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The multi-layered legacy of Mike Leach

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

If so, I think he’s right.
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Just as we all figured, Gonzaga again ranked No. 1

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So Gonzaga is No. 1? Again?

Meh.

(If this website had a "facetious" emoji, right now I’d insert it.)

I tweeted this earlier Monday: Honk, if back in 1980; or 1993; or 2012 even, you’d believed by the end of the millennium’s second decade that the Zags would have made excursions to the top of the polls in four different seasons – with four virtually different casts.

Surely you jest.

Before Gonzaga made it to the top in the polls in 2013, I’d always sensed among its fandom that getting to No. 1 was nigh-impossible, even on a handful of occasions when the Zags edged into the top five. There were too many Dukes and Kansases and Kentuckys in the way.

(In fact, real Zagnuts may remember that as GU stood poised to claim the No. 1 spot with a late-season Indiana loss in '13, here came third-rated Duke, beating No. 5 Miami, and there was a large measure of belief that voters wouldn't, couldn't vote in the Zags given such fresh Blue Devil tracks. But they did.)

So I well remember when it happened in early March, 2013. I was in the office of GU president Thayne McCulloh, interviewing him, when he got the affirmative text. Hours later, there was the 20-foot-long blue-frosted sheet cake on a table in mid-campus with a “1” etched in. There was the quote from ex-Zags coach Dan Monson, when I asked him over the phone if, long ago, he and his staff had ever envisioned such a day. He said no, adding, “We drank a lot of beers together, but we never drank that many.”

I recall writing, “It means everything and it means nothing.” Everything, because it was so symbolic of Gonzaga’s improbable rise. Nothing, because a No. 1 ranking doesn’t help you win games (and in fact, it may have helped augur one of Gonzaga’s most painful losses, to Wichita State in the NCAA second round).

So what does being No. 1 mean today? Well, the “nothing” part still holds. And “everything” isn’t quite as forceful as it was that day in 2013, but it still invites a look at the bigger picture.

In the here and now, I’m shocked this team got to the top. I surmised it was overrated when preseason polls shoved it into the top 10. All it had lost from last spring were two NBA first-round draft picks, another NBA hopeful and the school’s career assist leader. Then came the Bahamas tournament and a startling succession of injuries. But still, wins over Oregon, and Washington and Arizona, none at home.

And in a season where the No. 1 ranking has been treated like a live electrical wire, here they are again.

This marks the 13th week Gonzaga has been ranked No. 1, including 2013, 2017 and 2019 (two stretches).

For perspective, consider the program whose story might come closest to Gonzaga’s – Butler. The other Bulldogs crashed the NCAA final game twice in a row, in 2010 and 2011, so they’ve had more high-end success than Gonzaga. But Butler has never been No. 1 in the polls. In fact, it’s only nosed into the top 10 a couple of times.

Downsides? Of course, there’s the old target-on-your-back standby. And inevitably, cue the legion of yard-barkers. Gonzaga-baiting – always great sport on the Internet -- may now crescendo. Just because it does.

I’ll say this: If Gonzaga’s lesser schedule going forward invites discussion that an onrushing Ohio State or Kansas or Louisville is more deserving in January, so be it. You don’t get to stay No. 1 by statute. This isn’t like royalty in England. And if you want to argue that one of those teams is a better choice for No. 1 today, knock yourself out. But you can’t dismiss Gonzaga’s eligibility – its worthiness – for the top spot on Dec. 23, 2019.

So big picture, taking into account everything from its NAIA roots, to Hank Anderson to John Stockton to Dan Fitzgerald, where does that leave us?

At the corner of stupefying and preposterous.
#zagmbb #wcchoops #theslipperstillfits #zaghoops #zagup

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There's magic in that Zags resume

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The word on the street in college basketball, 2019-20, is that there are no great teams, only some good ones. It’s not breaking news that Gonzaga seems to be one of those, but it is slightly startling to see GU among the teams at the forefront of the discourse this season.

Winning, of course, is hardly new to Gonzaga, but there is something that distinguishes the current Zags from their recent predecessors – and probably all of them – in school history.

They’re soldiering through adversity and winning on the road, in some of the toughest environments in the West.

Gonzaga’s 84-80 win at Arizona the other night got me to wondering: In what years did GU assemble its most convincing non-league resume, and when have the Zags acquitted themselves better on the road than this year, with victories in Tucson and at Washington?

I scoured the decade starting with the 2009-10 season, so we have 10 years of results. I used Ken Pomeroy’s authoritative, final-season rankings, and in that, there’s a bit of unfinished business – as in, how do the rankings play out for the rest of the 2019-20 season? It could be that Oregon, Arizona or Washington turns out vastly overrated, and that would skew what we might believe to be true now.

Here’s the rub: Over the years, the vast, vast majority of Gonzaga’s resume has been worked up at neutral sites. Last year, for instance, the Zags had the prodigious victory over No. 4 (KenPom) Duke in Maui, and their best wins otherwise were over Washington (48) and Creighton (55).

It’s likely that when the dust settles, this year’s 11-1 Gonzaga outfit will have accomplished more in non-league road games than at any time in history. Arizona is ranked No. 15 in KenPom this week, Washington No. 50, and if that sounds relatively modest, it’s more than I could unearth in looking at the past decade’s worth of GU resumes. (Besides, it’s my guess that Washington’s number improves as a young team matures, even as it’s possible that Arizona’s worsens somewhat – although that’s also a young team.)

Over a decade’s worth of true road games – we’re not including neutral or not-so-neutral courts – I could find only five times in which the Zags have beaten a KenPom top-60 team out of conference. The most notable such win was over Oklahoma State in the No. 1-seed year of 2012-13, when the Cowboys finished No. 24. The others were UCLA, 2014-15 (40th); Xavier, 2011-12 (53rd); Creighton, last year (55th) and West Virginia, 2013-14 (58th).

To the NCAA basketball committee, road victories are the Holy Grail. If it’s important to perform on a neutral court, because that’s where NCAA-tournament games are played, quality wins on the road far exceed that threshold – and speak more loudly than the dry “Quad 1" metrics can. And that’s why Gonzaga suddenly surged to a No. 1 seed Monday in Joe Lunardi’s bracketology, something I never would have thought we’d be discussing this season. But it must be conceded that Gonzaga can put itself in that debate, ahead of a Wednesday-night game with North Carolina and the usual West Coast Conference trap doors with Saint Mary’s and BYU.

Now couple the two road wins with the one-point Bahamas victory over Oregon, and the Zags have some head-turning possibilities, especially with the Ducks having upset Michigan on the road the other day, and about to have available 6-11 five-star prospect N’Faly Dante. Oregon is 12th in KenPom right now, and my money would say that rating improves.

How does the Zags’ overall resume to date compare with its three years of No. 1 seeds? Well, it appears there will be fewer top-100 wins, even if Gonzaga beats North Carolina. But there are various ways to measure; beyond the Duke conquest last year, you had to go all the way to No. 48 Washington and the Creighton victory for supporting evidence.

The 2016-17 Final Four team had the highest-end resume of any Gonzaga teams, with neutral-court wins over Florida (5), Iowa State (17) and Arizona (18). And the first GU top seed in 2012-13 had three conquests of Big 12 teams, all 20s-ranked. But none of those previous top seeds had the road sway of this team.

Sometimes it’s a fine line. Seton Hall led Oregon by 19 points and could have survived a one-possession game against the Ducks in the Bahamas. So instead of playing and beating a team that itself looks like it could have a case down the road for a No. 1 seed (Oregon), the Zags would have faced one that’s now 6-4, struggling and without one starting forward until February because of a broken wrist.

Gonzaga coach Mark Few must feel like he’s playing with house money. The victory at Washington went down to the wire. The Zags were an underdog at Arizona.

They won both, and in the future, Gonzaga gets those teams in Spokane with – ostensibly, anyway – a better roster.
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UW would win a rematch with Zags by double digits?

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On KJR 950 in Seattle this morning, host Chuck Powell weighed in on the Gonzaga-Washington game Sunday, and the progress Washington’s young team will likely make.

“If they played later in the season,” Powell said, “the Huskies would win by 10 or more.”

Hmm, well. Powell is insightful and imaginative, but after Gonzaga took down Washington, 83-76, at a boisterous Hec Edmundson Pavilion, that statement bears examination.

From my seat high in the arena (damn, my press-level seats were never like this), I’d take issue with Powell’s observation. Yes, Washington, with freshmen Isaiah Stewart and Jaden McDaniels, figures to be more formidable in February and March.

But Washington won't be doing that in a vacuum. Gonzaga, like Washington, replaced four starters from a year ago. One of the newbies, Anton Watson, was returning from an ankle sprain sustained in the Bahamas over Thanksgiving and clearly isn’t at full strength yet. Guard Admon Gilder dinged a knee in the Bahamas and hasn’t really played aggressively since. So if the Zags can regain full health, there should be some upside in store as well.

If the teams were to meet again – and surely it’s possible in the NCAA tournament --- it wouldn’t be on Washington’s home floor. And the prospect of Washington winning by 10 or more? That hasn’t happened in 20 games in the series – all the way back to 1974.

More second-day notions after a grinder of a game:

-- As noted in this space more than once, Gonzaga had an astonishing streak of having shot 50 percent or better against Washington eight straight times leading into last year’s thriller in Spokane. Now, the Zags have shot less than 50 percent in two straight against the Huskies.

-- So the key statistic in this one was Washington’s 19 turnovers, a highly unusual number for a quality opponent against Gonzaga, which has never been built to force turnovers. Nineteen is the most turnovers by the UW in the series this millennium, and it’s the most by a Power Six opponent against Gonzaga in seven games.

-- Washington’s nine threes was a season-high, and Zag fans would no doubt be stunned to know that the Huskies had a four-game stretch earlier in which they were 13 for 62 from deep (including 0 for 11 against Montana).

-- Ryan Woolridge committed five turnovers, but he was otherwise clutch for the Zags, with 16 points on 8-of-11 shooting, 4 rebounds, 3 assists and 3 steals. He had a fearless, successful take to the basket on the 6-9, 250-pound Stewart with the Zags up 75-73 and 2:18 remaining.

-- Naz Carter kept the Huskies in it with two late threes. On the second of those UW possessions, Bill Walton urged on TV, “Come back to Jaden McDaniels, come back to Isaiah Stewart. You go away from ‘em for . . . “ Right then, on cue, Carter bombed in a three.

-- There was one 7-0 run by Gonzaga. In the second half, the best either team could do was a five-point run.

-- One stat making the rounds was that it was Gonzaga’s seventh straight victory over a Pac-12 team. By my math, it’s eight: Wins over Oregon and the UW this year; Arizona and Washington last season; UW in 2017-18; Arizona and the UW in GU’s title-game year of 2016-17; and Utah in the 2016 NCAA tournament.

-- Mark Few and Mike Hopkins shared a half-hug at mid-court after the game. Randy Bennett, take note.

-- Washington fans won’t want to hear this, but the victory is probably more important to the Zags than the Huskies, underscored by the result from Phoenix hours before the game – Saint Mary’s boat-raced by Dayton. While Gonzaga has precious few remaining opportunities to build a resume – including Arizona Saturday and North Carolina Dec. 18 – the Huskies have all sorts of chances. The KenPom.com ratings have seven other Pac-12 teams in the top 70.
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Gonzaga-Washington: Where's the snark?

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So I was rooting through a disorganized bookcase recently and happened upon a Seattle newspaper from October, 2009. A piece had to do with the then-truncated Gonzaga-Washington basketball series, and the UW’s proposal to renew it over three seasons at KeyArena.

I got wistful. The column detailed how – after the series was tabled by Washington with the 2006-07 game – the Huskies were offering up the idea to play three games at the Key in Seattle, with an equal split of gate receipts. Washington, then under athletic director Scott Woodward, leaked the proposal to a local radio guy and it was all the talk that afternoon, and the e-mail detailing it hit the inbox of GU athletic director Mike Roth at about 5 p.m. that day, so late he didn’t get to it until the next morning.

A decade later, as the Husky-Zag series continues Sunday afternoon at Hec Edmundson Pavilion, I’m left to wonder: Where’s the snark? Where’s the shade? What happened to snide and petty? What kind of rivalry is this?

If you’re just tuning in, as they like to say on television, for decades Gonzaga-Washington was the typical big-school-versus-compliant-little-neighbor series. They began playing back in 1910, and the Huskies impressed bracketologists everywhere with a 23-14 victory. They won 16 of the first 18 games back when GU played at a lower level, then lost three straight during World War II. There may be a war story hidden therein, but today isn’t the day to try to unearth it.

Washington then won 12 of 13, and there was a 26-year hiatus in the series (1945-71), something that, years later, likely would have pleased Washington coach Lorenzo Romar.

It all changed on an early-December night in 1998 at Spokane Arena, when Gonzaga won, 82-71. That would be Gonzaga’s liftoff year, and it was a UW team that had gone to the Sweet 16 the previous season. Jeremy Eaton had 25 points and Richie Frahm 21 for Gonzaga. For the Huskies, Todd MacCulloch had 28, but they were without injured guard Donald Watts.

Suddenly, the Zags were in control, winning against Washington, and winning by double digits. Then came the bombshell in the fall of 2002. The Zags were among a handful of schools that turned Washington in to the NCAA for recruiting violations by Romar assistant Cameron Dollar, chiefly in the wooing of Clarkston product Josh Heytvelt. Dollar was eventually busted for 23 instances of NCAA violations, also including Bremerton prospect Marvin Williams.

Relations turned Arctic-icy between the two schools. Washington was miffed that Gonzaga didn’t try to work out the Dollar indiscretions with the Huskies instead of taking the issue public.

The teams played one of the great games in the series 14 years ago, which is Washington’s sole victory in the previous 13 games – a 99-95 screamer in which the Huskies, at home, had to survive Adam Morrison’s career-high-tying 43 points. The Zags, meanwhile, might very well have a clean slate against the UW this millennium but for a back injury that took out point guard Derek Raivio midway through the first half.

A year later, the Huskies announced they were taking a timeout. They ended the series. They said they wanted to pursue a more national schedule – you know, Gonzaga not being national enough for UW tastes. A TV station caught Zags coach Mark Few on camera, saying, “If I’d lost seven of eight, I’d want to cancel the series, too.”

With the break in the series still relatively a front-burner topic, the Huskies then floated their KeyArena trial balloon. If possible, that inflamed Gonzaga as much as the cessation announcement three years earlier – the mechanics of the announcement, the chutzpah the Zags felt it took to propose a “neutral court” four miles from the UW, 290 miles from Spokane. That’s when Few made the memorable observation that Bigfoot would have his baby before Gonzaga agreed to that.

Oh, for those days of those quotes.

Years passed. The Zags got stronger in this decade and the long Romar regime gradually went bust. So it wasn’t great timing for Washington, but the two sides got back together and renewed the series. First, they met in a Thanksgiving tournament in 2015, and Gonzaga breezed. Then the Zags blitzed Washington by 27 points the next two years. The Huskies scared the compression shorts off GU last year before Rui Hachimura’s last-second jumper won it by two.

Now the series is at an odd juncture. By all appearances, Few and third-year UW coach like each other. Of all the turns. On ESPN 710 radio in Seattle Friday morning, Hopkins called Gonzaga “one of the top programs in the country. They’ve kind of set the bar in West Coast basketball.” Few, Hopkins said, “has built one of the strongest basketball cultures in the country.”

Beyond that, the two teams are vastly different from a year ago, erasing the prospect of institutional knowledge from players’ minds, and in Washington’s case, perhaps even a strong revenge motive.

Meanwhile, west-side media interest in the series seemed to fizzle with Gonzaga’s dominance. If the rivalry wasn’t going to be hot, well, there were other things to obsess over, like Pete Carroll’s record in 10 a.m. games against AFC teams coached by guys named Kirk, when the moon is in the seventh house and Kevin Burkhardt is announcing for Fox.

Like they say, it can’t be a rivalry when one team wins all the time. Except for that 2005 thriller at Washington, Gonzaga has won everything – the public-relations war and the games. No doubt Hopkins will try to persuade his young guys this is turf worth reclaiming.
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Gonzaga's road map to Spokane Arena

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Or, you could title this: “Now The Lifting Gets Really Heavy.”

Spokane Arena in March plays host for the sixth time to the NCAA men’s basketball tournament first and second rounds, and although nobody is saying it, a reasonable goal for Gonzaga ought to be getting there. It takes a protected seed in the tournament – that’s a No. 4 or better, although you’ll hear basketball committee members sometimes fudge a little and begrudge a No. 5 seed – and that would seem a realistic aim for the Zags, now ninth-ranked and 9-1 after a rout of Texas Southern Wednesday night.

It would be a hoot to see it happen, just to hear the yowling from some poor, unsuspecting fan base in Ohio or Pennsylvania, when it finds out it’s journeying to a gym that’s only a good walk from the Gonzaga campus. (And, if you’re wondering, by rules of the bracketing procedure, the committee only has so much latitude in opposing those principles. In other words, if Gonzaga earns the home cooking with a protected seed, it shouldn’t be denied the placement.)

Funny, but during Gonzaga’s gilded run of 21 straight NCAA-tournament appearances, the Zags have managed to miss the Spokane Arena host years – almost uncannily so. GU has been a No. 4 seed or better nine times – in 2004-06, 2009, 2013, 2015 and 2017-19, and none of those lined up with the five Arena host years. The Zags play a mean game of basketball, and in this case, seemingly, dodgeball.

A refresher on Spokane Arena’s host years:

2003 – The Zags, a nine seed, were off playing that double-overtime hair-raiser against Arizona in Salt Lake City.

2007 – This was the Heytvelt-bust season, when a drained and thin roster got a 10 seed and lost to Indiana.

2010 – An eight seed got the Zags shuffled to Buffalo, where they got schooled in the second round by Syracuse.

2014 – Kevin Pangos’ turf toe, another eight seed in San Diego, a plucky win over Oke State before a blowout at the hands of Arizona.

2016 – Only a late-season awakening got Gonzaga in at all, as an 11 seed that crashed the Sweet 16.

So the years when the Arena has hosted have been almost a curse to Gonzaga’s outlook for a deep run.

What’s dead ahead of the Zags figures to go a long way toward determining whether they can end that long trend. Next up, in a 10-day stretch starting Sunday, are Washington and Arizona on the road and North Carolina at home. It’s a treacherous enough run that the possibility exists of going 0-3.

It’s a fool’s errand to try to project in early December how the three games could impact the chance of a four seed or better, but what the hell, let’s be foolish. Here’s how I’d handicap it:

If Gonzaga can win two of three, that’s a major step toward a protected seed.
Win one of three, and it’s an iffy future unless the Zags dominate the WCC, which logically means a handful of wins and no more than one loss (WCC tournament included), two max, against the Saint Mary’s-BYU bloc.

Winless, or 3-0, against the Huskies, Wildcats and Tar Heels will pretty much speak for itself.

None of these propositions comes with a guarantee. There are always unseen, one-night provocateurs in the WCC. There’s the befuddling string of injuries that hit recently. But a move on Spokane Arena in March would cross off another box on Gonzaga’s to-do list.
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Zag-Duck series: It's mostly left to the imagination

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Gonzaga may or may not play Oregon this week in the Battle 4 Atlantis. It depends on whether the Zags can vanquish Southern Miss (2-3), which seems likely, and whether 11th-ranked Oregon has an answer for 13th-rated Seton Hall, which is iffy.

Gonzaga and Oregon. For two teams that have achieved considerably in the Northwest, it might seem like crickets is the best way to describe their relationship, even as the Zags' head coach is an Oregon alum who grew up 10 miles from Eugene.

Indeed, they haven’t played in 20 years. Yet under the surface, there are a good many might-have-beens and coulda-shouldas and even a little unseen rivalry simmering.

First, to 2017. How cool would it have been if Oregon and Gonzaga had each found its way into the national-title game? (Never mind the TV moguls, who would have cringed.) As it was, of course, only the Zags made it; Oregon stalked North Carolina the entire second half, got within a point, saw UNC’s Kennedy Meeks miss two free throws with five seconds left – and promptly allowed an offensive rebound that sealed it for the Tar Heels.

Stat-wise, it was hard to separate Oregon and Gonzaga that year, cosmetically, anyway. Each had five scorers in double figures, Oregon led by Dillon Brooks’ 16.1, Gonzaga by Nigel Williams-Goss’ 16.8. The Zags shot .382 on threes, Oregon .380. GU hit .717 of its free throws, the Ducks .712.

What might have materialized if they’d met? Could GU have found a way to guard both Brooks and Tyler Dorsey? Or would Williams-Goss or perhaps Zach Collins been the difference?

We’ll never know, obviously. So we’re left to the sketchy history of the “rivalry,” and the scheduling subplot beneath the surface.

About 12-15 years ago, I asked Zags coach Mark Few about playing Oregon, and he responded about as enthusiastically as if I’d recommended to him a 5-8 guard who can’t shoot. You know, turf-war considerations, coaches staking out territory, etc. What was in it for them?

Not that he was alone, of course. Ernie Kent, back when he had it going with Oregon, may have set the tone first. Asked, well before my conversation with Few, about playing Gonzaga, Ernie said he’d only do it if the GU home game were at Spokane Arena; the 6,000 seats in the McCarthey Athletic Center was too small-time for the Ducks. Kent was willing to make it a Spokane Arena-Portland series but Gonzaga never got on board, saying it was already playing annually at the University of Portland.

After that, silence. Then Kent got fired after the 2009 season and Dana Altman came aboard. He said he was open to playing the Zags, and at one point, there was a tentative agreement to get together – in Seattle and Portland. Then – as Oregon told the story – Gonzaga agreed to a late addition by another opponent and turned its back on the Ducks, quashing that series and leaving Altman feeling less than cozy about the Zags. Scheduling in late summer, the Ducks had to scramble for a stand-in.

I’m only speculating here, but as long as Gonzaga is committed to playing Washington, another worthy Northwest opponent, that probably dims the chance of anything happening with Oregon. Right or wrong.

Here we sit then. Failing the would-be ’17 title meeting, or a Battle in Seattle confrontation before that, the last game Oregon and Gonzaga played was in the semis of the 1999-2000 Rainbow Classic and Oregon won, 70-64. Matt Santangelo and Richie Frahm were held to a combined 11 points and the Zags essentially did it to themselves at the foul line, shooting 15 of 27 while Oregon was 13 of 14.

Oregon leads the series 19-3, and the last time Gonzaga won was almost 90 years ago. In fact, it’s been so long ago that the details are in doubt. Gonzaga’s press guide doesn’t list year-by-year results that far back, and Oregon’s guide has Gonzaga winning that game, 29-27. Aha, but the Eugene Guard newspaper of Feb. 20, 1930, had a two-paragraph Associated Press story from Spokane under the headline “Gonzaga Defeats Webfoot Quintet in Tilt Wednesday, in which the score was said to be 36-28. So there.

The rest of the Duck-Zag series, as they say, is history. What there is of it.
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As usual, Zags are quick out of the gate

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With about seven minutes gone in Gonzaga’s game at Texas A&M Friday night, I got a text message that had frown wrinkles. The Zags had come out flat, it said. The chemistry wasn’t quite there yet.

True enough. In its first real test of 2019-20, the Zags fell behind 14-11. They looked disconnected.

And right about then, they turned on the jets, blew away A&M with a 20-0 run and won by 30 points on the home floor of a Power Five school. What looked like a grinder turned into a night on Easy Street.

Granted, A&M isn’t a team that needs to be checking bracketology every week to see where it’s headed. For much of the night, it looked like it was playing with a medicine ball, not a basketball.

Still, it’s hard not to give props to a Gonzaga team that, despite a wholesale makeover, put the throttle down against an outfit from the SEC.

Maybe we shouldn’t be surprised. One of the standards of the Gonzaga program over the years under Mark Few is the ability to start the season fast. It’s almost a necessity, given that the Zags play an inverted schedule, zigging when a lot of other folks zag. The tough games are in November and December, and then the schedule turns mushy in January and February.

Think about some of the pelts Gonzaga has accumulated early in the season. As far back as 2003-04, it won a tournament in Washington, D.C. by beating Maryland. The next year, its first signature victory in the McCarthey Athletic Center was a thunderous 99-87 conquest of a ranked Washington team. In 2005, in Maui, it upset Maryland and won the memorable triple-overtime screamer over Michigan State.

And on and on. There were two championships in the Old Spice Classic, a Maui title in 2009, and then last year, the mother of all November accomplishments, a second Maui title won by beating No. 1-ranked Duke.

Want to go really retro? About the time Gonzaga was clearing its throat for its improbable burst onto the national scene under Dan Monson, it won the Top of the World Classic in Fairbanks in stunning fashion, in what turned out to be the last season (1997-98) before going to the NCAA tournament was a regular deal.

So, to tonight. A&M has a new coach, Buzz Williams, assembling his own system. Few is trying to replace three players who went to the NBA, plus Josh Perkins, GU’s career assists leader. There’s some continuity for GU with players like Filip Petrusev and Corey Kispert and Joel Ayayi, but . . . a 30-point margin?

For me, the most palpable aspect of the game was, after those first several fragile minutes, GU looked connected. It still has guys who pass the ball, seek the best shot and have a knack for finding the open man. That’s an unexpected quality when you’ve just remade your roster. At times, the Zags’ interior defense let them down, but still -- a 30-point road victory. The guard tandem of Ryan Woolridge and Admon Gilder matched each other with 16 points and seven rebounds, and I thought Joel Ayayi was a revelation with eight points, seven rebounds and six assists.

Pat Forde, the writer, tweeted the other night in the wake of Kentucky’s shocking loss to Evansville that he believes Kentucky coach John Calipari “undercoaches” intentionally in the early season, the implication being that he likes to let players struggle so as to allow them to see the error of their ways, then get them ready for the important part of the season. At Gonzaga, Few doesn’t have that luxury. If the first six weeks of the season pass without notable victories, it’s a 10 seed waiting to happen in March.

The Zags are going to face a whole bunch of teams better than Texas A&M, and soon. In the Battle 4 Atlantis tournament later this month, Oregon and North Carolina could await. But by now, we shouldn’t be surprised when Gonzaga, new cast or old, starts fast.

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

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

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

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First team

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

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

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

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

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

Second team

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

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

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

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

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

Honorable Mention

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

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

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

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


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Zags in the cross-hairs of the NIL issue

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Over the phone, I could almost hear Roth shuddering.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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