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Bud Withers' Blog

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The Zags in the era of free agency

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And these days, the remaking comes fast and furious.
#zagmbb #wcchoops #theslipperstillfits #zaghoops #zagup

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First Zag game I covered? Pull up a chair . . .

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I headed downtown to Rico’s, bought a six-pack of Lucky Lager, and like Jim Valvano, looked for somebody to party with. Like him, I couldn’t find anybody. I drove back to the apartment and drank in the darkness, no gloating, just grateful.
#zagmbb #wcchoops #theslipperstillfits #zaghoops #zagup

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The Zags' west-side story: It's a head-scratcher

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

As it happens, there’s a sub-plot.

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

Let’s go back in time.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

#zagmbb #wcchoops #theslipperstillfits #zaghoops #zagup

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


#zagmbb #wcchoops #theslipperstillfits #zaghoops #zagup #TougherTogether #HuskyFamily #GoHuskies

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Zags flying in college hoops' turbulent skies

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Meanwhile, the bulldozing of Gonzaga’s roster continues. Unlike Beilein, at least Mark Few isn’t going anywhere.
#zagmbb #wcchoops #theslipperstillfits #zaghoops #zagup

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Zags lament Texas Tech, and a lot of other things

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Haters gonna hate, and some still dog the Zags

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My late father had an expression for those drivers who didn’t meet his standards, who were going too fast or who made an ill-advised turn.

“All the idiots are out today,” he would say.

Decades later, it occasionally still holds true. Some days, the idiots seem to collect on the roads. When they’re not on Twitter bashing Gonzaga.

So here are the Zags, in another Elite Eight in advance of their Saturday matchup with Texas Tech for a second Final Four in three seasons. And they’re still batting away barbs from naysayers mad at Gonzaga’s seeding, mad at the fact the Zags lost to Wyoming in the first round in 2002, mad, from all indications, at the world.

Duke probably is the most polarizing team in college hoops, by virtue of dominating the sport for three decades. Second in dissenting opinion might be Gonzaga, for reasons only the Twitterati can fathom.

Probably, Gonzaga’s rush onto the tournament scene from 1999-2001 – two Sweet 16s and an Elite Eight – set the whole thing up. There was considerable blowback when, from 2004-06, GU had early, sometimes unseemly, exits from the tournament. So the Zags became the outfit that always choked in the tournament.

Now the narrative has shifted. Gonzaga is the NCAA basketball committee’s favored child, somehow getting undeservedly high seeds, which, of course, guarantees advancement straight to a Final Four interview podium.

Truth be told, I think there’s room for debate on whether Gonzaga should have copped a No. 1 seed in this tournament; its resume is thinner than some power-conference heavies. But on the side of the Zags is a basketball committee now giving considerable weight to advanced metrics and Gonzaga’s portfolio there sparkles.

One Seattle sports-radio jock dogs Gonzaga on the seed issue. So should the Zags have gotten a 3 or a 4? No, the other day he said he would have given them a 2.

Like it would matter. If the Zags have proved anything over the years, it’s that seeding is vastly overrated. In its 21-year run of making the tournament, GU is 18-3 in the first round, and it’s won multiple times as a 7, 8 and double-digit seed. It went to the 2016 Sweet 16 as an 11.

But by all means, let's obsess over something that's maybe 10th on the narratives around Gonzaga basketball.

Mike DeCourcy of the Sporting News tweeted the other day, “They built their program to what it is out of nothing. Just some tiny mid-major in an isolated part of the country. It’s the most amazing story in the history of college basketball.”

DeCourcy conceded that any mention of the Zags in his dispatches seems to inspire fury from a segment of the populace.

“Amazing how many people keep insisting this success is all a matter of their league,” DeCourcy added.

Of course, it’s amazing 30-some percent of the country believes the leader of the free world is just an all-around admirable figure.

“Three Elite Eights in five years,” tweeted Seth Davis of CBS Sports. “One of the most amazing stories in all of sports.”

That missive Thursday night after GU’s victory over Florida State unleashed the predictable torrent of critics, as always well-informed and well-spoken. Herewith, some of the snarling, with comment.

“Seems like an exaggeration. They’ve been on the national scene 20 years. Made 1 Final Four.”
And of course, when they stepped onto the national scene two decades ago, they began on the same footing with Duke, Kentucky and North Carolina.

“Seth, they don’t play anyone.”
Indeed, Gonzaga’s been dodging Golden State and the Oklahoma City Thunder for years.

“But not bigger than Butler, back-to-back title games.”
Great story, Butler, and surely one of Gonzaga’s kindred spirits. It made the title game in both 2010 and 2011. But it has missed the tournament three times since then, and the breadth and consistency of the Zags would outstrip the Butler saga.

“Why is this an amazing story? The one and done era in college basketball has allowed small schools to develop strong programs cause they are the senior laden and transfer laden (sic) so I think that amazing story is not a story no more.”
Yeah, all around the country, from Missouri-Kansas City to Stetson to Texas-Rio Grande Valley, the same upstart programs are busting brackets every year.

“That’s a bit hyperbolic, Seth. Good for the Zags but that’s not THAT impressive. It’s not even all that impressive for college basketball let alone ALL OF SPORTS”
Whatever you say. But it’s at least impressive for teams in Spokane County.

“Could be the year they finally make a Final Four”
True. The wait since that last one in 2017 has been interminable.

“(Expletive) that team should’ve not be number 1”
Relatively cheaply, you can find English classes on-line or through junior colleges near you.


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Zags: Late bloomers in an old game

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On the occasion of another NCAA tournament, I decided to take a dive into the NCAA Final Four record book, which is full of great information (you can find it on www.ncaa.org, go to statistics and follow the links). With Gonzaga’s tournament success in recent years, I wondered how its all-time record in the event – 31 wins, 21 losses – stacked up nationally.

I already knew this: It’s hard to compile a glittering record in the tournament, simply because you’re guaranteed a defeat unless you win the whole thing. So if you get to the round of 32 – precisely what GU did from 2010-2014, you’re going .500.

Here’s the big takeaway from a perusal of the numbers: As if we didn’t already know it, they’ve been playing college hoops a long time. On the victory list, Gonzaga is only tied for 34th. Of course, the Zags didn’t break through on that list until 1999, and though I didn’t have time to compute this, you can bet they’re top-ten in wins since then.

Have to admit some surprise at the distance between some of those schools and Gonzaga. Obviously, the others had a big head start. But remember, the 64-team tournament didn’t come into being until 1985, so that’s just 14 years of that format before GU began to win.

Before that, it took five wins, four, and – going way back – just three to win the NCAA tournament. In other words, there were far fewer wins to go around. (The first NCAA tournament was in 1939, and Gonzaga didn't playing Division 1 hoops until the 1958-59 season.)

Below is a list of the teams with more victories than Gonzaga’s 31. Thirteen have lesser winning percentages, so Gonzaga ranks 21st among that group. Note that they're listed in order of victories, not winning percentage.

Kentucky, 128-52, .711; North Carolina, 124-46, .729; Duke 111-37, .750; Kansas, 107-46, .699; UCLA 106-42, .716; Louisville, 76-43, .639; Syracuse 68-39, .636; Indiana, 66-34, .660;

Michigan State, 65-31, .677; Villanova, 64-36, .640; Michigan 59-27, .686; Connecticut 59-30, .663; Ohio State, 56-31, .644; Arizona 56-34, .622; Georgetown 47-29, .618; Florida, 46-19, .708; Cincinnati 46-31, .597; Arkansas, 42-32, .568;

Maryland, 41-26, .612; Oklahoma, 41-31, .569; Marquette 41-33, .554; Illinois 40-31, .563; Purdue, 39-30, .565; Wisconsin, 38-22, .633; Oklahoma State, 38-27, .585; Utah 38-32, .543; Notre Dame, 38-40, .487;

NC State, 37-26, .587; Kansas State 37-34, .521; Texas, 35-37, .486; Memphis 34-26, .567; Temple 33-32, .508; UNLV 33-19, .635; Gonzaga 31-21, .596; West Virginia, 31-29, .517.

Some observations:

-- The first 19 schools on the list have won a national title.

-- It’s striking that both Notre Dame and Texas have sub-.500 records in the tournament.

-- West Virginia, the school Gonzaga is tied with, has a pretty rich basketball history, dating to Jerry West.

-- FYI, Washington’s NCAA-tournament record is 18-17. Its first-round opponent this week, Utah State – with a pretty good tradition of its own – is just 6-22.

-- It continues to amaze me that Nebraska, a Power Five school that has pretty solid fan support, is 0-7 in the NCAA tournament.

-- Also 0-7: Boise State.

-- Most wins among Big Sky teams? Surprise, it’s Idaho State, at 8-13.

-- Only Ivy League school with a winning NCAA record is not Penn or Princeton, but Dartmouth, at 10-7.

-- BYU, another school recognized to have a fairly healthy basketball tradition? It’s 15-32 in the tournament.
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Zags need to be a virtuoso at versatility

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However Gonzaga’s basketball season ends – raining confetti or forever lamenting a shot that wouldn’t drop – this much is certain: The Zags have taken their fans on a hell of a ride.

Only part of has anything to do with 30 victories.

At its most alluring, Gonzaga has elevated its hoops to an art form. The Zags have been a symphony as much as a basketball enterprise.

Cue the visuals: Josh Perkins, floating a little lob pass to a soaring Rui Hachimura. The fast break, lanes filled, inevitably to end well. Zach Norvell splashing wanton threes. Brandon Clarke standing sentinel over the hoop. Geno Crandall, going behind the back -- French pastry, Al McGuire used to call it – for an assist. They lead the nation in scoring (88.8 a game) and in field-goal shooting (.532).

In their best moments, they’ve played beautiful basketball, probably the most pleasing in Gonzaga history. Mark Few, the coach, has always been wired that way, seeing the game not as slugfest, but a measure of skill, and recruiting to that ideal.

You could say he grew up that way. Fifty-five miles from where he came up in Creswell, Ore., was Oregon State, No. 1-ranked for weeks in 1981 under Ralph Miller. Few's senior year, Creswell too was No. 1 in the Oregon Class AA polls, and for teenage kids, it was impossible not to notice the Beavers, who were also one of the most esthetic outfits around. They made the game simple, pressing, pushing the pace and executing half-court offense with great facility.

More than one person has told me the Bulldogs – the Creswell Bulldogs – saw a little of themselves in Oregon State, a high-scoring high school version of the top-ranked team in the land.

But that was then and this is now. The Zags are coming off an almost unthinkable loss to Saint Mary’s, casting a disquieting note over their fandom on the eve of the NCAA tournament. Not only didn’t GU exhibit any of the artistry that has marked its game, it didn’t win.

And that’s the flip side of appealing basketball. There are days you have to grind, and that seemed beyond Gonzaga’s inclination, or at least its capability.

In the moment, I doubt that players have any sense for how esthetic their team’s play might look. But surely something tells them when the rhythm is disjointed or when the opposition is mucking up the preferred pace.

You can see how it might be difficult for a player; you have to find that sweet spot between speed and discretion. Everything (including maybe the coaches) is telling you to quicken the tempo, yet the failure to make the extra pass or to probe just a couple of seconds longer before hoisting a shot is often exactly what the defense desires.

Few was impatient with the media in that Saint Mary’s post-game session. I wasn’t there, but I can infer his frame of mind: This is a team capable of winning a national championship. He might never have this stacked a roster again. Gonzaga had just played nowhere near that level, and everything between that night and Thursday’s game (with Fairleigh Dickinson or Prairie View A&M) must be focused on ensuring that the next time the Zags get beat, it won’t be because of such extreme shortfalls in execution -- but more than that, perseverance.

Sometime in the NCAA, the Zags are going to have to grind to win. In fact, it’s probably going to come as soon as Saturday, when they could line up against Syracuse, the club that ousted them in 2010 and 2016. They’re going to have to get dirty. It can’t all be high-flying. Sometimes, it’s hammer-and-tongs, jam the ball inside, get in a defensive stance and prove your will is greater than the guy with the ball.

My mind drifts to that memorable 1981 Oregon State team. It went 26-0, then on senior day in Corvallis, was rudely brought to earth by a talented Arizona State team in a blowout – the psychological equal of the Zags’ loss to Saint Mary’s. You can imagine what consternation that wrought on the Beaver believers.

Five years before a shot clock, OSU faced Kansas State in its first game of the NCAA tournament. It was an exercise in drudgery. The Beavers led 26-19 at halftime, K-State kept spinning its control web, and never was OSU’s gorgeous game of that season in evidence. It was 50-50 with two minutes to go. OSU missed a one-and-one, K-State held the ball the rest of the way and Rolando Blackman finished it with a jumper, the most devastating moment in Oregon State basketball history.

Shortly, the Zags will see somebody bent on extinguishing the rhythm from their game. They need to make sure that if the poetry isn’t there, the resolve is.
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Zags-Huskies in the NCAA: It could happen

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So … might it happen this March? Might the Gonzaga-Washington series, previously truncated and occasionally tortured, resume in the NCAA tournament?

And would Gonzaga want that?

OK, I get it: It’s way premature and there are other bigger fish to fry. Gonzaga is licking wounds applied by Saint Mary’s Tuesday night. Washington is still doing business in the Pac-12 tournament. But hey, in the days leading to Selection Sunday, let’s speculate. It’s not just whistling in the wind, it’s a real possibility as a second-round matchup. Don't anybody get overly lathered about it, but file it away, just in case.

It appears there’s more than a passing chance that the two could line up in the second round. The Zags’ WCC-finals loss either leaves them as a No. 1 seed, or, depending on other results, drops them to a 2. So if Washington rates from a 7-10 seed, the possibility is live. Gonzaga is going to be placed in the West, and Washington would need to join GU there, and they'd each have to advance.

Remember, a good many bracket analysts through January and February have had the UW as an 8 or 9, and the Zags a 1, in the same region.

Here is probably a good place to insert the disclaimer that we don’t know with certainty that Washington is in the tournament, but its quarterfinal win over USC Thursday in Vegas surely helped. And its fate Friday night (and Saturday, potentially) will have a lot to say about its seed. My guess is that even winning the tournament wouldn’t kick them higher than a 7 seed.

Let’s dig deeper:

THEIR LAST MEETING

On Dec. 5, the two teams met in Spokane, and in an expected sizzler, Gonzaga pulled out an 81-79 victory on Rui Hachimura’s elbow jumper inside the final second. It was the Huskies’ first competitive effort against GU in well, years and years (owing partly to the nine-year hiatus in the series exacted by ex-UW coach Lorenzo Romar).

I reviewed that game tape and came away with several impressions, probably the most prominent that Washington seemed comfortable running its offense against the Zag defense. Indeed, the Huskies shot a healthy 47.5 percent to GU’s 42.9, and as noted in this space a couple of times, Gonzaga had historically shot the lights out against Washington – eight straight times of 50 percent or better.

The biggest problem for GU was Jaylen Nowell, who had 26 points and six assists. The Zags tried Corey Kispert, Zach Norvell and Josh Perkins on him at various times, mostly without success. Kispert isn’t quick enough and Perkins, needing to conserve energy for the other end of the floor, isn’t ideal. So if it happens, it’s probably going to fall largely to Norvell.

Essentially, the Husky offense flourished because of slashing drives by Nowell and Matisse Thybulle (18 points, four assists), and when they didn’t have openings themselves, they flung it out to the perimeter for teammates’ threes.

Other takeaways:

-- Filip Petrusev was hugely important for Gonzaga, with nine points and three rebounds in 14 minutes.

-- This was one of Brandon Clarke’s poorer games; he went 4 of 11 from the field and had five turnovers. He never looked comfortable on offense, including on scoring opportunities from the high post. (An aside: The Huskies seem oddly willing to concede damage from the high post, almost as if to say the shot is something opposition big guys can’t convert. And indeed, a couple of times, Clarke obliged with leaning attempts, trying to make a 13-footer an 8-footer.)

-- When Washington elevated its matchup zone defense – collapsing its bigs farther toward the foul line to confront penetration – the Zags hurt the Huskies a few times by getting the ball to the corner for baseline drives.

-- My guess is, upon review of tape, the Zags saw several cringe-worthy moments down the stretch, when they were, frankly, horrible. Perkins got caught at the end of a shot clock taking an off-balance mid-range attempt that misfired, GU didn’t get back and Washington pushed the ball and hit Thybulle for a dunk with 35 seconds left. Then Norvell, with 17 seconds showing and 13 on the shot clock, drove the baseline and missed a three-footer, not using the backboard, to give the UW a final possession on which it tied the game.

-- With 4:50 left and GU ahead 73-62, Kispert missed an open three that very likely would have turned the lights out on the Huskies. Instead, they returned fire with their own three, so a potential 14-point lead quickly became eight points.

WHAT'S CHANGED IN THREE MONTHS

For one, the presence of Geno Crandall and Killian Tillie, unavailable in the first game, would help GU. Crandall is a good match for UW guard David Crisp, who has shown the ability to get hot. Tillie, coming off his foot injury, should be ready for perhaps 20 minutes a game the first weekend, and he was a key figure when GU throttled Washington 15 months ago in Seattle.

Probably the biggest imponderable is this: How much has each team improved since Dec. 5? The Huskies made significant advancement, then struggled down the stretch before the USC victory. Perhaps the biggest strides have been made in Gonzaga’s defense, which was spotty early but is now top-20.

THE PSYCHOLOGY

My sense is that the rivalry has cooled. For one, Gonzaga has dominated the Huskies for a long time. And there’s that long interruption in the series from 2006-15. Too, Romar is out now, so there’s no immediate connection to the ruffled feelings of years past, although Cameron Dollar is on the UW staff. Mark Few and the UW’s Mike Hopkins seem to have a healthy relationship.

For two reasons, I don’t think it’s a good game for Gonzaga. First, Washington’s defense is a curveball for anybody it plays, and the last thing the Zags need after the schooling by Saint Mary’s and its possession game is curveballs. Having seen the zone this season probably would help Gonzaga, however.

Second, to whatever degree the rivalry provides a sideshow, there’s that amount less focus on the task at hand. Gonzaga would have to entertain off-day questions about the rivalry, about how much attention they pay the Huskies, etc., etc. For Washington, the nothing-to-lose element might be deepened by the chance to get back at a rival (a one-time rival, anyway).

I’d give it maybe a 25-30 percent chance of happening. Obviously, the selection committee has to comply. And each would need to win a game in the tournament to get there. At the very least, it's something to watch as the bracket is revealed Sunday.

Yeah, it would create a stir. But for Gonzaga, I suspect the thinking is: Who needs it?




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