s e-mail:

“We have altered the team sheets that the committee uses to help evaluate the teams, and those place a greater emphasis on winning away from home. Whereas in the past, each team’s schedule was divided into four quadrants sorted solely by the RPI (1-50, 51-100, 101-200, 201-351), now they are sorted by the game location and the RPI. The new quadrants are as follows:

“Quadrant 1: Home games against 1-30, Neutral games against 1-50 and Road games against 1-75.
“Quadrant 2: Home games against 31-75, Neutral games against 51-100 and Road games against 76-135.
“Quadrant 3: Home games against 76-160, Neutral games against 101-200 and Road games against 136-240.
“Quadrant 4: Home games against 161-351, Neutral games against 201-351 and Road games against 241-351.

“In other words, a road win over a team ranked 73rd in the RPI is in the same quadrant as a home win over 28. In the past, that road win would have been in quadrant 2 even though statistically it is just as hard to beat 73 on the road as it is a team ranked 28th at home.”

By my reckoning, Gonzaga is 2-2 in Quadrant 1, 2-1 in Quadrant 2, 0-0 in Quadrant 3 and 8-0 in Quadrant 4.

What’s it all mean for the Zags? There’s no doubt it’s a good thing respected metrics like KenPom are in use. The more of them that tie a good number to Gonzaga, the more it might cast the RPI as an outlier. In that vein, Sagarin has the Zags at No. 10.

On the other hand, the fact the committee is refining the way it looks at any result, but still relying on the RPI to inform those quadrants, shows that the RPI is still alive and kicking. And that 8-0 in Quadrant 4 could be a concern for Gonzaga, especially as the number prospectively balloons in the soft WCC.

As always, it’s about winning games. For the Zags, anything that keeps them away from seeds like 8 and 9 is a good thing.
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In the WCC, same-old, same-old

On the occasion of Selection Sunday in 2016, Gonzaga coach Mark Few threw down a gauntlet for the bulk of West Coast Conference basketball programs, saying, “It’s time for some of these other institutions to start picking it up. They’re really dragging the top three down.”

The context was Saint Mary's omission from the tournament bracket. His point was his conviction that the money the league earned (much of by Gonzaga) in the NCAA tournament was being used to subsidize other sports, rather than to try to better some pedestrian basketball programs.

Twenty-one months later, as the WCC begins league play Thursday night, there’s scant evidence that much has changed in the conference. Gonzaga still rules, Saint Mary’s menaces with a perennial contender, and BYU, while formidable, seems forever consigned to battling for third place. (You could argue correctly that Saint Mary’s being picked to win the league is unusual, but the coaches likely would waffle toward Gonzaga with the benefit of the pre-conference results.)

Think about this: There have been six full seasons played since BYU entered the league in 2011-12. Gonzaga has finished first (or tied for it) five times, Saint Mary’s has finished in the two five times, and BYU has finished third four times. Sad to say, on Christmas Eve I’ve got better things to do than compare this league to 30-some Division 1 others, but can there be any conference as predictable? (You could argue Kansas, the perennial Big 12 winner, but at least the other powers there -- Texas, Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, Iowa State, West Virginia, etc. -- rotate.)

The strength of a league, of course, has a lot to do with its depth, and the 2017-18 WCC has the look of a lot of other WCCs, with the possible exception of San Diego (8-3), which has wins at New Mexico State and Colorado and looks salty. Saturday night, San Francisco hit a late three to beat a good Nevada team. The rest of it . . . well, you can take the rest of it.

Five programs -- Pacific, Pepperdine, Santa Clara, Portland and Loyola Marymount -- are all carrying 200-or-poorer ratings in So those games become everything-to-lose-nothing-to-gain for the contenders, and the league credibility is inevitably weakened.

That said, here’s the setup -- with a forecast -- as league play begins. (I’ve opted to rely on Ken Pomeroy’s rankings rather than the RPI, believing it to be a better measure.)

1. Gonzaga (10-3). Zags had been having a relatively promising pre-conference run until a disquieting loss at San Diego State, and even at that, they’re a robust No. 13 in KenPom. Problem areas: Too many turnovers (a modest 224-183 assist-turnover ratio) and some leaky three-point defense (.374). But an 8.8 rebound margin is excellent, Zach Norvell has been a revelation, and the return to health of Corey Kispert (ankle sprain) will help. The hunch is, the Zags will go as far as PG Josh Perkins can take them.

2. Saint Mary’s (11-2). SMC (30 in KenPom) lost a good deal of luster with two losses to Washington State and Georgia in the Wooden Legacy. The Gaels have an early league test at BYU Dec. 30. They shoot a brisk .510 but defense has been an issue (.466 allowed). They’re hard to guard, as Calvin Hermanson, Evan Fitzner and guard Jordan Ford -- now starting after playing little a year ago -- all shoot better than 40 percent from three. Jock Landale is a proven force inside, and SMC has a terrific 2.02 assist-turnover ratio.

3. BYU (11-2). Cougars (60 KenPom) have ridden 6-8 forward Yoeli Childs (16.6 ppg) and 6-5 guard Elijah Bryant (16.4), who is shooting .444 from three after hitting just .278 a year ago. Best win is over Utah (59). Defense is a familiar issue; Cougars allow .448 shooting. To contend, they have to keep from kicking games against lesser opponents, something that’s dogged them almost annually.

4. San Diego (9-3). If there’s a surprise in the WCC, the Toreros are it, with quality wins at New Mexico State (80) and Colorado (116). Isaiah Piniero, 6-7 transfer from Portland State, leads in scoring and rebounding (15.2, 6.3), and another transfer, 6-2 Isaiah Wright (Utah) is the second-leading scorer. Three-point defense (.233) has been phenomenal. Side note: Last win came over Life Pacific (maybe a bunch of guys from the local insurance agency?).

5. San Francisco (8-5). Win over Nevada (36) was one of the league’s best so far. Offense has been a significant problem -- the Dons shoot only .400 and .321 from three. Frosh guard Souley Boum, a slender 6-3 and 145 pounds, leads in scoring (14.0) while mostly coming off the bench. Ten players get 12 or more minutes. Dons have double-digit road losses to Arizona State and Stanford.

6. Loyola Marymount (5-6). Lions, who lost a three-point game at Washington, may be the best of what looms as a sketchy second division. They’re getting 19.2 points a game and .532 shooting from 6-1 guard James Batemon, a transfer from North Dakota State College of the Sciences. Best win is against Cal-Riverside (255). As it is for several WCC teams, defense (.446) is a questionmark. LMU opens league play at Saint Mary’s.

7. Pacific (5-8). Tigers completed pre-conference play by getting drubbed by 39 at unbeaten Arizona State. They could be toughened by a decent schedule, albeit with losses against Stanford, Nevada, UNLV and the Sun Devils. JC transfer Roberto Gallinat leads in scoring at 13.7. Defense, at .451, has been faulty.

8. Pepperdine (3-9). Can anybody here play defense? Waves allow .487 overall and .395 three-point percentages, which have a lot to do with six of their defeats having come by 10 points or fewer. Best wins are over Oral Roberts (218) and Cal-Riverside (255). Young team that starts two freshmen, two sophomores and a junior.

9. Santa Clara (3-9). Only keeping the Broncos out of the cellar because veteran coach Herb Sendek probably will steal a game or two. Otherwise, it’s been an abysmal beginning for SCU, with only two Division 1 wins, against Northern Arizona (328) and Arkansas-Pine Bluff (348). Junior guard K.J. Feagin leads with 19 points a game.

10. Portland (6-7). Pilots balanced three losses in the PK80 Invitational with some lamentable opponents, so there are wins against Walla Walla, Oregon Tech and Multnomah. The other three wins are over foes at 295 or worse in KenPom. At least the Pilots have shot the ball well, hitting .413 on threes.
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Zags-Huskies (with vocals by Sonny and Cher)

In some other universe . . . in some other existence . . . in some other lifetime . . . maybe we’ll see the day Washington is competitive against Gonzaga in a college-basketball game. Or maybe that’ll be left to our grandkids.

The Zags, you know by now, tattooed the Huskies, 97-70, Sunday night at Hec Edmundson Pavilion, which -- although the game flowed differently -- is a lot like last year’s score (98-71) in Spokane. Which isn’t all that different from the series-resuming game two years ago in the Bahamas (80-64), which wasn’t a whole lot unchanged from the one in 2006 (97-77) that preceded a near-decade-long interruption of the rivalry.

A sub-headline in my old paper, the Seattle Times, said it was Gonzaga's 10th win in 11 tries against Washington. Actually, it's 11 in 12. But it's easy to lose track.

Thank you sir, and may I have another?

(Could we have an audio accompaniment here of “I Got You, Babe,” the Sonny and Cher song Bill Murray kept waking up to in “Groundhog Day”?)

If we didn’t already know this is a bad matchup for Washington, there was this added layer: Washington plays zone, since its new head coach, Mike Hopkins, earned his spurs at Syracuse. Gonzaga is a deft shooting and passing team; more than athleticism, it recruits skill. So the UW zone -- which last night, morphed into sort of an “umbrella” configuration with four defenders at about the three-point line -- was essentially made to order for GU.

So it scored 97 points, and going backwards to a memorable 2004 game in what was then the new Kennel, GU has put up 97, 98, 80, 97, 95 and 99 points.

But here’s the number that can only be termed staggering:

This was the eighth straight game in the series, dating back to 2002-03, in which Gonzaga shot 50 percent or better. I don’t know how you can put a finer point of perspective on that trend other than to say that last week when Gonzaga lost to Villanova, it broke a 64-game streak of GU not allowing an opponent to shoot 50 percent. That’s about two years’ worth.

Shooting 50 percent means, in effect, you can’t have a key player go, say, 2 of 12.

Here’s the breakdown: (Cue Cher: “I got flowers in the spring . . . I got you, to wear my ring . . . “)

2017: 50.8 percent (Gonzaga wins, 97-70)
2016: 53.8 percent (Gonzaga, 98-71).
2015: 50 percent (Gonzaga, 80-64).
2006: 50.7 percent (Gonzaga, 97-77).
2005: 52.1 percent (Washington, 99-95).
2004: 58.9 percent (Gonzaga, 99-87).
2003: 61.1 percent (Gonzaga, 86-62).
2002: 55.6 percent (Gonzaga in OT, 95-89).

(“So put yo’ little hand in mine, there ain’t no hill or mountain we can’t climb . . . “)

I digress.

Meanwhile, I wonder what this does to the Washington-Gonzaga series. The Zags’ coach, Mark Few, made it plain to me in “Glory Hounds” that just as Gonzaga offed Washington State from its schedule, he prefers to do the same thing to Washington, saying, “It’s all about top-25 and top-50 wins.”

I expressed reservations, believing then that Washington could usually be counted on for an RPI computer ranking of 50-100, which isn’t damaging to GU’s profile. But since then, the UW went 2-16 in the Pac-12, and the current team is surely no more than a work in progress, the Kansas win notwithstanding.

So Few has gone out and proved his point.

You can argue that rivalries are rivalries and in good times and bad, they ought to be played, and that’s worth a fair hearing. The reality is that when the schools signed a four-year deal to resume the series starting last season (that excludes the Bahamas game), it included the stipulation for an opt-out if there was a change in head coaches. As much as it seems there’s warmth between Few and Hopkins, keep an eye on that.

Other notions a day after a visit to Hec Ed:

-- The 27-point margin of defeat, unless I’m whiffing on another game, is the largest in UW history to a non-league opponent at home. Next in line was an 87-61 loss to No. 1-ranked Duke on Jan. 3, 1989, during the Andy Russo era.

-- This was a reunion of the Zags and official Verne Harris, who did the 2017 NCAA title game against Carolina. Harris is a highly respected ref who had a terrible night on the championship stage.

-- Washington’s last lead in the series came on Dejounte Murray’s opening bucket in the Bahamas in 2015, giving the Huskies a 2-0 lead with 19:17 left in the first half. That was 119 minutes ago.

-- I thought the fortunes of GU’s Johnathan Williams III and Washington’s Noah Dickerson would be pivotal in the game -- if they matched up or not -- but I didn’t expect Williams to have such a decisive edge, especially after his poor outing against Villanova. Dickerson has improved his game significantly, but Williams’ 23-point, 12-rebound game was huge, especially as Dickerson had an uncharacteristically low four rebounds and Gonzaga dominated the boards, 40-27.
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For 'Nova, a Garden-variety win against Zags


Had a chance to scratch an old itch and see a game at Madison Square Garden, a venue I’d never visited, Tuesday night when Gonzaga played Villanova as part of the Jimmy V Classic doubleheader.

First, a little setup: On game day, there was nary a word of advance in either the New York Daily News or the Post on the game pitting the Nos. 4- and 12th-ranked teams. Maybe it had something to do with the firing Monday of New York Giants coach Ben McAdoo and the melodrama surrounding his quarterback, Eli Manning.

We sat, corner behind the basket, set back and up a way, in seats at $180 a crack. Of course, it was a doubleheader, also featuring Connecticut and Syracuse, two teams you could live without (and we did, leaving after the opener). But, it’s a benefit event.

Nowhere was there clothing or memorabilia commemorating the occasion. Why not sell a T-shirt and mark it up in the name of the cause?

Food and drink choices were good. I latched onto a bulging pastrami sandwich for $15.50 (angioplasty not included).

Photographs and newspaper pages recalling the Garden’s seminal events adorn the walls of the concourses, and inside, naturally, there are retired numbers of the Knicks and Rangers. I guess I’d have to conclude that I wasn’t overwhelmed by the place, but in fairness, how many arenas overwhelm you? It’s often the atmosphere therein that does it, and you don’t get atmosphere when you put college teams in a professional arena. (Don’t tell anybody, but Gonzaga is 0-2 in games I’ve seen live this year in that setting.)

My wife’s big moment was getting on the massive scoreboard during the DanceCam -- not because she was busting moves but because she was sitting next to Zach Norvell’s mom, who was.

So, to the Zags:

-- First off, it’s difficult to identify Gonzaga’s weaknesses against the excellence of the team it was playing. I’d been forewarned. “Villanova is really good,” Stu Jackson told me Monday in an aside during an unrelated interview, and the Big East exec and former NBA coach and league operative was spot-on. The Wildcats attack the basket, shoot and defend ardently in man-to-man, and -- even allowing for the vagaries of March Madness -- I’d be surprised if they’re not part of the Final Four. Gonzaga was described awhile back by a TV analyst as “connected,” but if that’s the case, Villanova is connected in the extreme.

-- ‘Nova benefitted by attacking the basket, in the tradition of Eastern teams. Or was it also a nod to the fact that Gonzaga isn’t overly deep, and there was opposing foul trouble to be gained? In the two GU defeats this season, Florida and Villanova have combined to shoot 62 free throws.

-- Johnathan Williams III and Killian Tillie combined for a mere 11 points, partly because of that foul trouble. In the two games I’ve seen up close, Williams has scored 39 points and five. Somewhere in there is a sweet spot the Zags can count on.

-- Well into the second half, the Zags’ two real ball-handlers, Josh Perkins and Silas Melson, were getting scant rest, and 'Nova was intermittently pressing. They ended up playing 38 and 36 minutes, respectively. Against lesser competition, maybe that can fly. But you wonder if it might affect things like Perkins’ shooting (1 of 7 from three).

-- Gonzaga’s turnovers are problematic, but seemingly fixable. Many of them are the kind you can see coming; now the players have to see them, too.

-- Corey Kispert’s absence (ankle) obviously hurt the Zags, but for the second straight game, GU got instant offense from Norvell (22 points). It will be worth watching to see how those two are juggled upon Kispert’s return so the development of two first-year players is maximized.

-- Villanova represents the peak of Gonzaga’s non-league schedule. The rest is negotiable, although Washington surely will be primed to right two decades worth of perceived wrongs Sunday in Seattle, and San Diego State looms Dec. 21. But if the Zags meet anybody as formidable as Villanova this season, that’ll be good news.
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Zags and 'Nova mulled game in Ireland

Gonzaga makes its debut in the Jimmy V Classic in New York Tuesday night against Villanova, another sort of scheduling milestone for the Zags. Amid the welter of November/December pre-conference showcases, the Jimmy V annually brings together some of the choicest brands in college hoops.

It also brings to light the kaleidoscope of scheduling possibilities out there for Gonzaga, especially now that it has joined the gentrified class of those who have reached a Final Four. Some of those discussions ultimately result in nothing tangible -- scheduling being a moving target of date, opportunity, prestige and who-knows-what-else -- while others remain live possibilities.

Here’s one of the former: For a good long while, it appeared Gonzaga and Villanova were going to play a game in Dublin, Ireland, next season (2018-19).

“For a while there, it looked like it was going to work,” says GU athletic director Mike Roth. “I wouldn’t say it was the 11th hour (that it broke off), but we thought it was pretty darned close.”

It seems that Fox, a Big East TV partner, discussed with Villanova, the 2016 national champion, a game in Dublin with Notre Dame, figuring it might appeal because of the heavy Catholic population in Ireland. Before that, there had been murmurs of trying to bring Villanova west for a Battle in Seattle appearance, which obviously didn't pan out.

The Dublin idea stalled on Notre Dame’s end, and that’s when Gonzaga entered the picture. Villanova and Fox each projected Gonzaga, and its Jesuit underpinning, as a good fit alongside 'Nova's Catholic roots But it proved to be too much of a logistical challenge.

“It really wasn’t one thing,” Villanova associate athletic director Josh Heird told me. “It was, ‘Where do we even start?’ “

Everything from the proper arena to sponsorship to promotion was a questionmark, and, says Heird, who coordinates Villanova basketball scheduling, “This thing, we would have been doing it on our own. I don’t want to speak for Gonzaga, but there’s not a lot of manpower in this athletic department. We’re not a Power 5 (school). We don’t have a bunch of resources we can throw at things.

“We just thought, ‘We’re biting off more than we could chew right now.' ”

But he adds: “I think there might be something we could do two or three years down the road.”

Says Roth: “I’m sure sometime in the future we’ll have them on the schedule; you never can tell.” He mentions “getting creative with games out of the normal markets.”

OK, so here’s some creative license: Don’t be surprised if Gonzaga gets involved in an event with similarities to the Champions Classic that annually involves Kentucky, Kansas, Duke and Michigan State. The four teams play an annual doubleheader at rotating sites (a game apiece), with the opponents switched each year in a three-year cycle. In this model, Gonzaga’s “host” games likely would be in Seattle (KeyArena’s long-debated renovation should get off the ground soon) or in Portland.

Meanwhile, the alliances with Villanova and Creighton -- Friday night’s opponent in Spokane -- can’t hurt. In the past, the Big East and the Zags have mulled whether Gonzaga could ever be an expansion fit, and -- however incongruous the geography -- it could someday be an option if realignment pushes that league to try to forge a nationwide profile.
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