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Bud Withers' Blog

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Zag-Duck series: It's mostly left to the imagination

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The rest of the Duck-Zag series, as they say, is history. What there is of it.
#zagmbb #wcchoops #theslipperstillfits #zaghoops #zagup

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As usual, Zags are quick out of the gate

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

#zagmbb #wcchoops #theslipperstillfits #zaghoops #zagup

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

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

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

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First team

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

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

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

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

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

Second team

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

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

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

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

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

Honorable Mention

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

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

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

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


#zagmbb #wcchoops #theslipperstillfits #zaghoops #zagup

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