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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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"We Are G.U." details a zany side of Zag hoops

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Sometimes it seems as though Gonzaga basketball started in 1999, so much scrutiny is given to the Zags’ unlikely launch to prominence that year and their continued ascending arc (guilty as charged for my focus on this era).

Here to tell you that there’s a lot more to the story are Mike Shields and Aaron Hill, a couple of GU grads who have written a history of the Kennel Club. “We Are G.U.” is about as exhaustive and detailed a tome as you could imagine on the subject, and a worthy complement to the burgeoning library spawned by the phenomenon of Gonzaga basketball.

Hard to believe, but the origins of the Kennel Club are almost as distant from the ’99 uprising as we are today – on the other side -- from that Elite Eight shocker. Essentially, the group sprang from a series of events that began with Shields and his brother Tim dashing onto the floor at Kennedy Pavilion – unannounced, uninvited and obviously uninhibited – to do an improvisational cheer routine during a timeout of a 1984 game against Whitworth.

From there, it snowballed – an overture from Dan Fitzgerald, the coach/athletic director, to organize a spirit group; consistent involvement and support from the baseball team; official T-shirts and ever-better organization.

Hedonism was the imperative governing every decision. Shields, in fact, writes that he could have graduated in economics in mid-year (1983-84), but decided, understandably, to spread the credits thinner so he could stretch his college days a semester longer. Why not, when one party he describes drained 15 kegs and entertained 400-500 people?

The Kennel Club grew, and so did its creativity. One night, they held a Fitz lookalike night, replete with guys with white streaks in their hair. Later, a Kennel Clubber, Eric Edelstein, would become known for his late-night phone calls to opposing coaches. Imagine Brad Holland, the ex-San Diego coach and former UCLA guard, foggy and fielding a call from “Bill Walton,” saying, in that imperious voice, “ . . . and another thing, Brad, Coach Wooden would be embarrassed . . . the plays we would run at UCLA, where is the beauty of an entry pass to Keith Wilkes or the effortless screens and movement to get players like Gail Goodrich open? We see none of that with your team. It’s terrible.”

The authors document the sometimes-tenuous relationship the Kennel Club had with the GU administration, which was concerned about potential over-the-top behavior. So the club came under university jurisdiction after the 2004 season, which coincided with the opening of the McCarthey Athletic Center. That gave rise to a system by which the Kennel Club regulates the distribution of tickets in “Tent City,” the encampment of 150 tents housing students, some of whom, as the narrative notes, are enjoying “all the comforts of home, from futons and heaters to TVs and video-game systems.”

Never, it seems, did the fun cease, from the days when revered Father Tony Lehmann would come to bless the pre-funk kegs; to the night in 2006 when Washington played in the last game before a Lorenzo Romar-induced interregnum in the series, and the Kennel Club reminded Husky seven-footer Spencer Hawes of a Seattle Prep relationship gone bad, chanting, “Lindsey dumped you!”; to the evening in New York, when, after a Zag loss to Duke at Madison Square Garden, Clubbers encountered ex-Dookie Chris Duhon, who bought drinks and – mistaking GU walk-on guard Andrew Sorenson for Derek Raivio – raved about Sorenson’s “crazy handles.”

The authors share a good bit of Gonzaga space in history. Hill was a student manager for GU basketball, Shields for baseball, and both were grad assistants for Steve Hertz’ baseball program. And both tended bar at Jack and Dan’s.

“We Are G.U.” is a nice piece of the Gonzaga basketball story, well crafted and well worth your investment of $24.95. It’s available at the Zag Shop, Auntie’s and Spokane-area grocery outlets.
#zagmbb #theslipperstillfits #wcchoops #zagup #zaghoops #unitedwezag

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Against UW, Zags are the gang that always shoots straight

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In a mention last week of Wednesday night’s Washington-Gonzaga basketball game in Spokane, one account – we won’t mention names; it’s the holiday season – referred to it as a “showdown.”

Showdown? Does it qualify for showdown status when one team has beaten the other by 27, 27, 16 and 20 in the past four meetings, and 11 of the last 12?

There are a lot of reasons why Gonzaga keeps tattooing Washington – better players, better coaching, better cohesiveness, etc., etc. The most obvious evidence of it is how defenseless the Huskies have been for a long time against the Zags.

I wrote about this a year ago, after Gonzaga’s 97-70 victory in Seattle: The Zags have now shot 50 percent or better in eight straight meetings against the Huskies. Which is stupefying.

So I’ve set out to put that number into some sort of perspective. How often does a team shoot 50 percent? And what are the odds it can do it eight straight times against one opponent?

Shooting 50 percent is nothing new for Gonzaga. Over the previous three seasons, the Zags did it no fewer than 60 times – 20 times last year, 23 in the Final Four season, and 17 in 2015-16. But if you sift out some of the chaff and assess how many times they did it against Power Five (plus the Big East) competition, the numbers drop severely. In 18 such games other than against the Huskies, they did it six times in 18 games in three years.

But let’s take it a step further. Arbitrarily, I went back through those same three seasons to see how Gonzaga shot against the three West Coast Conference teams with the worst composite league records over that period. There was a three-way tie for No. 3 (naturally), so the teams to be assessed were Portland (12-42 in league games), Pepperdine (17-37) and San Diego, Pacific and Loyola Marymount (all at 19-35).

Gonzaga hasn’t shot 50 percent in eight straight games against any of them.

The Zags do have a run of seven straight such games against LMU. But in eight-game segments AGAINST THE SUPPOSED DREGS OF THE LEAGUE, these are Gonzaga’s successes and shortfalls in hitting 50 percent: LMU 7-1, Portland 5-3, San Diego 5-3, Pepperdine 5-3 and Pacific 4-4. In 40 games, that’s a 26-14 success record, or 65 percent. Which makes the shooting numbers against Washington even more staggering.

Shooting, remember, is much more than just a blithe, well-they-hit-their-shots-tonight phenomenon. It’s essentially three things: Having a plan, executing the offense, and hitting the shot. Clearly, the Zags have been far superior to Washington in carrying the assignment out.

You try to envision how the Huskies might scissor the Gonzaga dominance of this millennium, and they will have one important component Wednesday night: A senior-led team that is no doubt tired of getting schooled every time it faces the Zags.

But this is a Gonzaga team that’s simply nasty offensively – averaging 98.4 points a game (second nationally) and shooting .542, tops in the country. It’s going to take a lot more defense than Washington has shown in the series to get it done.
#zagmbb #theslipperstillfits #wcchoops #zagup #zaghoops #unitedwezag #TougherTogether

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In a couple of polls, at least, Zags get to No. 1

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Most of the hoo-ha over college-basketball rankings Monday had nothing to do with Gonzaga, and maybe that’s fitting. The Zags powered through Kansas in both the AP (media) and coaches polls to No. 1, and gee, what can you say but ho-hum?

This is the third Gonzaga team in school history to crack the No. 1 spot, joining 2013 and 2017. The three appearances were done essentially with distinctly different casts of characters. More on that later.

Most of the noise Monday was made by the initial release of the NCAA Evaluation Tool (NET) ranking, which was developed to replace the controversial Ratings Percentage Index (RPI) computer rankings. No doubt even Ohio State was shocked to learn it’s No. 1 in the first NET rankings. And generally, the part of the world that cares about college hoops was as stunned as if you’d told it no illicit cash ever changes hands in the sport.

A couple of quick thoughts on the NET, which has Gonzaga No. 5: It’s early, and making too much of the rankings would be like trying to project a marathon winner after a mile and a half. But, uh, the Buckeyes indeed seem like an odd choice, notwithstanding road wins at Cincinnati and Creighton, both of which are 5-1. The Bearcats haven’t beaten anyone of renown, while Creighton has one notable victory over Clemson, which was ranked 16th at the time.

But the rankings that really piqued the interest of Zag fans were the media’s and coaches’, each of which, ever so narrowly, allowed heretofore No. 3 Gonzaga to leapfrog Kansas to gain the No. 1 spot after its landmark victory last week over Duke in the Maui Invitational final.

I figured that margin would be razor-thin, and defensible either way. Gonzaga has the big hammer, a victory over a team some were touting as a potential undefeated all the way, while Kansas has already bagged two wins over Top 10 teams, Michigan State and Tennessee. There’s no wrong answer there.

No way to get inside the heads of voters who opted for Kansas, but what wouldn’t be the proper way to assess it is this: Kansas was No. 2, ahead of Gonzaga, and it had a marquee win, so it should naturally get the nod for No. 1. This early in the season, the rankings are something akin to a blank easel – a sketch that may not look anything like rankings once they’ve settled in a couple of months, and teams’ strength can truly be assessed relative to others. For now, it’s more of a guess, which is why it’s dubious to think that the No. 2-rated team a week ago is necessarily better than the No. 3 team.

Again, it’s early, and maybe that’s a rationale for the ballot of Jesse Newell, the AP voter who kept Duke at No. 1 (the only top vote nationally for the Blue Devils), and thus caused some observers to wonder whether he was spelunking in Nepal last week as the Zags were nipping Duke. Newell does work for the Kansas City Star, one of the best newspapers out there, and he explains that he gives heavy consideration to analytics sites like KenPom.com and Torvik and their predictive nature. Both cling to Duke as the No. 1 team; KenPom has Gonzaga No. 6 and Torvik puts it at No. 3.

I appreciate analytics as much as the next guy. But don’t the actual results matter, too?

As for putting into perspective the Zags and their ascent to No. 1 . . .

Since Gonzaga attained its first No. 1 ranking in March of 2013, a total of 13 schools have been ranked at the top in the regular season: Arizona, Baylor, Duke, Florida, Gonzaga, Kansas, Kentucky, Michigan State, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Syracuse, Villanova and Virginia.

Of the 13, only four – Gonzaga, Kentucky, Michigan State and Villanova – have been ranked No. 1 as many as three times in that period (four for Kentucky), and only GU, Kentucky and Michigan State have done it with largely separate casts (‘Nova did it the last three years, with a fair amount of overlapping personnel). For the record, the contribution by current Zags on the No. 1-rated 2017 team was by their Nos. 6-8-9 scorers, Josh Perkins, Killian Tillie and Rui Hachimura. Perkins averaged 29 minutes, Tillie 12 and Hachimura a mere 4.6.

College-hoops rankings are, of course, as disposable as the latest from the tweeter-in-chief in Washington. It all comes out in the wash in college basketball, so nobody gets too frothy about rankings. Besides, they’re notoriously fluid, and the Zags, after their game Monday night against North Dakota State, have potential landmines at Creighton Saturday, with Tennessee Dec. 9 in Phoenix and at North Carolina Dec. 15. (My fingers are having trouble typing Washington as a potential landmine.)

Besides that, the Zags are now without guard Geno Crandall for 4-6 weeks with a broken hand. Tillie is already out, and in my memory, I can't recall two key pieces being down for an extended time simultaneously.

I distinctly remember writing for my trusty newspaper back in 2013 that the Zags’ first No. 1 ranking meant nothing, and yet it meant everything. That day, there was a 21-foot sheet cake with blue icing placed on tables in the middle of campus, available to students in a celebratory mood.

I’m guessing there was no sheet cake Monday and only modest revelry. As is increasingly the case at Gonzaga, been there, done that.
#zagmbb #theslipperstillfits #wcchoops #zagup #zaghoops #unitedwezag

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Maui wowie: Zags get one to remember over Duke

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So much was made nationally of Duke’s fabulous start against Kentucky, and its nonpareil freshman class, that it obscured the chance Gonzaga might have Wednesday against the top-ranked Blue Devils. Lo and behold, it was a pretty good one: The Zags controlled most of the game, steadied themselves in some teetering moments down the stretch, and in the Maui Invitational final, upset the team widely presumed to be the 2019 national champion, 89-87.

You can almost see it now: Deep in March, if these two teams collide again, the stage will be set for Mike Krzyzewski, maybe the greatest college coach in the sport’s history, to prove to the world how far his team has come from that November day in the Islands, and the Blue Devils will own the motivational edge.

To which Zag fans would surely say: So be it.

Victories against Duke, the unquestioned kingpin of the landscape, must be cherished, savored, burnished and placed on the mantel inside a glass case for perpetuity. This is a Duke program that in 2009 beat the mess out of the Zags so badly (76-41) that, as recounted in Glory Hounds, it sent Mark Few and his assistant, Ray Giacoletti, out into a Saturday-night snowstorm in New York for a long, long walk to ponder how to resurrect their fallen team.

Among other things, the upset broke Duke’s crazy 17-game, five-tournament win streak in Maui, which dates to the 1992-93 field 26 years ago. In the five previous finals, the Blue Devils had vanquished BYU (1992), Arizona (1997), Ball State (2001) – Ball State? – Marquette (2007) and Kansas (2012).

Assorted thoughts:

 The Zags were No. 3 entering the game, a spot behind Kansas, giving rise to some speculation that Kansas, which survived a struggle against Marquette, might be ranked No. 1 next week. I seriously doubt it. Not when so many hosannas were being thrown Duke’s way this month.

 If that happens, it’s the third time (2013, 2017) for Gonzaga to attain a No. 1 ranking, with essentially three different casts. Think about that in the context of the program’s history.

 It’s often noted that Gonzaga’s increased profile as a national player is due to its defensive chops. No argument there, but I think the biggest noticeable jump in recent years is its rim-protection capability. It now has legitimate shot-blockers. Consider this: Nobody shot better than the low 40s against the Zags in Maui, and Idaho State’s 45.7 is the opponent best in the six games this year.

 Most arresting stat in Maui: Gonzaga had 58 assists to the three opponents’ 22. When Gonzaga allowed baskets, it was getting beat off the dribble or by the three (hello, Illinois).

 Short trip, sometimes, from the outhouse to the penthouse. If Trent Frazier hits his three on Illinois’ final possession Monday night, people are wondering what’s wrong with Gonzaga. Instead, after playing three lackluster halves to begin in Lahaina, the Zags followed with three scintillating ones.

 This stands to be a nasty offensive team as long as it takes care of the ball. It shot low-50s percentages in all three games, and its lowest point total is 84 in the six games.

 Jeremy Jones was the forgotten man among the trio that sat out the 2015-16 season at GU, lost behind fellow redshirts Nigel Williams-Goss and Johnathan Williams III. But he’s blown his cover. With Killian Tillie sidelined, he played 51 minutes in Maui, with 23 points and 21 rebounds, and his double-double against Illinois – punctuated by two clinching free throws in the last seconds – was absolutely pivotal.

 When it comes to assessing NCAA-tournament resumes in March, this will be a chip of monumental proportions.
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What to expect when the Zags have high expectations

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The question, on a Gonzaga message board, got me to thinking. It asked if there was even slight concern the Zags might not live up to the considerable hype in 2018-19.

So I hit the archives, in search of any telltale signs that preseason expectations have proved too much for the Zags to shoulder. Their No. 3 preseason ranking (the current station) was highest ever at GU.

In the previous 20 seasons – the Gonzaga golden era – the Zags were preseason-ranked in 15. Three of the misses came in the first four years.

This is the fifth time GU has gone into a season ranked in the AP top 10. Maybe the most enlightening thing that can be said is that three of the previous four seasons with a preseason top-10 ranking ended in some of Gonzaga’s most crushing losses.

(It's worth noting that self-imposed pressure isn't the only potential reason for failing to deliver on the hype. It could be because of lousy chemistry or because a key player underperformed, etc.)

Surely the most herky-jerky in that group of the preseason-ranked-top-10 was the 2015-16 outfit, which started at No. 9. This was the team that had lost Kevin Pangos and Gary Bell Jr. to graduation.

It mucked through December with home losses to Arizona and UCLA when Przemek Karnowski injured his back; saw Karnowski miss the entire season after surgery; got swept in the regular season by Saint Mary’s; looked for all the world like it might finally miss the NCAA tournament; suddenly sprang up out of a casket to win the WCC tournament; as an 11th seed, blew away Seton Hall and Utah by double digits in the NCAA tournament; and finally fell to Syracuse in the Sweet 16 after losing a lead down the stretch.

Oh, and all of this for the world to see on an HBO series on the team. As Mike Roth, the athletic director, called the season: “. . . a freakin’ Greek tragedy.”

On more than one occasion, I think you can make the case that Gonzaga’s prominence – its seed in the NCAA tournament – might have had the opposition on high alert and thereby made it more difficult for the Zags. In that vein, Nevada, a 10 seed in 2004 at KeyArena, blew away No. 2 seed Gonzaga.

It’s worth throwing out this: There have been times in the past when I thought Gonzaga was overrated – not as a failing of its own, but because of the nature of the polls. The Zags don’t lose much when January hits, and if you don’t lose, you move up in the polls. It looked worse when that No. 3-ranked team lost to Nevada, simply because Gonzaga probably was overrated.

By and large, though, I would point to only one case in which the Zags might have felt the weight of the world – when they attained their first No. 1 ranking in March of 2013, narrowly slipped by a 16th-seeded Southern University team, and then fell to ninth-seeded Wichita State. Everything was new to the Zags – being ranked No. 1 was a late-season novelty, and being a No. 1 seed was a first.

In the evolution of any program, there are fits and starts and mountains climbed and lessons learned. The whole of it, the fact Gonzaga has been to a Final Four and checked most of the boxes of a high-level program, and had experience dealing with all of it, seems to argue against a significant shortfall. But hey, such unknowns are why they play the games.

A look at how the previous 20 seasons developed with regard to the AP poll (preseason ranking is in parentheses):

1999: (Unranked) Stormed to the Elite Eight.

2000: (24) . . . reached No. 22 late in December but then fell out of the rankings for good . . . barged to the Sweet 16.

2001: (Unranked) . . . was never ranked . . . made the Sweet 16 for a third straight year.

2002: (Unranked) . . . rose all the way to No. 6 by March 12 but had its first real downer in the 20-year tournament run, losing to Wyoming.

2003: (22) . . . inched to No. 20 by Nov. 26, then fell out of polls the rest of the way . . . finished with memorable double-OT loss to top-seeded Arizona in the NCAA second round.

2004: (10) . . . stayed in polls throughout and was ranked No. 3 in mid-March before stunning blowout loss to Nevada at KeyArena.

2005: (25) . . . fell out of the polls one week, got as high as No. 10 on March 15 and eventually lost to Texas Tech in the NCAA second round.

2006: (8) . . . stayed in single-digit poll rankings all season . . . lost heartbreaker to UCLA in the Sweet 16.

2007: (Unranked) . . . got as high as No. 16, but shorthanded club fell in the NCAA first round to Indiana.

2008: (14) . . . had nine-week period in mid-season unranked … re-emerged late in season at No. 24 before falling to Stephen Curry-led Davidson in first round of NCAA, the last time GU lost in the first round.

2009: (10) . . . jumped to No. 4 in early December after Old Spice championship, fell all the way out of the rankings with three-game loss streak in December, then recovered to No. 10 before Sweet 16 loss to eventual champ North Carolina.

2010: (Unranked) . . . got as high as No. 13 and was 22nd when it was ousted big by Syracuse in NCAA second round.

2011: (12) . . . lost five games by mid-December (San Diego State, Kansas State, Illinois, WSU, Notre Dame) and never saw the rankings after November . . . got Jimmered in the NCAA second round.

2012: (23) … the most in-and-out (of the rankings) team in the 20-year run, it entered and exited five times each . . . Ohio State ended the Zags’ season in the NCAA second round.

2013: (21) . . . this club was relatively unheralded early, but got all the way to No. 1 early in March and held that ranking three weeks before ouster against Wichita State in the NCAA second round.

2014: (15) … was only twice in polls after the New Year and out by March, when it fell badly to top-seeded Arizona in the NCAA second round.

2015: (13) . . . with only an overtime loss at Arizona in December, Zags shot all the way to No. 2 on Feb. 2, then followed with a defeat to BYU on Senior Night . . . ended a 35-3 season with an Elite Eight loss to Duke.

2016: (9 ) . . . after Przemek Karnowski injury, fell out of the polls by mid-December, and only bobbed back into them once at No. 25 . . . then assembled a surprise March run that ended with a heartbreaking loss to Syracuse in the Sweet 16.

2017: (14) . . . with victories over Florida and Iowa State and a title in the AdvoCare Invitational in Orlando, Zags shot to No. 1 for the second time in school history by Jan. 30 . . . they went undefeated all the way to Feb. 25 before their first loss – another Senior Night setback against BYU – then began a watershed March run all the way to the NCAA title game, ending with a loss to North Carolina.

2018: (18) . . . Zags got as high as No. 6 in a 32-5 season, including a decisive loss to eventual champ Villanova in New York in early December . . . they made their fourth straight Sweet 16 before a season-ending loss to Florida State.
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The Tillie injury: What's it mean to the Zags?

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Gonzaga’s breakthrough to the NCAA basketball championship game two years ago not only put the Zags in a new and celestial territory, it changed the way people look at them. So, as they assembled pieces for the 2018-19 season and began drawing consensus preseason top-five acclaim nationally, I found myself switching the operative question from, “What’s it going to take for them to make the Final Four?” to “What would keep them from doing it?”

Soon after, Killian Tillie went down with a stress fracture of the ankle, reminding us that the best-laid plans can go poof at the blink of a bone scan. Tillie is expected to be out until about the end of December, which is both good news and bad. If healthy, he’ll have plenty of time to be re-integrated into the lineup before the rigors of March. But he’s going to miss the games that will say a lot about the Zags’ positioning in the NCAA tournament bracket.

With the season starting next week, some notions about what Tillie’s injury means:

First, and Zag fans might want to knock wood at this, but the program has been relatively fortunate over the years at not sustaining a season-torpedoing succession of injuries. Yes, there have been severe setbacks in the 20-year run of NCAA tournaments, from Mike Nilson’s achilles tear in 2000 to Przemek Karnowski’s back injury in 2015-16, and in between, Kevin Pangos’ season-long ordeal with turf toe in 2013-14. (And for one, brutal half, Gary Bell Jr.’s ankle that denied him at the break of the Wichita State apocalypse in 2013.)

Tillie, in fact, has had it about as bad as anybody in a Zag uniform. He missed 10 games two years ago leading into the WCC tournament with a severe ankle sprain, and a hip problem took him out of GU’s Sweet 16 matchup against Florida State last season. Now this.

First thing I thought of when Tillie’s injury news broke? Corey Kispert. Not because he’s a facsimile of Tillie – he’s 6-6, not 6-10, and is a swingman, not a stretch-four – but because the trickle-down from Tillie’s injury means Kispert will get more key minutes, and let’s not forget, Kispert was playing well enough at the beginning of his freshman season to be a starter at the three spot. Indications are, he’s had a stellar fall camp. Freshman big Filip Petrusev more closely mirrors Tillie’s skills, but I’d look for Kispert to emerge.

Let’s consider the NCAA bracket implications from Tillie’s injury. As always, the basketball committee will give lip service to how a team has fared with and without the injured player. The problem here for Gonzaga is pretty simple: If Tillie indeed doesn’t return until after the real bullets have been fired in November and December, it’s going to be difficult to assess the Zags with him, because the WCC schedule is so forgiving.

Say they blow through the WCC schedule with one loss. It’s going to be easy for skeptics to write that off to a soft conference.

Some struggles before the New Year wouldn’t be a deal-breaker in March, but surely the potential is there to drop a seed line or more because of some heavyweight losses.

So let’s look at it like this: I see six big-time challenges on the schedule in November and December. (OK, this is entirely unscientific, subject to breakthroughs by other teams and breakdowns by the Zags, but hear me out.) Those would be the latter two games at the Maui Invitational (against either Arizona or Iowa State and whatever the final day brings – possibly Duke); at Creighton Dec. 1; Washington Dec. 5; Tennessee in Phoenix Dec. 9; and at North Carolina Dec. 15.

I’d set an over/under on wins for that six-pack at 3.5. (Among other things, the challenge of Gonzaga's final day in Maui will depend heavily on its results the first two days.) So in my mind, if the Zags can squeeze four victories from that half-dozen, it would be a triumph coming out of pre-conference play. And assuming no other missteps, that would curb the March-bracket damage from Tillie’s absence to one seed line – if that.


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Preseason Zag notes from the banquet circuit

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Attended the Tacoma edition of the Gonzaga alumni office’s series of coaches basketball gatherings Thursday night in Tacoma, featuring women’s assistant Stacy Clinesmith and men’s aide Donny Daniels. About 100 attended, a nice turnout – which apparently was in contrast to a tepid response in Seattle and Portland (what, they aren’t winning enough for you folks?)

“Twenty years,” Daniels said, referring to Gonzaga’s 20-year string of NCAA tournaments. “I’m telling you, this does not happen in the United States of America. To sustain this for as long as Mark (Few) has . . . this does not happen everywhere.”

More Daniels thoughts on Zag personnel:

-- Rui Hachimura. “He’s played basketball his whole life, but he’s really only played the last two years, as far as structure and competition," Daniels said. "He’s come a long way, but by no means is he a finished product." Referring to Hachimura’s two-game trip to Korea to play for the Japanese nationals in September, Daniels said lightly, “He’s got the weight of Gonzaga on his shoulders, he’s got the weight of Japan on his shoulders.”

-- Josh Perkins. “He’s going to be the catalyst for what we do,” Daniels said. Noting that Perkins has recovered from spring shoulder surgery, he said, “He’s been there four years, and he’s always answered the bell. Knee, shoulders, back, he’s had it all.” Daniels says that with 35 victories this year – “we’ve done it, but nothing’s ever guaranteed” – Perkins would become the all-time winningest college player. Checking the math, I come up with something slightly different, and Friday, I was unable to confirm. I have Przemek Karnowski having been a part of 137 Gonzaga victories, and Perkins with an even 100.

-- Killian Tillie. “He got hurt in practice (hip) before the Florida State game (in the Sweet 16),” Daniels said. “it was a blessing in disguise. We got beat by Florida State, but Tillie couldn’t work out for any NBA teams for the next six weeks.” Tillie gets a lot of prompting from coaches to be more physical.

-- Zach Norvell. Daniels marveled at how Norvell, struggling last year against Creighton, missed a free throw – on which a sub was waiting to enter the game for him – and Norvell went on to nail two straight threes, launching three straight 20-point-plus games against the Blue Jays, Villanova and Washington. “It’s amazing how life turns,” Daniels said. “If he makes that foul shot, he comes out.” It’s a slimmer “Snacks” this year, Daniels says, but he still has a knack for taking the tough shot even after a down game. “That’s in the DNA,” Daniels says. “Some people have it, some don’t.”

-- Brandon Clarke. “He’ll be one of the best shot-blockers Gonzaga’s ever had,” Daniels said. “He has a great feel for staying down, staying down and then going up. He’s a quick jumper.” Clarke is a scorer, but he’s not likely to lead the team in assists, Daniels said. “When Brandon catches the ball, he’s a black hole. It never comes out.”

-- Corey Kispert. The GU coaches would like to see more offensive rebounding, but Daniels says Kispert has showed some of the same flashes that he did a year ago before a sprained ankle early in the season derailed him. “Right now, he’s playing really, really well,” Daniels said. Recalling Kispert’s preseason a year ago, Daniels said, “Before he got hurt, he was gangbusters. I’ve never seen anything like it.”

-- Geno Crandall. “He’ll be that all-around guy,” Daniels said. “He’s playing to his ability, and he has ability. He’s quick, he can get in a stance and guard, he can make plays, put pressure on the defense in transition. He gives us a legitimate, ball-handling guard. He can hit a three. The ball doesn’t come out of his hand great, but it can go down. He’s a great kid who fits in with our guys well.”

-- Filip Petrusev: “He’ll be a classic Gonzaga forward. He shoots threes, he puts the ball on the ground. He’s got to get more physical and he’s got this laid-back, step-back shot that we’re not real fond of now. But he’s going to be a very good player.”

Daniels noted the athleticism and length of true freshman guard Greg Foster, and said his development over the next few weeks will determine whether he redshirts. Joel Ayayi, who redshirted last year, “will get some minutes,” Daniels said, “but Crandall is pretty good. Everything changed when Geno got here. You take a fifth-year guy, you kind of commit to him, although him getting here this late, the commitment is not as great as if he’d got here in August.”

Daniels says big man Jacob Larsen, still on scholarship and in school but not on the roster, “is going through some life challenges that he has to figure out. We as a staff and university are supporting him.”
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