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Bud Withers' Blog

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Zags: A sobering night in Provo (but aren't they all?)

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Once the BYU students had stormed the floor, and coach Mark Pope had gotten done lavishing praise on just about everybody in the house wearing a “Y” sweatshirt, a thought occurred to me: BYU’s dominating 91-78 victory Saturday night over Gonzaga wasn’t a zero-sum game, as in the benefit to the Cougars equaling the blow to the Zags.

Not really. All the mania associated with the game – the sellout crowd, the noise, the hype of the ESPN2 mikesters, Pope’s overheated reaction to it – underscored what a night it was for BYU. Which means, in the public eye, how big a deal it was to beat Gonzaga. Which means, at least by this line of thinking, that the Zags’ status as a national colossus is secure. So while the gain for the Cougars was considerable, the deficit sustained by the Zags was something less.

Nebulous, maybe. But even the metrics would suggest the night wasn’t overly costly to the Zags and their quest to capture a No. 1 seed in the West. They actually gained ground on San Diego State, which lost to a 14-14 UNLV team. At least BYU is an NCAA-tournament team-in-waiting.

All of it, all the hoopla in Provo, makes for an interesting juxtaposition against the way it was going to be when BYU joined the WCC. Remember how there was a prevailing feeling that the Cougars were going to rule the league, that all their big-school resources were going to be too much? Well, as we all know, BYU has instead faded in and out of relevance through the past decade, and not only has failed to outflank the Zags, but Saint Mary’s as well. So the tableau of Provo gone wild as it did Saturday night, about a game in an arena three times the size of the McCarthey in Spokane, is not what everybody anticipated when BYU dropped in on the WCC back in 2011.

Not that the night wasn’t a slap to the senses of the Zags. Impressions:

-- I’d guess the GU coaches would tell you this was about as far as their team has strayed from the scouting report. The Zags left shooters open, they let Yoeli Childs roam inside wantonly. It was a lousy defensive performance, bad enough to kick their KenPom ranking from No. 26 to 35 in a mere 40 minutes.

-- When Mark Few lamented his team’s toughness, some of that was code for how Filip Petrusev played. He got stripped, he had trouble playing through contact, and then spent far too much time pleading his case to officials.

-- What happened to the Joel Ayayi who was Gonzaga’s biggest surprise of the early season? The one who drained a nerveless 25-footer down the stretch to help beat Washington? The one with 19 points to lead his team’s scoring against Santa Clara in January? Ayayi didn’t hit a three in two games over the weekend. He hasn’t hit two since Feb. 1 at USF. He appears to have lost aggressiveness, something the Zags desperately need as the games become bigger.

-- The game underscores what the loss of Anton Watson to a shoulder injury means to Gonzaga. He would have been a safety net against foul trouble by the GU bigs, or the night when Petrusev is struggling.

-- GU was 5 for 25 on threes, worst since 3 of 16 at Santa Clara Jan. 30. In March, that’s a ticket to spring vacation.

-- Gonzaga still hears derision (some deserved) about the strength of the WCC. But there aren’t a lot of teams out there that would enjoy dealing with the offensive prowess of the Zags, Saint Mary’s and BYU, three of the top 13 in the nation at that end by KenPom.

-- I heard Seth Davis say the other night he thinks Gonzaga might be the one to cut down the nets in Atlanta in April. Personally, I don’t see it. But perspective is in order. It’s only the Zags’ overachieving, startling season that elicits that kind of prediction. So all wasn’t lost at BYU. But misplaced, yeah.
#theslipperstillfits #wcchoops #zagmbb #zagup #zaghoops

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Banchero and UW, where a little talent is a dangerous thing

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The top-shelf basketball talent from the Seattle area just keeps coming. A year after Jaden McDaniels became a five-star recruit, coaches from around the country are coveting 6-9 Paolo Banchero of O’Dea High in Seattle, a 2021 prospect that Rivals.com ranks as the No. 2 player in the nation. Among others, that has the interest of schools like Duke, North Carolina, Kentucky, Gonzaga and of course, Washington.

There’s a thick connection to Seattle and the University of Washington. Banchero’s mom Rhonda played at Washington from 1992-95 and is No. 6 on the school career scoring list and No. 8 in rebounding. His dad Mario played football at the UW. And of course, there’s the close culture of basketball players who grew up in the 206; in a recent interview with KING-TV, Banchero made reference to the legion of other players who have made the city one of the wellsprings of basketball talent in the nation.

Only circumstance lends any hint about where Banchero might want to go to school. He hasn’t publicly named a list of finalists (while he has visited the first four aforementioned), and both parents say they aren’t inclined to push him in any direction.

Not that any coaches ever slip a dollop of negative recruiting into their pitch, but for people like John Calipari of Kentucky and Mark Few of Gonzaga, and the longtime head men at Duke and North Carolina, Mike Krzyzewski and Roy Williams, it has to be tempting to point out to Banchero what kind of season the local team is having. Indeed, the 2019-20 UW struggles serve to underscore a much longer, deeper trend at Washington.

Over the years, nobody has frittered away high-end talent like Washington.

The numbers are startling. This is something I researched a few years ago, and with the Huskies bogged down in an eight-game losing streak and looking at a challenge even to get out of the Pac-12 cellar, the subject merits updating.

Back in 2006-07, Washington had seven-foot Spencer Hawes. It started 10-1 and skidded to 19-13 overall and 8-10 in the Pac-10. The Huskies didn’t play in the post-season and Hawes decided to take his gifts to the NBA after one year.

So I looked at specifically that phenomenon: Schools that since 2007, have had a player taken in the first round of the NBA draft, while the school failed to make the NCAA tournament that season.

It’s not a pretty picture on Montlake.

If, as expected, Washington fails to make the NCAA tournament – and now its chance is reduced to winning the Pac-12 tournament – and Isaiah Stewart and Jaden McDaniels get taken in the first round of the draft as widely expected, the Huskies will have had nine such first-round picks who didn’t get to the NCAA tournament that season since ’07.

As we speak, no other school in the country has more than three. That’s a stunning gap in a sport in which the bubble is regularly viewed as soft, and which affords a lot of opportunities to qualify for the NCAAs.

These are the instances at issue, and the Huskies’ post-season destination, since ’07:

2007 – Spencer Hawes (no post-season tournament).
2012 – Terrence Ross and Tony Wroten (NIT semifinals).
2014 – C.J. Wilcox (no tournament).
2016 – Marquess Chriss and Dejounte Murray (NIT second round).
2017 – Markelle Fultz (no tournament).

The phenomenon happens more than you might guess. Since 2007, there have been 70 instances of first-round picks not getting to the Big Dance that season, or about five a year. But if there are five more in June, and the Huskies don’t pull off a miracle run and Stewart and McDaniels are history at the UW, that would be nine of 75 belonging to Washington. For Washington to have more than eight percent of such cases, when there are 75 Power Six conference schools, is jaw-dropping.

Next-most such shortfalls is three by Indiana and Syracuse, UW coach Mike Hopkins’ old school. There are another 10 two-time offenders.

Put Hawes aside, and it’s even more stark. Since 2012, there are six Huskies who fall into this category over a mere eight seasons. Nationally, in that period there are 40 such cases, so the UW owns 15 percent of them. And it’s very likely to jump higher soon.

Then there’s this: The worst-case scenario – no NCAA and departures by Stewart and McDaniels – would mark the third time in that 14-year stretch that it’s happened to a tandem of Huskies the same season. Elsewhere, it’s happened only once, to Kentucky in 2013, and that carries a bit of an asterisk since Nerlens Noel, a first-round NBA selection that year, went down with a season-ending knee injury on Feb. 12.

How possibly to explain this?

This season, the Huskies can look to the ineligibility of guard Quade Green, which is reasonable to a point. But it’s also become a convenient catch-all for a team that had four losses by Jan. 2 with him.

You could also say that because seven (of the potential nine without a Big Dance ticket) are/were one-and-done players, it’s not as much a black mark on the Huskies as it is the NBA procedure of drafting on potential rather than production.

My sense is that more than anything, what did in Lorenzo Romar after a successful start at Washington was his inability to tame the beast that is Seattle-area talent – that is, not only being able to recruit it, but to recruit it selectively, to construct rosters that included it, and ultimately, to coach it.

What Romar did is not Hopkins’ fault, but after a two-year start and nothing but hosannas thrown his way, Hopkins is overseeing a badly underachieving season that evokes problems of his predecessor.

Who knows what Paolo Banchero might do? If his mindset is being one-and-done, he might well conclude that it’s not worth the uprooting to go cross-country, or even across the state, for eight or nine months’ apprenticeship for the NBA. He might decide the local connections he would make going to the UW would be beneficial when he’s done playing basketball. He might also figure he can be the guy who successfully bucks Washington’s lengthy, head-scratching trend.

One thing you can probably count on: He’s going to hear about that history from other coaches.
#uwhuskies #huskies #godawgs #zagmbb #wcchoops #theslipperstillfits

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Zags now left to their own (considerable) devices

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For Gonzaga basketball fans, it was an unusually enlightening Saturday. The Zags learned all sorts of things, starting with the morning’s annual basketball-committee bracket top-16 reveal, and ending with the obliteration of a good Saint Mary’s team 10 hours later in Moraga.

In the morning, Gonzaga discovered it has an edge on San Diego State, even as the Aztecs are undefeated, and that means it’s only logical the Zags will maintain that edge if they don’t lose before Selection Sunday. By night, we saw what a focused, healthy (or what passes for healthy in this gimpy season) Zags team is capable of.

Oh yes, the day reinforced something else. It appears that whatever’s out there for Gonzaga on Selection Sunday March 15 – seed, site, bracket quadrant – the Zags are going it alone.

Maybe there’s been another year when the most prized victims of November and December went so collectively south on Gonzaga, but I can’t recall it.

You know the drill: In the Zags’ “inverted” schedule – tough non-conference followed by a less rugged WCC – they do what business they can, and then hope those vanquished acquit themselves well as the season plays out, the more to burnish Gonzaga’s resume. Most years, it seems to me, what passed for quality wins before Christmas have stood up, often gaining greater resonance. As in 2003-04, when Maryland, a Zag victim, was limping along at 14-11 late in the season, trying merely to mount the NCAA bubble, when suddenly it blew through the ACC tournament victorious, all the way to a No. 4 seed in the NCAAs.

(Of course, at the other end there was 2001-02, when St. Joseph’s – ranked No. 10 in the preseason – and Fresno State seemed like major conquests, but each receded from prominence, fell out of the rankings, and on a sobering Selection Sunday, No. 6-ranked Gonzaga got a No. 6 seed.)

Opponent-wise, this year is looking something like 2002. Oregon, Washington, Arizona, North Carolina – meh.

The Ducks are sort of mucking through the season, overly dependent on Payton Pritchard and unconvincing up front. Against the 199th-ranked KenPom defense at Oregon State the other night, Oregon scored 53 points to fall to 18-6.

Washington? The Huskies haven’t won since about the last time Donald Trump told the truth. Their fall from grace has been spectacular – a team drawing mention for a Final Four to one that may struggle to get out of the Pac-12 cellar.

Like Oregon, Arizona (16-7) has been something of a fits-and-starts outfit, puzzling in that you’d figure those freshmen would be jelling by now. But the Wildcats were just schooled at home by 13 against UCLA. And North Carolina, well, we knew Carolina was a shell of itself when the Zags won convincingly in December, but just when the Tar Heels were about to salvage some self-esteem Saturday against Duke, they invented all sorts of different ways to lose.

The good news for Gonzaga is, it has enough juice to make it on its own. Obviously, winning will keep GU on the one line, and even another loss might not be fatal to its prospects for a No. 1 seed.

But there’s that developing joust with San Diego State for the top seed in the West – the winner prospectively going to Los Angeles for the regional (barring a complete collapse, GU will start the tournament at Spokane Arena) and the loser having to trek to New York for a second weekend, there possibly to encounter Duke and its second home at Madison Square Garden.

It has to be significant that Gonzaga was judged ahead of SDSU BEFORE its thunderous victory at Saint Mary’s, so whatever the margin was Saturday morning, it’s greater now.

For comparison, San Diego State has a road win at BYU (a challenge looming for Gonzaga Feb. 22) and neutrals over Creighton (by 31) and Iowa, 26th and 18th, respectively, in KenPom rankings. Notwithstanding Arizona’s inconsistency, the Wildcats are still worth a No. 15 KenPom (and No. 10 in the NET) and Oregon is 25th in both metrics.

Where might San Diego State slip up? An old Zag friend, Leon Rice, could help next Sunday at Boise State, and the Aztecs finish the regular season at Nevada Feb. 29.

Much remains to be decided, in Spokane, in San Diego, even in Eugene and Tucson. But by now, the Zags have to know that it’s in their hands. Which, all things considered, isn’t so bad.
#zagmbb #wcchoops #theslipperstillfits #zaghoops #zagup

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How the WCC's other half lives, and some questions

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We’ve been hearing for years about what it’s like on the road for Gonzaga in the West Coast Conference. So I decided to find out for myself. Well, myself and my wife. We spent part of a long weekend in the Bay Area attending both GU games at Santa Clara and San Francisco.

I’d never seen a game in either house. Interviewed Steve Nash for a preseason piece back in the mid-‘90s in the SCU gym, but that’s it.

It was different. Different in just about every way imaginable, before you even get in the door.

You know already the fuss Gonzaga coach Mark Few raised a couple of seasons ago when he asked why more WCC programs weren’t plunging into facilities improvements the cash the Zags were earning for league members with their success in NCAA tournaments. Well, there’s another marker of how Gonzaga affects the league: The cost of seeing the Zags play those teams on the road.

At Santa Clara, you can’t merely buy a general-admission ticket. The Gonzaga game is “bundled” with another game – ours with Portland’s at SCU later this month – so you have to purchase two games, and you can donate the second one to charity. Those extra tickets were $13 apiece. Not a huge outlay, but an add-on.

At USF, War Memorial Gym is so small – 3,005 capacity, compared to 4,700 at Santa Clara – that the “surcharge” comes in another form. As in, we (and a lot of other people there following Gonzaga) paid $75 for a general-admission seat. Yes, $75. They can get it, so they charge it. And truth be told, the place is so small, that gets you a good seat.

Most noticeable thing about the atmosphere in these places? The predominance, or lack of, the pep band. Funny thing: We got into a discussion about, believe it or not, whether there had been a pep band at Santa Clara (in a game we’d witnessed from high up), and sure enough, there was. Two days later, at USF, the band was tucked up in a corner of the gym. But inscrutably, it didn’t play. The members sat sort of forlornly with their instruments, and might have played four times the entire 2 ½ hours-plus of pregame and game time. If you’ve been serenaded by rousing riffs of Barenaked Ladies at the McCarthey Athletic Center or Nirvana at the University of Washington, you don’t know how good you’ve had it. It adds immeasurably to the game-day experience.

(A primer on the Bulldog Band at Gonzaga, courtesy of associate A.D. Chris Standiford: GU’s band is all-volunteer and under the aegis of the athletic department, which pays for instruments, sheet music, uniforms and the services of longtime conductor David Fague, director of the jazz studies program. The band numbers about 130, none of whom are on athletic-department scholarships. Part of the allure for band members is not having to submit to student ticket procedures. GU’s band pre-dates the NCAA-tournament streak, but in sketchier form in early years. It was when the Zags began to be a regular player in the NCAAs that AD Mike Roth committed to an upgraded band.)

Sound systems didn’t seem suitable for either the Santa Clara or USF gyms. In our seats, I’m not sure I caught a distinct word from the P.A. in either game. In fairness, I can’t summarily swear the acoustics are better at the McCarthey, but I suspect they are.

Concessions were unspectacular at both venues. At Santa Clara, I went without. My wife opted for a garden burger, while the topic recalled a memory from something GU athletic director told me several years ago – that there was a motive to the 6 p.m. home starts engineered by Gonzaga when the games aren’t assigned to ESPN. Six o’clock gives most workers time to get to the arena, but not enough time to eat before they get there. So there are varied food choices at the MAC, and they provide GU a worthy revenue source.

Competitively, the legendary challenge Gonzaga has in these arenas is palpable even in warmups, where the hosts give off a determined, excited vibe and the Zags are only workmanlike. The visitors reflect something I’ve believed for a long time: Athletes usually play only as hard as they think they need to win.

At Santa Clara, it was obvious Filip Petrusev, with a career-high 31 points, could do just about anything he wanted. It was also obvious he did a lot of things he won’t be able to do against NCAA-tournament-level competition. Of course, Killian Tillie got hurt, and I say this without any research or foundation, other than having covered or been around teams for about half a century: I honestly don’t remember a basketball player having endured as many different injuries in a college career, one atop another.

With Tillie out at USF, it was going to be a dicey day for Gonzaga. There simply aren’t enough bodies for breathing room. USF took away the perimeter, took the fight to Gonzaga, and led for much of the game in front of a highly diluted crowd. It shouldn’t be a result that diminishes the Zags, given USF’s 80s ranking in both KenPom and the NET.

The weekend stirred in my mind a question that arose a long time ago. If you could gather the WCC presidents around a table and they’d speak what’s in their heart of hearts, would they tell you this isn’t what their school signed up for when they joined an alliance – a conference – of religion-based, non-football-playing West Coast schools? That one school would have charter flights and be a grabber on ESPN, and would nudge my school’s own particular enterprise away from being a sleepy little urban campus to needing to do something dynamic with athletics? Would they really rather not have to deal with the nuisance of athletics insinuating itself into the academic mission?

Around the WCC, there have been recent facilities upgrades. But here's obligatory perspective: Santa Clara’s crowd of 4,200 for Gonzaga was almost 2,000 more than the next-biggest SCU attendance this season, against Cal. The Broncos drew 1,202 for Washington State back on Nov. 12. If the interest is modest, it follows that so will be the investment.

In the men’s room, a philosophical Santa Clara fan said, “We’ll get ‘em next year.” Then, mindful that this was Gonzaga’s 21st straight win over the Broncos, he added, “Maybe.”
#zagup #zaghoops #theslipperstillfits #wcchoops #zagmbb

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