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Gonzaga, where "the ball doesn't stick"

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The conversation began with the obligatory smack chatter.

“I haven’t watched you play a whole game,” Ray Giacoletti said over the phone to Mark Few following Gonzaga’s beatdown of Brigham Young earlier this month. “Holy s---.”

“Well, whatya been doing?” Few challenged.

“What the hell you think I’ve been doing?” Giacoletti fired back.

Indeed, Giacoletti has been busy – while not being busy – as an assistant at Saint Louis University, one of the college basketball programs hardest-hit by the Covid-19 pandemic. Between Covid updates, schedule jockeying and the occasional peek at the AP poll – which has the Billikens No. 25 this week – Giacoletti has been able steal a look at the top-ranked Zags.

“The thing that strikes me immediately, is how well they all pass and share the basketball,” Giacoletti said. “To the level of the NBA – NBA teams pass the ball like that.”

Giacoletti has a novel description for it.

“You always have one guy – the ball just sticks,” says Giacoletti. “And probably two or three. They don’t have anybody where the ball sticks.”

No black holes, in other words. No apparent selfishness in sleuthing out the best shot possible.

“This group,” Few told Giacoletti that night, “just innately does it.”

Giacoletti was supposed to have had a lot more free time these days. When, a few years back, I caught up with the former Washington assistant (1993-97); Eastern Washington head man (2000-04) and Zag aide (2006-13), he was exploring a career in broadcasting after leaving a tortured rebuild at Drake University. But, halfway through a month’s vacation in Italy with his wife Kim in August, 2019, he got a call from Saint Louis coach Travis Ford, offering an assistant’s job. He bit.

Behold, the Billikens are on an upward arc. They’re the 13th-best shooting team in the country (a stat led by the Zags at 55.3 percent), but if you haven’t heard much about them, there’s a reason. They haven’t played since Dec. 23, so if they pull off their scheduled game Saturday against St. Bonaventure, it will have been exactly a month between games.

To look at the Atlantic-10 standings is to glimpse the sports disruption of Covid-19. St. Bonnie and UMass are 4-1, Dayton and Davidson 4-2, Rhode Island 4-3 – and Saint Louis is 0-0.

“We have three groups,” Giacoletti said. “People that have had it (Covid), people that have it now and people that don’t have it. We literally could do nothing with any of them. So everybody sat for a minimum of three weeks.”

It’s the weirdest season ever, but it has been good to former Gonzaga assistants. Bill Grier (1991-2007 at GU) is an aide to Tad Boyle at Colorado, and the Buffs are a robust No. 7 this week in the NCAA’s NET rankings. Leon Rice is in his 11th year as Boise State head coach, and his team is 12-1 and sharing the Mountain West lead with Utah State at 8-0.

Everybody’s Covid experience is different. As fraught as the weeks have been at Saint Louis, Rice says, “I think the number of changes in our schedule is at 11. The crazy thing is, I don’t think any of them have been us. I think we had most of ours (cases) early in the fall. Just keep doing what we’re doing.”

The Mountain West’s coping mechanism is eye-catching: In a difficult travel league, each road trip means staying at that site for two games, split by a day off. So, for instance, BSU just played two at Wyoming. What it means is, later on, the Broncos get to host Utah State twice, but finish with two at San Diego State.

Rice likes to think his program is a slice of Gonzaga Lite – good chemistry with enough offensive balance that multiple players might go for 20 on the right night. He’s bullish on a staff (including former Eastern Washington coach Mike Burns) that allows him to think big-picture on program culture. It works, and now Rice, with 210 victories at BSU, is only three from Bobby Dye (1983-95) at the top of the school list.

As for the Zags, Rice says, “Gonzaga’s always been good offensively, but this team is just off the charts with how explosive they are.”

Because, among other things, the ball doesn’t stick.
#zagmbb #wccsports #theslipperstillfits #zagup

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Zags' offense even better than it looks

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Heard a TV announcer the other night note that Gonzaga was No. 4 in the nation in shooting percentage. Which elicited nothing much more than a “Meh.”

After all, two recent Zag squads – the 2019 Elite Eight team eliminated by Texas Tech, and the 2015 team ousted by Duke in the round of eight – led the nation in shooting, at .526 and .520, respectively.

At any rate, the citation of No. 4 led me to a deeper dive into shooting percentages, and this is the inescapable conclusion: Gonzaga is right now running spectacular offense, something far more revealing than a declaration that they’re No. 4 in the country in shooting.

Let’s start here: The Zags are no longer No. 4, but tops in the nation, thanks to having shot 60.3 percent against Dixie State Tuesday night.

So they’re fattening up on tomato cans, right? Ah, not so much. Against the five Power Six schools vanquished by GU – Kansas, Auburn, West Virginia, Iowa and Virginia – the Zags are shooting .5535, or just a tick under their nation-leading figure of .557. Their shooting percentage hasn’t really depended on whom they’re playing.

Another number of note: The next-highest school in the rankings that plays big-time basketball is Illinois, which is No. 8 at 53.1. To illustrate that point, the current runnerup to GU is Murray State at 55.6. Murray’s ranking got off to a boffo start against Division III Greenville University of Illinois, whom the Racers beat by the ludicrous score of 173-95, hitting 77 of 105 shots for a .733 percentage.

Given the trend in 2020-21, you’d have to say the Zags’ number has a fighting chance of staying relatively steady around 55 percent. And a traipse through the record book reflects what a remarkable number that would be.

Not since Duke’s 1992 national champions – 29 years ago – has a national leader in shooting percentage hit the 53-percent mark. As recently as a four-year stretch from 2011-14, the national leader shot only 50 and a fraction.

Meanwhile, a broad look at history is intriguing. The best years for shooting percentage came in the 1980s, topped by the NCAA record-holder, Missouri, in 1979-80. That year, absurdly, each of their top five Tiger scorers shot no worse than .541 – and three of them surpassed .600. Oddly, the leader, big man Steve Stipanovich, the No. 2 overall pick in the 1983 NBA draft, wasn’t one of them. The team shot .572.

Through the ‘80s, the national leader never dipped below 54 percent and frequently bobbed up to 56.

But in 1986-87 came the three-point shot. And while its impact wasn’t convulsive immediately, in time it became a serious weapon. Volume shooters by proponents like Rick Pitino coaxed more teams into buying in, and while that bumped up metrics like effective field-goal percentage, it dropped actual shooting percentages.

Other factors weighed against shooters and in favor of improved scouting, like Synergy Sports Technology, a service providing instant cut-ups of opponent offenses or individuals’ tendencies.

For much of this century, freshmen have exited for the NBA after one season, often in which they were unrefined players but prized for their potential.

Shooting percentages have thus stagnated. In fact, Gonzaga’s .526 of 2019 is the highest number since Florida had the same when it repeated a national championship in 2007.

What happens now for Gonzaga? Is the rarefied percentage sustainable? One number would seem to argue that it is: Despite a couple of phenomenal individual games – Jalen Suggs against Iowa and Corey Kispert against Virginia – GU is shooting only .346 from three-point range. Surely the ceiling is higher.

With league play starting this weekend, there are competing arguments for the overall shooting outlook. GU’s percentage could rise, given that most of the teams on its WCC schedule aren’t the equal of the Power Six teams it has dispatched. Or, there’s the fact that conference brethren know each other better, and especially by the rematch games, they’ve brainstormed ways to slow down offenses.

But if that Gonzaga number hovers near 55 percent, history will tell us what we can see with our own eyes: The Zags’ offense is something else.
#zagmbb #wccsports #theslipperstillfits #unitedwezag #zagup

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If the Zags beat Virginia, cue the hosannas

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About the time Gonzaga had rained its 10th trey in the first half against Iowa the other day in South Dakota, Mark Titus of FoxSports tweeted this: “With respect to Baylor, I’m ready to officially declare this a Gonzaga-versus-the-field season.”

Dana O’Neil of The Athletic chimed in: “Not as good defensively, but remind me of Villanova, circa 2018. Dudes everywhere.”

Let's rewind. One can trace the arc of Gonzaga basketball – golden age – in half a dozen or so escalators:

-- 1999-2001: The breakthrough.

-- 2006: Adam Morrison mania.

-- 2013: First No. 1 ranking.

-- 2013: First No. 1 NCAA-tournament seed.

-- 2017: First Final Four.

-- 2020: First preseason AP No. 1 ranking.

And now, if the Zags can get through the week unbeaten – which means surviving the clutches of Virginia the day after Christmas – here comes the Adulation Phase, full-on.

Gary Parrish of CBS Sports outlined how that one sets up: “Yep, it would mean that Gonzaga would stop being talked about as just the favorite to win the national title and start being discussed as a legitimate candidate to become the first undefeated national champion since Indiana in 1976. And, at this point, it would neither be a premature or inappropriate conversation.”

That’s a mouthful. Anybody buying into that belief assumes the Zags can walk not only the inevitable NCAA-tournament minefields like Baylor, Villanova and Tennessee, but even the WCC traps like BYU, which (a) has spoiled a Gonzaga unbeaten season before (in 2017), and (b) is good enough to have throttled San Diego State on the road.

Of course, there will always be the but-they-don’t-play-anybody caterwaulers when the Zags enter the Portland/San Diego part of their schedule, but currently, that argument loses a little juice since Gonzaga has already dispatched the Nos. 3 (Kansas), 4 (Iowa) and 7 (West Virginia) teams in the nation. If today were Selection Sunday, there’s no question Gonzaga would be the overall top seed.

And remember this: Gonzaga overcame West Virginia with Jalen Suggs limited to 26 minutes and four points by a bad ankle, and the Zags pretty much boat-raced Iowa despite a Covid-caused, practice-crimping 17-day interregnum since the previous game.

Perhaps there’s a subtle, subconscious affection for the Zags for this attribute: They play a pleasing style that flatters the game – fast, purposeful, at times overpowering in its efficiency.

Not to say there aren’t concerns. Gonzaga’s inside game right now consists basically of Drew Timme. Oumar Ballo was overmatched Saturday against Luka Garza, and no shame there. Ballo could have benefitted greatly from the four “buy” games that were scrubbed during the Covid layoff.

Against Iowa, Timme and Corey Kispert fouled out, and Iowa was about a Zag turnover away from making GU's win perilous.

Moreover, since it’s 2020, it's always worth mentioning that the narrative can never stray too far from the coronavirus.

Over the years, there have been any number of teams that have entered that Indiana-1976 conversation without success – prominently UNLV, upset in the 1991 national semis to Duke; and as recently as last year, when San Diego State made it to late February before losing.

But if the Zags surmount Virginia – and that’s a delicious matchup, simply for the stylistic contrast – here come the bouquets. The national conversation about Gonzaga is going to be intense and for GU, unprecedented.

And just maybe, deserved.


#zagmbb #wccsports #theslipperstillfits #unitedwezag #zagup

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The Huskies, listing badly, put a new twist on the Gonzaga series

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Saturday, Dec. 12 was going to be the day Gonzaga renewed its basketball series with Washington. But that was back about a jillion months ago (seemingly), and several permutations of the ever-evolving basketball schedule.

Of course, that game was a fall casualty to Pac-12 dictates. And as it turns out, it likely would have fallen victim to the Zags’ decision to pause for a week while it (hopefully) shoos the Covid-19 virus out of the program.

You know how we got here – as in, the weirdness of 2020. But how we got to the fact there are currently another three games left in the Washington-Gonzaga series, takes some explaining.

And just maybe, it ought to take some reconsideration from the Zags.

Let’s backtrack. When I wrote “Glory Hounds” back in 2016, Zags coach Mark Few made it pretty clear he was less than lukewarm about some regional rivalries, in contrast to much of his fan base.

The Zags checked out of the series with Washington State after the 2015-16 season, following a squeeze play by Gonzaga that resulted in WSU’s home game in 2014-15 being moved to Spokane Arena.

The arcs of the two programs made it hard to argue with Few. The Cougars were a drag on Gonzaga’s computer rankings. They epitomized the everything-to-lose-nothing-to-gain proposition.

Few ruminated that the Huskies were falling into that same category. Remember, the last years of Lorenzo Romar’s tenure resulted in regular, double-digit beatdowns by the Zags.

Closer to home, when Few weighed in for the book, the Zags were amid an eight-year hiatus from the series with Eastern Washington. The two programs met last season.

I wrote then that the scissoring of the WSU series was justified. The Cougars went 22-68 in conference games in the five-year run of Ernie Kent, and there was simply nothing in it for Gonzaga. But the Huskies hadn’t bottomed out like that consistently, and I felt that series was worth continuing; the talent level was going to keep Washington at least on a respectable level.

Well, a couple of odd things have happened. Notwithstanding Few’s reluctance, the Gonzaga-Washington series was extended a year or so ago through the 2023-24 season.

And suddenly, it’s the Huskies who are looking like the potential anchor on Gonzaga’s profile in future years.

Meanwhile, the Cougars seem to be on a positive trajectory under second-year coach Kyle Smith, who has fit into the culture; gotten a victory in the Pac-12 tournament, something that somehow hadn’t happened at WSU in a decade; and attracted a top-35 freshman class to Pullman.

If Gonzaga is inclined to view these relationships as fluid, there’s not a lot to say right now that the Cougars aren’t more of a potential force than the Huskies.

Why do business with Washington? It’s possible one rationale for keeping a tie to the UW is that with the Battle in Seattle in limbo with the renovation of KeyArena, meeting the Huskies on Montlake every other year provides GU exposure on the west side. Another is the appearance of a warmer relationship between Few and UW coach Mike Hopkins than was the case with Few and Romar.

But right now, the UW program is teetering. The Huskies finished last in the Pac-12 in 2020 and appear a solid candidate to repeat in ’20-21. Last year, it was the academic ineligibility of guard Quade Green that torpedoed the UW. Now, swingman Naz Carter is gone in the wake of allegations of sexual assault. So, two years in a row, a player betrayed the program.

It’s instructive to look at a confounding big picture with UW basketball. This is a program planted in a city rightly renowned for its basketball talent. Yet, over a generation’s time, for all the talk about the “206,” etc., etc., the best the Huskies have done is get to the Sweet 16 (three times).

When Isaiah Stewart and Jaden McDaniels went in the recent NBA draft, it meant this: Since 2007, the Huskies have had nine first-round NBA draft picks who didn’t get to the NCAA tournament in the year they were selected. Next-highest number nationally is three (Indiana, Syracuse), and the only adjective I can think of for that is “stupefying.” No program has frittered away high-end talent like Washington. (Obviously, there was no NCAA tournament in ’20, but at 15-17, the Huskies weren’t going there.)

This isn’t a recommendation to erase any Gonzaga rivalry; fans tend to love them, for good reason.

But if GU is going to assess these rivalries periodically – and it has – the Huskies are making a good argument to reassess.
#zagmbb #wccsports #zagup #theslipperstillfits #unitedwezag

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The Huskies, listing badly, put a new twist on the Gonzaga series

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Saturday, Dec. 12 was going to be the day Gonzaga renewed its basketball series with Washington. But that was back about a jillion months ago (seemingly), and several permutations of the ever-evolving basketball schedule.

Of course, that game was a fall casualty to Pac-12 dictates. And as it turns out, it likely would have fallen victim to the Zags’ decision to pause for a week while it (hopefully) shoos the Covid-19 virus out of the program.

You know how we got here – as in, the weirdness of 2020. But how we got to the fact there are currently another three games left in the Washington-Gonzaga series, takes some explaining.

And just maybe, it ought to take some reconsideration from the Zags.

Let’s backtrack. When I wrote “Glory Hounds” back in 2016, Zags coach Mark Few made it pretty clear he was less than lukewarm about some regional rivalries, in contrast to much of his fan base.

The Zags checked out of the series with Washington State after the 2015-16 season, following a squeeze play by Gonzaga that resulted in WSU’s home game in 2014-15 being moved to Spokane Arena.

The arcs of the two programs made it hard to argue with Few. The Cougars were a drag on Gonzaga’s computer rankings. They epitomized the everything-to-lose-nothing-to-gain proposition.

Few ruminated that the Huskies were falling into that same category. Remember, the last years of Lorenzo Romar’s tenure resulted in regular, double-digit beatdowns by the Zags.

Closer to home, when Few weighed in for the book, the Zags were amid an eight-year hiatus from the series with Eastern Washington. The two programs met last season.

I wrote then that the scissoring of the WSU series was justified. The Cougars went 22-68 in conference games in the five-year run of Ernie Kent, and there was simply nothing in it for Gonzaga. But the Huskies hadn’t bottomed out like that consistently, and I felt that series was worth continuing; the talent level was going to keep Washington at least on a respectable level.

Well, a couple of odd things have happened. Notwithstanding Few’s reluctance, the Gonzaga-Washington series was extended a year or so ago through the 2023-24 season.

And suddenly, it’s the Huskies who are looking like the potential anchor on Gonzaga’s profile in future years.

Meanwhile, the Cougars seem to be on a positive trajectory under second-year coach Kyle Smith, who has fit into the culture; gotten a victory in the Pac-12 tournament, something that somehow hadn’t happened at WSU in a decade; and attracted a top-35 freshman class to Pullman.

If Gonzaga is inclined to view these relationships as fluid, there’s not a lot to say right now that the Cougars aren’t more of a potential force than the Huskies.

Why do business with Washington? It’s possible one rationale for keeping a tie to the UW is that with the Battle in Seattle in limbo with the renovation of KeyArena, meeting the Huskies on Montlake every other year provides GU exposure on the west side. Another is the appearance of a warmer relationship between Few and UW coach Mike Hopkins than was the case with Few and Romar.

But right now, the UW program is teetering. The Huskies finished last in the Pac-12 in 2020 and appear a solid candidate to repeat in ’20-21. Last year, it was the academic ineligibility of guard Quade Green that torpedoed the UW. Now, swingman Naz Carter is gone in the wake of allegations of sexual assault. So, two years in a row, a player betrayed the program.

It’s instructive to look at a confounding big picture with UW basketball. This is a program planted in a city rightly renowned for its basketball talent. Yet, over a generation’s time, for all the talk about the “206,” etc., etc., the best the Huskies have done is get to the Sweet 16 (three times).

When Isaiah Stewart and Jaden McDaniels went in the recent NBA draft, it meant this: Since 2007, the Huskies have had nine first-round NBA draft picks who didn’t get to the NCAA tournament in the year they were selected. Next-highest number nationally is three (Indiana, Syracuse), and the only adjective I can think of for that is “stupefying.” No program has frittered away high-end talent like Washington. (Obviously, there was no NCAA tournament in ’20, but at 15-17, the Huskies weren’t going there.)

This isn’t a recommendation to erase any Gonzaga rivalry; fans tend to love them, for good reason.

But if GU is going to assess these rivalries periodically – and it has – the Huskies are making a good argument to reassess.
#zagmbb #wccsports #zagup #theslipperstillfits #unitedwezag

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All Zags have to do in '20-21 is beat a virus and 350 other teams

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With a wing and a prayer, and maybe a rabbit’s foot and a stray four-leaf clover, Gonzaga launches its college basketball season this week. Not that luck is typically in the Zags’ playbook, but it’s 2020, and, well, you may have noticed, things are a little different.

The Zags, of course, open Thursday with a little-known opponent without much in the way of genealogy – Kansas. That kicks off a nine-day stretch in which Gonzaga also plays Auburn and Tennessee and Baylor. But not the Lakers.

Chief among the story lines for GU are: That the program seems ever on an ascendant arc, judging by the caliber of recruits committed verbally or in writing; and the chaotic, constantly evolving schedule that has taken shape under the persistent thumb of a pandemic.

But there’s another narrative that’s crept in over many months’ time, dating to even before the 2020 calendar year, prior to the ’20 NCAA tournament being scrubbed. It’s the one that points out that Gonzaga, for all its unlikely emergence a generation ago and erstwhile darling-ness and nationwide curiosity/appeal, hasn’t won a national championship, and is this the year, or what the hell are you guys waiting for?

Mostly we’re talking about nuance here, and maybe I’m nitpicking. But it’s been out there nonetheless, the notion that the program will be forever unfulfilled and, you know, no better than New Jersey Tech if someday it’s not Gonzaga hogging the highlights on “One Shining Moment.”

Last December, as a promising season was beginning, a Spokane TV station asked: “Is this finally the year for GU?” An editor of the Spokane Spokesman-Review termed it that “elusive” national title.

This is a second cousin, of course, to the old narrative that the Zags have underperformed in the post-season. Or, as someone writing for something called NBC Sports.com/Washington penned in referencing GU coach Mark Few, “The Bulldogs’ coach has had massive amounts of success in the regular season and in the second and third rounds of the NCAA tournament. However, it’s in the second weekend and beyond that’s been his bugaboo.”

Nothing like having a little perspective.

Few sporting endeavors are fraught with as much peril as winning an NCAA basketball title. All you’ve got to do is ford a river of menacing Dukes, Kentuckys and North Carolinas; and lying-in-the-weeds outfits like Florida State and Texas Tech; and oh yeah, the upstarts jonesing to make a name for themselves, like Loyola of Chicago and Wichita State and before that, Butler. (That was Gonzaga once, remember.)

When the Dodgers won the ’20 World Series, it broke a drought of more than three decades. In recent years, when they were denied, there were four or five realistic interlopers. In college hoops, there might be 25 or 30 outfits capable of the bonkers 40 minutes that sends you home.

Again, we’re talking nuance here. It’s not wrong to call Gonzaga’s title “elusive” – only that if it’s elusive for the Zags, it’s also elusive for a lot of other folks.

Some numbers to chew on: Twenty-three times since 2000, a program that hasn’t won a national championship in the past half-century has been seeded No. 1 and failed to win it all. Seventeen times, that school didn’t get to the Final Four. Twice that happened to Gonzaga. But it also befell Stanford three times, Pitt twice, and among others, Oregon (2014) and Washington (2005).

In other words, this winning-it-all thing ain’t easy. Never is, and that’s when we’re not turned upside-down by a virus. If you assume the Zags’ road to a respectable seed in the 2021 tournament hinges on their non-league performance, those four early games are not only pivotal, but freighted with negative implication for GU if they aren’t played.

So health, theirs and their opponents’, should be Job One for the Zags. Getting off to a fast start is No. 2, and if history holds, Few should be the right guy to make it happen. I count eight non-conference tournament championships on his 21-year watch, including a couple in Maui and three in Florida. The Zags have regularly tattooed Washington early, including in 2004, when GU was coming off a listless blowout loss at Illinois and the Huskies were ranked.

And almost without fail, when Gonzaga has stumbled in a pre-conference game – Dayton in a first-round Maui loss in 2013 – it has rebounded to scoop up valuable resume ground with a victory.

The Zags have beaten North Carolina and Duke in November. Now the goal is to do it in late March or early April.

No doubt GU players have a title in the back of their minds and don't mind saying so. Nothing wrong with that. But their fans ought not be so jaded that anything less than a championship is a failure.

You do you, as they say. Me, I’d root for health, and then a Final Four, and if that happens, talk about a title. That pretty much describes Few’s approach in 2017, when the Zags crashed through the glass ceiling to the Final Four. This time, instead of glass descending, they envision confetti.

#zagmbb #wccsports #theslipperstillfits #unitedwezag #zagup

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College basketball's latest villain (hint: The Zags know him well)

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Not to strike a downbeat note on a Gonzaga basketball program with a preseason No. 1 imprimatur, but we start today’s treatise with a question for Zag fans:

What’s the most gut-bombing, migraine-inducing, shivers-down-your-spine defeat in GU history?

No doubt, the 2006 NCAA-tournament loss to UCLA draws significant mention. Here were the Adam Morrison-led Zags, with a 17-point first-half lead, and a nine-point advantage with 3 ½ minutes left, all set to play Memphis in the regional final in Oakland. And it all came apart – like a K-Mart deck chair, the handicapper Greg Roberts used to say – in a torrent of mistakes, and it was UCLA that advanced all the way to the title game that year.

I might lobby for the Zags’ second-round loss in the 2013 tournament as a smidge worse. For one thing, they were a No. 1 seed as well as top-ranked for the first time, which clicks the klieg lights up to high-beam. And the Zags-as-tournament-underachiever narrative had already taken hold, so that defeat in Salt Lake City rallied the naysayers to their pitchforks and torches.

Here’s what’s off the top of my head: Wichita State blowing out to a 13-point first-half lead; Gonzaga nosing back into it, and seemingly taking shaky control with 12 minutes left on a three by Mike Hart to go up 49-41; the Shockers, not a good three-point shooting outfit, somehow hitting 14 of 28; Gary Bell, unable to play the second half on a bum ankle; and the Zags stumbling to the finish, even klutzing up an uncontested pass inbounding the ball.

If the UCLA loss was singularly devastating, this one seemed to make a broader case: that Gonzaga was never, ever going to get to a Final Four.

In a hotel bar that night, I shared beers with a writer from Wichita. Have to admit, I was a bit envious. He was, eventually, going on to a Final Four. I was going home to try to remember to put out the recycling on Wednesday morning. I wrote 20 Final Fours, but I never did cover a team that got me there, and there were several that could have.

There was a hard edge to that Wichita State team; you could feel it in its locker room the practice day before the game. Recently, we’re finding out why. Gregg Marshall, the coach, ran a remorselessly nasty ship. If we’re to believe reports in The Athletic and Stadium, Marshall at least once struck a player; he demeaned players regularly, sometimes invoking references to female anatomy; he barked racist words; and he generally made the lives of his roster miserable. He was a good enough coach to paper over the seamy stuff, until a mass exodus last spring got people to asking questions.

Nor did it start at Wichita. The Athletic detailed an anecdote from his previous coaching stop, at Winthrop, when he and his wife Lynn hosted the team for their two-year-old son’s birthday party. A player accidentally broke a plastic Wiffle ball, players said they’d get the toddler a new one, but when Marshall emerged, he grabbed a player and muscled him up against a wall before they were separated. One player involved in the incident quoted Lynn Marshall as saying, “I just hate when he gets like this.”

A lot of coaches practice tough-love. This isn’t that. This is abuse.

And this week, we learned the price-tag on abuse. Gregg Marshall lost his job at Wichita State. And he walks away with a $7.75-million buyout, which ought to keep him in Wiffle balls for a good while, until some woebegone institution introduces him at a press conference down the road, saying, “Gregg has learned from his mistake, and besides, everybody deserves a second chance.”

Nowadays, it’s impossible to scoop up all the ills of college athletics and shovel them into one bag, but the Marshall mess does its damnedest. The abuse part should speak for itself. You’d like to think we’re beyond that, but no. In some quarters – dying off, you’d hope – the end justifies the means, however repugnant.

Meanwhile, it’s the exit part of this saga that is rightly drawing attention. Gregg Marshall, credibly accused of being an abusive coach, skates off with almost eight mill. Wut?

Obviously, the school, which gets heavy support from conservative billionaire Charles Koch (his name is on the basketball arena), just wanted to be done with Marshall, which, narrowly viewed, is completely understandable. But it was also willing to throw a lot of money at him to make it happen, and in today’s college sports, that’s not uncommon. The Wichita Eagle newspaper interviewed two attorneys wise to the ways of sports contracts, and they pointed out the downside of simply firing Marshall with cause: It likely would result in a lawsuit, probably a long, messy one with dirty laundry aired publicly; and firing with cause is a dicey proposition, so it could be costly both in dollars and image.

But you find yourself wishing Wichita State would have seen it through, however risky, just to make a statement. Instead, the Shockers took the path of least resistance. Some would say that’s really the path of most expense, which is totally in sync with college sports these days.

A year ago, I recall reading, in astonishment, USA Today’s comprehensive, annual look at college-football coaches salaries. What the report focused on were the buyouts that have become de rigueur in today’s contracts. If memory serves, Gus Malzahn of Auburn, perpetually, seeming to be on the hot seat, would have been owed something like $27 million if fired for not winning enough. Lesser names like Jeff Brohm of Purdue would be due north of $20 million.

Well, guess what? Those numbers have been made to look like the change you find under your seat as you vacuum at the local car wash. According to USA Today’s last analysis a month ago, Jimbo Fisher of Texas A&M – who entered the season accompanied by some nervous coughing among Aggie donors – would be due $53,125,000 if A&M wanted to turn him loose. I count 14 coaches who would be due $20 million or more if fired without cause, and not all of them on stable ground.

Wait’ll Mark Few, the Gonzaga coach, hears about those numbers. Yes, this is basketball, not football. But he’s taken the Zags to 21 straight NCAA tournaments and five straight Sweet 16s.

Yeah, there have been bumps along the way, a notable one administered by Wichita State and Gregg Marshall seven years ago. Sometimes, you lose to titans. Sometimes you lose to scofflaws.
#zagmbb #wccsports #zagup #theslipperstillfits #unitedwezag

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College basketball's latest villain (hint: The Zags know him well)

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Not to strike a downbeat note on a Gonzaga basketball program with a preseason No. 1 imprimatur, but we start today’s treatise with a question for Zag fans:

What’s the most gut-bombing, migraine-inducing, shivers-down-your-spine defeat in GU history?

No doubt, the 2006 NCAA-tournament loss to UCLA draws significant mention. Here were the Adam Morrison-led Zags, with a 17-point first-half lead, and a nine-point advantage with 3 ½ minutes left, all set to play Memphis in the regional final in Oakland. And it all came apart – like a K-Mart deck chair, the handicapper Greg Roberts used to say – in a torrent of mistakes, and it was UCLA that advanced all the way to the title game that year.

I might lobby for the Zags’ second-round loss in the 2013 tournament as a smidge worse. For one thing, they were a No. 1 seed as well as top-ranked for the first time, which clicks the klieg lights up to high-beam. And the Zags-as-tournament-underachiever narrative had already taken hold, so that defeat in Salt Lake City rallied the naysayers to their pitchforks and torches.

Here’s what’s off the top of my head: Wichita State blowing out to a 13-point first-half lead; Gonzaga nosing back into it, and seemingly taking shaky control with 12 minutes left on a three by Mike Hart to go up 49-41; the Shockers, not a good three-point shooting outfit, somehow hitting 14 of 28; Gary Bell, unable to play the second half on a bum ankle; and the Zags stumbling to the finish, even klutzing up an uncontested pass inbounding the ball.

If the UCLA loss was singularly devastating, this one seemed to make a broader case: that Gonzaga was never, ever going to get to a Final Four.

In a hotel bar that night, I shared beers with a writer from Wichita. Have to admit, I was a bit envious. He was, eventually, going on to a Final Four. I was going home to try to remember to put out the recycling on Wednesday morning. I wrote 20 Final Fours, but I never did cover a team that got me there, and there were several that could have.

There was a hard edge to that Wichita State team; you could feel it in its locker room the practice day before the game. Recently, we’re finding out why. Gregg Marshall, the coach, ran a remorselessly nasty ship. If we’re to believe reports in The Athletic and Stadium, Marshall at least once struck a player; he demeaned players regularly, sometimes invoking references to female anatomy; he barked racist words; and he generally made the lives of his roster miserable. He was a good enough coach to paper over the seamy stuff, until a mass exodus last spring got people to asking questions.

Nor did it start at Wichita. The Athletic detailed an anecdote from his previous coaching stop, at Winthrop, when he and his wife Lynn hosted the team for their two-year-old son’s birthday party. A player accidentally broke a plastic Wiffle ball, players said they’d get the toddler a new one, but when Marshall emerged, he grabbed a player and muscled him up against a wall before they were separated. One player involved in the incident quoted Lynn Marshall as saying, “I just hate when he gets like this.”

A lot of coaches practice tough-love. This isn’t that. This is abuse.

And this week, we learned the price-tag on abuse. Gregg Marshall lost his job at Wichita State. And he walks away with a $7.75-million buyout, which ought to keep him in Wiffle balls for a good while, until some woebegone institution introduces him at a press conference down the road, saying, “Gregg has learned from his mistake, and besides, everybody deserves a second chance.”

Nowadays, it’s impossible to scoop up all the ills of college athletics and shovel them into one bag, but the Marshall mess does its damnedest. The abuse part should speak for itself. You’d like to think we’re beyond that, but no. In some quarters – dying off, you’d hope – the end justifies the means, however repugnant.

Meanwhile, it’s the exit part of this saga that is rightly drawing attention. Gregg Marshall, credibly accused of being an abusive coach, skates off with almost eight mill. Wut?

Obviously, the school, which gets heavy support from conservative billionaire Charles Koch (his name is on the basketball arena), just wanted to be done with Marshall, which, narrowly viewed, is completely understandable. But it was also willing to throw a lot of money at him to make it happen, and in today’s college sports, that’s not uncommon. The Wichita Eagle newspaper interviewed two attorneys wise to the ways of sports contracts, and they pointed out the downside of simply firing Marshall with cause: It likely would result in a lawsuit, probably a long, messy one with dirty laundry aired publicly; and firing with cause is a dicey proposition, so it could be costly both in dollars and image.

But you find yourself wishing Wichita State would have seen it through, however risky, just to make a statement. Instead, the Shockers took the path of least resistance. Some would say that’s really the path of most expense, which is totally in sync with college sports these days.

A year ago, I recall reading, in astonishment, USA Today’s comprehensive, annual look at college-football coaches salaries. What the report focused on were the buyouts that have become de rigueur in today’s contracts. If memory serves, Gus Malzahn of Auburn, perpetually, seeming to be on the hot seat, would have been owed something like $27 million if fired for not winning enough. Lesser names like Jeff Brohm of Purdue would be due north of $20 million.

Well, guess what? Those numbers have been made to look like the change you find under your seat as you vacuum at the local car wash. According to USA Today’s last analysis a month ago, Jimbo Fisher of Texas A&M – who entered the season accompanied by some nervous coughing among Aggie donors – would be due $53,125,000 if A&M wanted to turn him loose. I count 14 coaches who would be due $20 million or more if fired without cause, and not all of them on stable ground.

Wait’ll Mark Few, the Gonzaga coach, hears about those numbers. Yes, this is basketball, not football. But he’s taken the Zags to 21 straight NCAA tournaments and five straight Sweet 16s.

Yeah, there have been bumps along the way, a notable one administered by Wichita State and Gregg Marshall seven years ago. Sometimes, you lose to titans. Sometimes you lose to scofflaws.
#zagmbb #wccsports #zagup #theslipperstillfits #unitedwezag

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Tom Jernstedt, Bob Robertson: Twin towers of a different kind

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Apparently without a heart, the year 2020 just keeps dealing out haymakers. Two more came the other day, in less than 24 hours, with the passing of two iconic figures whom I knew well – Tom Jernstedt and Bob Robertson.

(This space normally is about Gonzaga basketball, but many Zag followers were inevitably familiar with Bob-Rob’s immense contribution, while Jernstedt affected them in ways they might not even realize.)

For most of the 38 years he worked at the NCAA headquarters, Jernstedt’s role was the guardian of March Madness. In the early years – back in the mid-‘70s -- that didn’t mean so much, but he shepherded the event to its larger-than-life status of the late-20th century and beyond. I won’t bother here to unearth the figures – the uptick in TV revenue, the sonic boom in fan interest – but it was colossal. The tournament went from cozy little curiosity to mega-happening.

Close to home, the tournament got a significant shove forward in 1984 when Seattle’s Kingdome hosted the Final Four. Jernstedt ramped up the hospitality, visitors noshed on salmon and cruised Puget Sound, and the weather cooperated spectacularly. The weekend took March Madness up another notch.

Jernstedt came from Carlton, Ore., near Salem, to the University of Oregon. I first knew him as a young events manager at the UO in the early ‘70s. In 1972, when the Ducks hosted an NCAA track meet, he found himself in the middle of a kerfuffle between the body’s track and field committee and Bill Bowerman, the legendarily gruff UO track coach who doubled that year as Olympic coach.

It seems an NCAA official was alleging that the lane markings for the relay handoffs were measured incorrectly, and it fell to Jernstedt to inform Bowerman of the breach. Only in his mid-‘20s, Jernstedt recognized that telling Bowerman something was amiss with the track at Hayward Field would be like impugning his first-born son.

“I was fearful of him,” Jernstedt told me in an aside when I interviewed him in 2017 for a book due out next month. “I was with the NCAA 38 years, but I never felt the kind of pressure I felt with Bowerman over that.”

Jernstedt withstood a fusillade of spittle and F-bombs, and went on to what he assumed might be a relatively short stint with the NCAA, a waystation on returning someday as Oregon athletic director. But Oregon’s clumsy chain of command to the president discouraged him, and instead he built a sterling career at the NCAA. That ended a decade ago when NCAA president Mark Emmert launched his reign of error by offing Jernstedt from the organization’s rolls, not face-to-face but with a phone call.

Jernstedt was one of those people whose style makes you check your own hole card – low-key, even-tempered and perpetually guided by common sense.

It was other qualities that distinguished Bob Robertson. The man was unfailingly convivial and kind. In some extended conversations I had with him, I always had the feeling he wanted them to go longer. He liked people that much.

Much has been made of the range of Bob-Rob’s microphone, from Notre Dame football in the mid-1950s to Seattle Totems hockey to roller derby to soccer – and of course, his five decades watching Washington State football, much of it not very memorable. But you don’t know the half of it.

Bob’s love for the mike was absolutely immutable. I was driving in Spokane in late winter maybe 15 years ago, flicking the radio dial, and here came Bob-Rob, describing a State B basketball game at Spokane Arena. You know, Pateros, Curlew, St. John-Endicott, those schools.

Similarly, I’m in Phoenix 15 or 20 years ago, headed out to dinner. The car radio gives voice – Bob-Rob’s – to a high school state-tournament game. An Arizona state high school tournament.

You never knew where Bob Robertson might track you down. Motoring toward Pullman late one night in August about a decade ago for WSU’s football fall camp, I picked up Bob-Rob, doing a Spokane Indians game with Tri-City, Class A Northwest League baseball. The game was scoreless, and, swear to God, it would go 19 or 20 innings before somebody pushed across a run.

I figure Bob-Rob was 82 then.

Mount Rushmores make for trendy debates these days, and if you carved one for Washington State – not just athletes and coaches, but presences – wouldn’t Bob Robertson have to be on it?

It’s what we argue in 2020, the year without a conscience.
#zagmbb #wcchoops #theslipperstillfits #zagup #zaghoops

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Zags' path to the promised land will begin at home

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The first date that unsettled the stomachs of Gonzaga basketball fans was Aug. 3, when they sweated out the return of NBA-explorer Corey Kispert.

Surmounting that crisis, they look with trepidation to Wednesday, Aug. 26. And the 29th. And Sept. 1. And truth be told, sleep could be fitful any night thereafter.

New student orientation and a phased move-in is next Wednesday at GU. The 29th brings a phased move-in of returning students, who might be inclined to fete the fact they’re coming back to a semblance of their old lives. And Sept. 1 marks the start of fall-semester undergrad classes.

Cue the breath-holding by Gonzaga officials, from the president’s office to the athletic department. They’ve heard the alarm bells clang in recent days over Covid-19 at North Carolina, Notre Dame, Michigan State and Syracuse.

“It really comes down to a question of, if our students are part of the solution and not part of the problem,” says Mike Roth, Zags athletic director.

According to Roth, only two schools in the West Coast Conference, Gonzaga and Brigham Young, have opted for something other than remote classes only. GU chose a hybrid approach, offering both in-person and remote learning.

“We have a chance of being successful,” Roth says. “We just need students to buy in.”

When I asked Roth earlier this week how often athletes are getting tested, he said: “Thus far, we haven’t been testing, other than for symptoms or exposure. If student-athletes are showing symptoms, we get them tested, or if they’re exposed, we get them tested.”

Meanwhile, college sports’ fretful piece of the coronavirus response continues. Football is iffy, and the consensus is, basketball’s start date of Nov. 10 will be pushed back – to Thanksgiving, to Jan. 1, 2021, to . . . who knows? NCAA senior VP in charge of hoops Dan Gavitt says they’ll offer a more definitive date by mid-September.

This much we know, and it’s good news for Zag fans lusting to see the logical progression of a loaded roster: Everybody around the game, including the NCAA, is hell-bent to ensure that we don’t have a repeat skip of the NCAA tournament. That doesn’t mean a tournament is guaranteed to happen, only that people in power are going to move heaven and earth to try to see that in some form, it does.

To that end, we give you the Zags, who might be the busiest program in the country right now. You know already that, seemingly out of the blue the other day, Gonzaga and Baylor announced they had brokered a deal to play this season. Sometime.

If you’re Gonzaga, with visions of a second Final Four (and beyond), there’s a big need for a backup plan to its original schedule. By my reckoning, it’s bigger than anybody else’s.

Already, the Pac-12 scrubbed all schools’ athletic competition through the rest of the calendar year. That included Gonzaga’s games with USC, Arizona and Washington.

Now, introduce the possibility that the NCAA waves off its start until Jan. 1. If you’re Duke – where Mike Krzyzewski underscored the other day that a return of the tournament is a dire necessity – you can still build a resume against North Carolina, Virginia and Florida State, teams from your own conference.

In that scenario, if you’re Gonzaga, your opportunities to shine are limited to BYU, Saint Mary’s and perhaps San Francisco. If it all ended there, Gonzaga might be the most underseeded national-title contender in NCAA history.

Ergo, Mark Few’s fishing this summer has included trolling for big-name opponents willing at the 11th hour to engage his team.

“Fewie’s been talking to a lot of coaches,” Roth says, “and a lot of coaches have been talking to him.”

Were it not for the Zags’ considerable national brand, and TV’s thirst for sports programming, the possibility would be out there for a skeletal GU schedule. Roth is convinced that won’t happen.

“TV is still going to be a real major player here,” he insists. “Especially with the unknown of attendance. What TV wants is great matchups and great games. I don’t have any fear of Gonzaga being left at the curb.”

What of all those November-December non-conference screamers, not only involving Gonzaga, but others? Roth broaches the notion that ESPN might want to consolidate some of those events it owns – more games at one site, more teams, less travel.

“We don’t know what ESPN might be thinking right now,” he said.

Nor the NCAA for its tournament. Some form of pod seems likely, but could it handle the usual 68-team kaleidoscope? Perhaps 32? Baked into that discussion is the reality that the fewer the teams, the fewer the games, and the less cash CBS and Turner are going to pay for it.

At least there’s reason for hope that the run-up to the tournament – the regular season – could be achieved in some form with pods. Remote learning helps cover the “student” part of student-athlete, and Roth waxes enthusiastically about the Zags having three available courts – the McCarthey Athletic Center, Martin Center and the practice floor in the new Volkar Center.

“One of the concepts Mark and I talked about the other day is, if we don’t have fans, it actually makes things easier, that you could come to a single location,” Roth says. “You could have two or three games going on at the same time.”

But, as everywhere, the students must be willing. Gonzaga’s campus will be armored with the usual safeguards – signage, plexiglass, sanitizer – but this seems more about will.

Courtesy of the GU enrollment office, through senior director of community and public relations Mary Joan Hahn, this is the student breakdown on in-person/remote learning: Of 4,837 undergrads who responded to a questionnaire, 15 percent will be online only. Some 84 percent will do it both on campus and online. And, compared to most years, when on-campus residents number more than 2,500, about 1,930 will live on campus.

Meanwhile, the scattergun, helter-skelter messaging from the White House has sabotaged the national response in at least two ways, on campus and off: It made self-discipline seem unimportant to some. And a long, ineffective campaign – such as it is -- has been accompanied by Covid fatigue. Some are just sick of dealing with it, so they won’t.

In basketball terms, Gonzaga long ago established itself as a little bit different. Here’s another chance for its students to prove it.
#zagmbb #wcchoops #theslipperstillfits #zaghoops #zagup

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