Can Gonzaga finally live up to being…Gonzaga?

6 Comments

Today, the good dudes at CBSSports.com unveiled their preseason lists of Final Four/national title favorites, players of the year, coaches of the year and conference champions.

For the most part, the lists leave little to truly debate. The overall team talent pool is down this season, and that leaves the best teams to truly rise to the top.

One of those teams is Gonzaga. Jeff Goodman and Matt Norlander picked the Bulldogs to make the Final Four this season, which would be there first in school history.

To me, this is a cycle. Every year (or every few years) Gonzaga has a team that people say is a “Final Four-caliber team”. Then every year that team plays average against their non-conference schedule or plays a lackluster slate. They then proceed to lose to a few in-conference games to a St. Mary’s/San Francisco/Portland. They may win the West Coast Conference tournament, but their RPI is never high enough and they end the season with a 5-though-9 seed and at-best a Sweet 16 exit.

My point is, since 1999 and the days of Matt Santangelo and that magical Elite Eight run, the Zags have had one of the most solid “mid-major” programs in the history of the phrase. They’re an enviable program.

But they’re still not the “Gonzaga” everyone expects to see year-in and year-out.

See, there’s always a trail that leads back to Gonzaga when pundits and publications label mid-major teams. Quick, what’s the first team when you think of the term “mid-major”? Probably Gonzaga. Because they’re the benchmark.

When VCU and Butler both made their Final Four runs in 2011 and 2012, they were compared, however loosely, to Gonzaga. As far back as the Antonio Gates-led Kent State team that made the Elite Eight in 2002, the Bulldogs were looked upon as the standard — at the time just three years removed from Dan Munson’s Elite Eight squad — and the Golden Flashes heard the “this is a Gonzaga-like run” lines.

That’s a compliment to the program. Gonzaga, since the turn of the century, has been viewed as the alpha dog when it comes to mid-major consistency. So much so that the Bulldogs are no longer considered a “mid-major” program by traditional standards. They don’t play a mid-major non-conference schedule. They recruit nationally and internationally and along with Syracuse, make the best use of their geographic location by grabbing a ton of top-tier Canadian talent. They have the advantage of not having to compete every fall with a football program. The fan-base is concentrated, but rabid. The McCarthey Athletic Center, better known as “The Kennel”, is widely viewed as one of the best home-court advantages in all of college basketball.

But in order to fully break away from that mid-major tag, the Zags have to make a final big splash. They have to make a Final Four.

For a team that does as well as the Bulldogs do recruiting — they’ve had six players in the NBA since 2002, not to mention it’s the alma mater of John Stockton  — and in a conference that routinely provides enough tests to prepare them for the rigors of the college basketball postseason as the WCC does, Gonzaga, to a degree, has underachieved on a national scale.

Fan-bases can deny it all they want, but the term “mid-major” isn’t exactly a compliment. And in all truthfulness, the Bulldogs shouldn’t be viewed as a mid-major team anymore. But the only way to do that, even after all they’ve accomplished, is to be one of the last four teams standing in late March or early April.

That’s not to say that the Zags are a failure. No program with 10 conference tournament titles, 12 regular season conference championships, five Sweet Sixteens and an Elite Eight appearance, all in the last 13 seasons, can be called a failure. Mark Few has stated that he’s totally happy and content in Spokane and there’s no reason to think he won’t cap his coaching career there. Few and Gonzaga are seemingly a perfect fit for the long haul.

But sooner or later, the Zags are going to need to make a Final Four if they want to live up to that national hype that they receive on a yearly basis. Not for respect, respect is already there. But to be Gonzaga. The same Gonzaga that every year gets it’s lion’s share of the hype it’s expected to live up to.

David Harten is the editor of The Backboard Chronicles. You can follow him on Twitter at @David_Harten.

Arizona lands Pitt transfer forward Ryan Luther

Getty Images
Leave a comment

Arizona landed a key addition for its frontcourt on Wednesday as Pitt transfer forward Ryan Luther pledged to the Wildcats.

The 6-foot-9 Luther is expected to receive a hardship waiver that would give him immediate eligibility, a source confirmed to NBCSports.com, as Arizona gets some much-needed help up front.

Playing in 10 games last season before a stress reaction in his right foot ended the season, Luther averaged 12.7 points and 10.1 rebounds per game for the Panthers. In his final game of the season, Luther went for 13 points and 12 rebounds in a Pitt loss to West Virginia. Luther shot 45 percent from the field and is a noted perimeter threat as he was 38 percent from behind the three-point line.

Luther hasn’t logged heavy minutes as a contributor through a full season. Mostly a role player at Pitt until last season, Luther was the team’s most productive player when he was on the floor. But that production also didn’t come during ACC play and through the course of a full season.

Thankfully at a program like Arizona, Luther should have a bit more help around him. He could be a nice addition to the Wildcats, particularly if he rebounds and spaces the floor in the frontcourt as he did at Pitt. Arizona needed someone like Luther to provide more stability after losing players like Deandre Ayton and Dusan Ristic.

In the last few weeks, Arizona has rebounded nicely to land three commitments for next season — including freshmen Devonaire Doutrive and Omar Thielemans. The group isn’t as heralded as some past Arizona recruiting efforts. Given where the Wildcats were in recruiting a few weeks ago, however, this isn’t a bad turnaround.

TCU extends Jamie Dixon’s contract by two more years

Getty Images
Leave a comment

TCU has given head coach Jamie Dixon a two-year contract extension through the 2023-24 season, according to a release from the school.

Dixon took the Horned Frogs to the NCAA tournament for the first time in 20 years this season as he’s done a great job of turning around his alma mater. The release also notes that TCU had the highest average attendance in program history this season. Fans are also taking notice of a revitalized team.

With back-to-back 20-win seasons and postseason appearances, Dixon and TCU have a lot of positive momentum going on right now. The two-year extension for Dixon should help a bit in recruiting when it comes to overall stability, as well, as he’s been able to attract some quality talent so far.

Report: Kevin Ollie claims UConn violated rights with firing

Getty Images
Leave a comment

Fired former UConn head coach Kevin Ollie is claiming that the school violated his constitutional rights during his departure.

Ollie sent a letter to UConn school president Susan Herbst which was obtained by ESPN’s Myron Medcalf in a report released on Wednesday. Ollie’s lawyers are claiming the school proceeded with his firing before giving Ollie a proper chance to contest his termination — which was guaranteed in his contract and also the collective bargaining agreement with the University of Connecticut’s branch of the American Association of University Professors. Ollie was fired, with cause, in late March as the school mentioned an NCAA inquiry as the reason why. According to Medcalf’s report, the NCAA has not sent a notice of allegations to the school.

Ollie’s union membership includes thousands of faculty members around the country as the collective bargaining agreement demands a hearing process before any employee can be terminated for allegations of serious misconduct. Ollie claims he didn’t receive a letter he was supposed to get to begin the termination process.

“From our review of the facts and circumstances relating to Coach Ollie’s employment status, it is apparent that the University of Connecticut has already violated [Coach Ollie’s] rights under the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution by subverting Coach Ollie’s opportunity to respond to charges and evidence in a meaningful way in advance of the decision to terminate his employment,” said the letter dated April 3.

“The public record, action taken, and authorized communications by representatives of the University of Connecticut, demonstrate that the decision to terminate Coach Ollie has already been made and therefore the University of Connecticut has effectively negated Coach Ollie’s property right protected by the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution.”

This letter to UConn likely begins a long legal battle to try to get an eight-figure payout back as Ollie is going to do everything he can to clear his name.

South Carolina’s Brian Bowen, still ineligible, to declare for draft

David Banks/Getty Images
Leave a comment

Former Louisville forward and current South Carolina Gamecock Brian Bowen will declare for the NBA draft without signing with an agent as a safety measure in case the NCAA does not clear him to play in the 2018-19 season.

Bowen is the former top 25 prospect that was forced to leave the Louisville program after the FBI’s investigation into corruption in college hoops turned up evidence that his family had accepted the first payment of what was supposed to be a $100,000 fee to get him to be a Cardinal.

That investigation was ultimately what got Rick Pitino fired.

“I just felt that it was the right decision,” Bowen told ESPN. “My goal is still to play college basketball, but I felt as though it makes sense to cover my bases.”

Bowen is in a tough spot right now.

On the one hand, he has already missed an entire season of college basketball and there is no guarantee that he will be cleared to play next season, if at all.

On the other hand, the fact that he has not played in a year and that he has not played against any collegiate level competition is one of the reasons that NBA front offices are going to be hesitant to draft him, and that’s not a good thing for a player that was considered a second round pick before he spent a year on the sidelines.

North Carolina’s Cam Johnson undergoes hip surgery

Streeter Lecka/Getty Images
Leave a comment

For the second time in the last six months, North Carolina wing Cam Johnson has undergone the knife.

On Wednesday, North Carolina announced that Johnson underwent an arthroscopic procedure on his hip on Monday, and that he is expected to make a full recovery and return to school in time for the start of the 2018-19 season.

The 6-foot-9 Johnson was UNC’s third-leading scorer a season ago, averaging 12.4 points while shooting 34.1 percent from three. He only played 26 games, however, after missing time due to a surgery to fix a torn meniscus.