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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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The Zags don't exactly sing it from the rafters

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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

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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

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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 KenPom.com. 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)

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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

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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

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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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Zags and the art of representin'

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Taking the temperature of Gonzaga’s performance in the PK80 tournament in Portland over the Thanksgiving weekend, you’d have to give the 15th-ranked Zags relatively high marks. Not a boffo, off-the-charts stone-cold “A,” but surely a three-game B or B-plus.

They thrashed what looks to be one of Ohio State’s weaker teams; did everything but beat Florida in a double-overtime classic, losing 111-105, and in a finale of schizo stretches, beat Texas in overtime. (The Florida game, had it gone to a third OT, was, for me, edging up in the category of best games I’ve ever seen in person to the 2005 Maui Invitational screamer between Michigan State and GU, won by the Zags in three overtimes. Memorably, in that one, neither team led by more than three points from the nine-minute mark of the second half to the finish, an astonishing stretch of 24 minutes.)

Gonzaga coach Mark Few came away from Portland expressing some satisfaction in projecting that his team can compete with anybody in the country.

What made the weekend a success, of course, was a game played at 10 a.m. Sunday, when a lot of people were in church or at brunch or trying to figure out why Washington State is suddenly rendered catatonic in the Apple Cup every year against Washington.

Nobody gets ecstatic about a third-place finish over a fifth in the Motion bracket of the PK80, but to Gonzaga, it’s of value. And that bespeaks an admirable quality about the program, the notion that you can almost always count on it to represent, as they say.

Let’s face it: That game stands to mean more to Gonzaga than to Texas. Those consolation games in pre-conference tournaments are gold to Gonzaga’s resume, while for the Longhorns, well, there will be multiple opportunities to atone, against Kansas and TCU and Baylor and Texas Tech. Gonzaga gets only so many chances against the flaccid WCC schedule.

Texas has generally been picked around the middle of the Big 12. Wherever the Longhorns finish, for the Zags, the game might mean a victory over an NCAA-tournament club, or at the low end, one going to a lesser tournament.

Gonzaga started slowly, then put on a blistering 24-0 run to take control. Of course, the Zags surrendered all of a 21-point second-half lead, and they’ve had a penchant for letting those things get away, from UCLA in 2006 to Iowa State last year, to Texas. That’s another story entirely.

Fact is, with precious few exceptions over the years, you can count on Gonzaga to show up, even if the stakes might seem negligible.

Certainly, there have been nights when the sleepy WCC schedule tripped up GU somewhere; that’ll happen.

There have been days and nights when Gonzaga didn’t get the memo. One of those was Duke in New York in 2009, a 76-41 disaster that caused Few and assistant Ray Giacoletti to soul-search as they roamed Gotham streets in a snowstorm (shameless plug: read all about it in “Glory Hounds”). Another was a 108-87 stinker at Virginia in the first few days of 2007.

Two more: Portland State’s ambush at GU in December of 2008, and Washington State’s 81-59 rout in 2010, although in hindsight, getting schooled by Klay Thompson isn’t such a disgrace.

Seems to me, though, that the consolation games of pre-conference tournaments are a worthy barometer of your native inclination to compete -- because I doubt seriously Few stands in a pre-game locker room and says, “Hey guys, this game means more to us than them.”

Texas was but an extension of history.

This isn’t an all-inclusive list, but go back to 2010-11, and a four-team November tournament in Kansas City. Gonzaga got smoked by Kansas State but came back to inch out a three-point win over Marquette, which turned out to be a 22-15, NCAA Sweet 16 team.

In 2013-14, Gonzaga was in danger of a miserable trip to Maui, losing its opener to Dayton and getting stuck in a nothing-to-gain, RPI-bruising consolation game against Chaminade. Next was Arkansas, a team that would go 22-12 in an NIT season, and Kevin Pangos responded with 34 points in a solid Gonzaga win.

In the fretful 2015-16 season, just about the only resume-builder until Gonzaga caught fire near the finish was a 73-70 victory over Connecticut in a consolation game in the Bahamas. That UConn team finished 25-11 and won a game in the NCAA tournament.

Such games can be sleepwalkers in front of skimpy crowds, perfect surroundings not to give a damn. Sunday, it was fair to assume that the emotional hangover was similar for Gonzaga and Texas -- the Zags having near-missed against Florida and the Longhorns having kicked a big second-half lead against Duke to lose.

However it happened, Gonzaga responded better. Modest though the return might seem, it was worth something.
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The most important Zag, and it may not be close

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Guessing that Gonzaga partisans haven’t found a lot to quibble over in their team’s walkover victories against Texas Southern and Howard. The Zags have defended well, run offense with some fluidity, substituted profitably and shown themselves to be more than a flimsy imitation of their landmark, Final Four club of 2016-17. This wouldn’t be the first team I’ve seen that, in the face of significant attrition, puts together a big season, seemingly in part because that’s the residue of a winning program. There’s an expectation to perform, if not excel.

Let’s not get carried away with wins over Texas Southern and Howard. But I think an initial inclination I had about this team is going to be faulty. I thought there were striking similarities between the current team and the GU outfit of two years ago. Recall, that was the one that was coming off an Elite Eight run in 2015, that had lost the graybeard backcourt of Kevin Pangos and Gary Bell Jr. It had two formidable talents up front -- Kyle Wiltjer and Domas Sabonis -- whom you might judge to be roughly comparable in production to Johnathan Williams III and Killian Tillie.

But while that team struggled to break in new guards in Eric McClellan and Josh Perkins, this one has veterans in Perkins and Silas Melson, and the combined wing help from Corey Kispert and Zach Norvell -- albeit freshmen -- appears likely to trump the steadiness of Kyle Dranginis. It also has a true center in Jacob Larsen, and the outfit two years ago went almost the entire year without Przemek Karnowski.

I’m sticking to one story, however. The player most pivotal to Gonzaga’s future this year will be Perkins, by a bunch. And not only because he’s the only real option at the point-guard position, at least until freshman Jesse Wade is capable of extensive time.

Perkins’ ride at Gonzaga has been eventful, to say the least. His description as a fourth-year junior seems more youthful than his varied experiences.

So much about Perkins has been sharp contrasts. He was going to play as a true freshman, and then he lost that 2014-15 season to a broken jaw suffered in November.

His play in ’15-16 was fretful. Mark Few, the head coach, was deeply worried about guard play early that season, for good reason. Perkins seemed hitched to the no-look pass as much as he was the quiet, routine play that worked. In one miserable stretch against Arizona, Montana and UCLA, he went 1 of 13 on threes with 10 turnovers in the first two. Then it gradually got better, the guards settled down and the Zags went to a surprise Sweet 16, but the final, unkind cut was Perkins’ runner to try to upend Syracuse that was swatted away by Tyler Lydon.

If Perkins was going to blossom, it might have been a year ago, but in October, he was charged with physical control of a vehicle while under the influence. When he got on the floor, here came Nigel Williams-Goss as main man, taking twice as many shots as Perkins, leading Gonzaga to a Final Four. Indeed, where Perkins had taken the third-most shots on the team as a redshirt freshman in ’15-16, he took 61 less in ’16-17. His assist turnover numbers, 119-75 last year, were actually poorer than they were the year before.

You never quite knew what you were going to get from Perkins. In the first two games of the WCC tournament last March, he didn’t make a field goal. In the breakthrough victory over West Virginia, he didn’t attempt one. Yet he had a crucial blocked shot in the final minute that was a desperately needed prelude to Jordan Mathews’ huge trey seconds later.

And then against Xavier, in an uh-oh moment for Gonzaga fans, it was Perkins’ lazy pass that led to a Xavier runout to start the game, something that he didn’t dwell on. He came back with three treys in seven attempts, part of Gonzaga’s deep-range fusillade that won it going away.

So it’s obvious what Gonzaga needs from an old hand wielding the joystick this year: Consistency. Few, who puts a premium on shooting from his point guards, wants Perkins firing with abandon, calling him an “elite” shooter.” Last year, with Williams-Goss unleashing 453 attempts, Perkins took only 6.1 shots a game. You figure Gonzaga coaches are fine with him bumping that number to at least 10.

Nothing that’s happened over two games disputes any of that. Playing with the look of freedom, Perkins has already launched 17 threes, hitting nine. If he can fulfill the upside there, fine-tune his decision-making and contribute leadership, he’ll be approaching the player Few spent so much time personally recruiting a few years ago.
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Huskies making Gonzaga game a tough ticket

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So I made a call to the University of Washington ticket office awhile back to buy a couple of tickets for the basketball game with Gonzaga Dec. 10, and it turned into more of a production than I would have guessed.

Several weeks ago, I was told single-game tickets wouldn’t be available until mid-October. Calling back then, I was told single-game seats would go on sale Oct. 24.

Except for one game: Gonzaga. That one wouldn’t be available until Nov. 7.

In the meantime, the UW was touting the Husky-Zag game as part of its five- and eight-game partial season packages. Both of those include Gonzaga, so I guess you could say the Huskies are willing to capitalize on Gonzaga’s success.

Anyway, a call to the ticket office Tuesday (Nov. 7) got this response: There still aren’t any such tickets available on a single-game basis, except to UW season-ticket holders. When I asked if there would be at some point, the ticket agent told me, “That’s definitely a possibility.”

I doubt anybody at Washington would concede this, but a side effect of curbing availability of single-game tickets is to limit the number of Gonzaga partisans in the stands. Nothing nefarious about that, but it’s perhaps another indicator of how the programs have diverged sharply in recent years. While the Huskies bottomed out with a 2-16 Pac-12 record and the firing of Lorenzo Romar in 2017, Gonzaga was appearing in its first Final Four.

Mike Roth, the Gonzaga athletic director, is taking a thoroughly benign view of the proceedings.

“There’s no conspiracy theory, at least in my mind,” he said. “This is not an uncommon practice in college athletics. It’s the University of Washington maximizing their schedule for the outcome they want. Nobody can blame them for that.

“If the roles were reversed, I think we would do the same thing.”

I was told tickets would be in the $65-99 range, if and when they’re available. If you take the secondary-market route -- that’s what I did -- be prepared to pay $100 at the low end.

This will be the first Gonzaga-UW game at Hec Ed since 2005, the most sizzling game in the series since the Zags began dominating it in the late 1990s. That was the one in which Adam Morrison rifled in 43 points but missed a late perimeter shot that probably would have won it. Instead, Washington prevailed, 99-95, in a screamer of a game with premier players all over the floor, including Brandon Roy.

That’s the Huskies’ only victory in the last 11 games in the series. Nine of the 10 Gonzaga wins have been by double figures, and a rivalry once marked by prickly words, cold shoulders and eventually, a nine-year hiatus (2006-2015), seems to have given way to a sense of resignation among a lot of UW fans. It will be worth watching to see whether first-year coach Mike Hopkins makes it a priority publicly to narrow that gap.

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