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Saint Mary’s gets big graduate transfer pickup from guard Cullen Neal

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Saint Mary’s added an experienced guard with the addition of graduate transfer Cullen Neal, he announced on Monday.

The 6-foot-5 Neal is the son of former New Mexico head coach Craig “Noodles” Neal as he started his career at New Mexico. Neal transferred to Ole Miss and played his junior season there, averaging 9.4 points and 2.2 assists per game last season while shooting 40 percent from three-point range.

Neal is another three-point weapon and a potential double-figure scorer for the Gaels as he’s joining a team already ranked in the NBCSports.com 2017-18 way-too-early preseason top 25. The addition of an experience guard like Neal should help offset the loss of Joe Rahon as the Gaels also return their top three scorers–Jock Landale, Calvin Hermanson and Emmett Naar– from last season.

With Gonzaga losing so many key pieces from last season’s national runner-up, the WCC race could be very intriguing next season between these two teams as Saint Mary’s has put itself in position for another strong season.

Full circle. Thankful for the opportunity to higher my education and play basketball. Time to get to work!

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Midnight hike helps unite vagabond Gonzaga team

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GLENDALE, Ariz. — For Gonzaga, the road to a national title started five months ago, in the middle of the night, on a dock near a secluded lake in northern Idaho.

Five of their eight rotation players didn’t play for last season’s Sweet 16 team, and a sixth — Przemek Karnowski — played six games before undergoing back surgery to remove staph from inside a bulging disc in his back. Camping trips aren’t the norm for the Bulldogs’ preseason ritual, but head coach Mark Few and strength and conditioning coach Travis Knight figured it would be a new way for this roster to get to know each other.

So they set out on a camping trip before the season started just north of Hayden Lake at Farragut State Park.

Most of the team bonded early in the trip over their pure, unfiltered hatred of camping and the outdoors. Some players puked after eating the food on the trip. Others struggled to pitch a tent or build a fire. Hiking and dealing with nature didn’t come very naturally for some of the roster that came from major cities. It was a team-building trip. There’s no better way to build a bond with your teammates than to vent over the things your coaching staff is making you do.

After finally getting over the outdoor obstacles that come with camping, late into the night, the decision was made to hike through the pitch black Idaho wilderness because what could go wrong? There were no coaches. The group’s outdoors expert leading the trip wasn’t with them. It was just the Bulldogs and the starry night as they talked about everything they wanted to do during the 2016-17 season.

“We walked, like, two miles at night with no lights or anything. We just all walked around,” Gonzaga forward Johnathan Williams III said. “And we came to a dock. And we all just laid there and talked about what we wanted to do, what we wanted to accomplish this year. A lot of individual goals, a lot of team goals. And our team goals were to win a national championship.

“It was pitch black. They have big bears out there and stuff. We didn’t care. We were just out there walking, building relationships that will last a lifetime.”

Gonzaga’s 2016-17 roster was uniquely built because they had a lot of transfers and true freshmen coming into the equation that didn’t play for them the previous season. Besides the talented newcomers, Karnowski was also given the additional year of eligibility by the NCAA.

Guards Josh Perkins and Silas Melson returned from last season’s Sweet 16 rotation, but transfers like Williams, Nigel Williams-Goss and Jordan Mathews were talented and experienced transfers coming from power-conference programs. Then there was the addition of freshmen big men like Zach Collins and Killian Tillie — players who weren’t expecting to compete with Karnowski for minutes since his additional year of eligibility came unexpectedly.

With so many new pieces entering the roster, and heated competitions for minutes at nearly every position, Gonzaga’s staff wanted to make sure everyone was on the same page before starting the journey of a long season.

So after class on a Friday afternoon, the team drove about an hour for the trip before returning back to campus by Sunday. Team-building exercises can certainly build camaraderie, but sometimes those sentiments don’t last beyond a few days. Gonzaga has taken the principles that they learned on the trip and used it over the course of the season when they’ve faced adversity. The trip has been brought up during locker-room talks as a reminder of everything Gonzaga has been through over the past few months.

Karnowski’s journey into the wilderness was another intriguing subplot. After dealing with the horrifying ordeal involving his back the previous season, the trip to Idaho was the first time Karnowski slept away from a normal bed in a controlled environment. Sleeping on a special bed that the team brought with to make sure his back was okay in the wilderness, Karnowski made it through the trip with no issues — a positive sign for his health and the upcoming season.

Gonzaga’s players made the outdoors excursion sound much tougher than it might have actually been, but they certainly took something from the trip that has helped propel them to the best season in school history.

“It’s always easy on something like that to come out of it and be good for two days or a week,” Gonzaga assistant coach Brian Michaelson said. “But is that going to continue for a month? For two months? Throughout the season, especially when times get tough, and you have to harken back on it? And that’s what I thought was amazing with this group. They really were able to do that. And what they did on that trip has stuck with us for five months and 40 games. It’s been remarkable.”

Gonzaga has stayed together after the trip because each player on the roster was fixated on reaching this point in the season. Sacrifices needed to be made when it came to shots and minutes. Throughout the season, the Zags have made things work using different lineups and unique go-to players depending on the game. For a team full of new pieces, the Zags gelled as quickly as they could have possibly hoped.

Part of the reason is the “36 hours of hell” (as one player put it) that helped Gonzaga grow together before things really got tough during the season.

“I just think we give it all for each other. The message before the season was when we got the pieces, that we have to sacrifice a lot to get to where we want to go,” Perkins said. “I think we gave up a lot for our common goal and it paid off for us.”

Gonzaga’s Przemek Karnowski, Nigel Williams-Goss give updates on injuries before title game

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GLENDALE, Ariz. — Gonzaga will enter Monday night’s national championship game against North Carolina dealing with some minor injuries to key players as center Przemek Karnowski and point guard Nigel Williams-Goss updated their injury statuses on Sunday.

Karnowski left the first half of Saturday’s win over South Carolina after getting raked across the eye going up for a shot near the basket. He later returned to the game and played a key role in the second half as Karnowski told reporters that everything with his eye should be fine for Monday night.

“My eye is good. I just got a scratch on my eyeball, but I don’t have any problems with vision or anything like that,” Karnowski said. “I have a follow-up today with the doctor, and I hope everything is going to be good.”

Williams-Goss was in the midst of a brilliant performance against the Gamecocks when he turned his left ankle and was hobbled a bit for the rest of the game. The ankle will be something to watch with Williams-Goss in Monday’s game, but the junior seems ready to play.

“It’s pretty sore today, I’m not going to lie. I woke up this morning and was really stiff. It’s pretty sore,” Williams-Goss said. “But in a national semifinal game, nothing was going to stop me. I think it affected me a little bit. I could feel it from that point on. I’ll get as much treatment as I can before tomorrow. But at this point, there is no stopping me.”

Both North Carolina and Gonzaga are entering Monday’s matchups with some minor bumps and scrapes but it seems like Karnowski and Williams-Goss should be okay when they take the floor in Glendale.

Gonzaga’s Zach Collins ‘walks the walk’ into one-and-done discussion after Final Four performance

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GLENDALE, Ariz. — This season’s freshman class is arguably the best crop of newcomers that college basketball has seen in over a decade. Between the overall depth and one-and-done star power of the group, it was a class that was discussed at length throughout the season.

Until the Final Four started.

As mock-draft darlings like Jayson Tatum, Lonzo Ball and Malik Monk started to disappear from March Madness, the focus on freshmen and the NBA Draft began to fade. One of the common storylines of the Final Four even revolved around the lack of one-and-done freshmen playing in Glendale.

Gonzaga freshman big man Zach Collins and his outstanding play on Saturday showed that we shouldn’t be finished talking about this season’s newcomers.

Coming off the bench and giving a huge lift on both ends of the floor, Collins finished with 14 points, 13 rebounds and six blocks as he helped the Bulldogs to a 77-73 win over South Carolina during Saturday’s first national semifinal.

Picking up his first double-double of the season, Collins had an extreme amount of confidence entering Saturday’s game despite a poor recent stretch during the NCAA tournament. Collins even predicted to roommate and point guard Nigel Williams-Goss that he was about to erupt on the sport’s biggest stage.

“Well, me and Zach are roommates. And we’ve been roommates all year long,” Williams-Goss said. “And he told me before the game, he said, ‘Look, I wouldn’t want to be playing against me today.’ And Coach says it all year that we just can’t talk the talk, we gotta walk the walk. And when he told me that I looked at him and I said, ‘Alright, let’s do it then.’ For him to come out with a double-double with six blocks, he walked the walk.”

“It feels really good. I know I had a rough couple of games prior to this. I was hearing from everyone on social media about how I wasn’t ready for this stage and how the speed of the game was too much for me. That made me really mad,” Collins said. “I knew I could play at this level. I just wanted to come out, don’t be passive. Be as aggressive as possible with everything I could.”

As starting center Przemek Karnowski went back to the locker room with an eye injury in the first half, Collins and his aggression became a major force on both ends of the floor for the Zags. Owning the glass, finishing around the basket and walling up to block dunks, Collins made all of the plays that should put him squarely in the one-and-done discussion. Collins even willed an ugly three-pointer from the top of the key to go down during a key stretch that helped stop a big South Carolina run.

“That three was huge,” Gonzaga assistant coach Tommy Lloyd said. “It was a 13-0 or 16-0 run. The wheels feel like they’re coming off. It’s one of those shots, he missed it so bad, it went in. You get a sticky ball sometimes. It sticks and rolls in. It was huge for us.”

“It completely bricked. It was probably the ugliest shot I’ve ever taken,” Collins said. “Luckily it bounced in. I’ve never seen a shot like that but I’m happy with it.”

Collins might have been lucky to make that shot, but there is nothing lucky about his intense approach to the game or the results that came during Saturday’s win. Gonzaga’s first McDonald’s All-American to come out of high school, Collins was a bit of a late-bloomer during his high school career.

Collins actually came off the bench during his junior year of high school at Nevada powerhouse Bishop Gorman as two senior McDonald’s All-Americans, Stephen Zimmerman (UNLV) and Chase Jeter (Duke), played in front of him. Gonzaga still recruited Collins as hard as possible despite his limited minutes during the high school season as they saw a guy who could develop.

“We didn’t know he was a one-and-done,” Lloyd said. “We thought this is a great program player for us who is a high-character kid who really wanted to develop in our system.”

“We didn’t recruit him because he was a McDonald’s All-American. We recruited him because he fit Gonzaga’s culture. We’re never going to veer from that path.”

While Gonzaga has been able to sustain consistent success by recruiting at a strong level, they’ve recently started to recruit at an elite level. Collins and Williams-Goss were both Burger Boys coming out of high school. That distinction is important because only two national champions in the last 40 years (Maryland in 2002 and UConn in 2014) didn’t have a McDonald’s All-American on the roster.

Now stocked with elite talent and an impressive rotation, the Bulldogs have all of the pieces they need to compete for a national championship on Monday night.

“Things just kind of fell together for us. You get Przemek to come back for a year with this team and he can play with Nigel. Zach Collins, who isn’t a backup, a lot of times he’s a pickup. He really picks us up and he can really play in these high-level games with his athleticism. And I think it’s honestly been the formula for the team that we are,” Lloyd said.

Regardless of Monday’s national-championship outcome, Collins is going to have an intriguing decision ahead of him in the next few weeks thanks to Saturday’s standout performance. There is already a “Collins” sitting in the first round of a lot of NBA mock drafts, but that would be standout Wake Forest sophomore center John Collins.

After Saturday’s game, adding another Collins to those mock drafts doesn’t sound like a bad idea.

“It’s really cool to see him get the success in this day and age when people aren’t patient,” Lloyd said. “I don’t know what the future holds for Zach. But I know if he stays the course and stays patient, he’ll have unlimited opportunities.”

Confident Final Four newcomers Gonzaga and South Carolina focused on limiting distractions

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GLENDALE, Ariz. — After a few days in Arizona, the new car smell of the Final Four still hasn’t worn off for first-time participants Gonzaga and South Carolina.

Both programs are managing the insane pressure of trying to bring home a national championship while the Bulldogs and Gamecocks also try to encompass the magical experience of everything the Final Four festivities have to offer.

The banquets, dinners, media sessions and overall hype surrounding the Final Four dwarfs anything that these players and coaches have ever dealt with. Wide-eyed players and coaches are still figuring out strange Final Four challenges like the shooting backdrop in the cavernous University of Phoenix Stadium or handling all of the random outside distractions.

It can be a daunting task to juggle everything around the Final Four. Gonzaga and South Carolina are managing the best they can. In a Final Four that features three programs who have never been this far in the modern era, at least one of those teams — the Bulldogs or Gamecocks — will be playing for a national championship on Monday night.

“A lot of people that you haven’t talked to in years try to give you advice on what’s going on like they’ve been through it before,” Gonzaga freshman center Zach Collins said. “I mean, we all expected that. I think we’re all really, really good about keeping together in this locker room, focusing on the task at hand.”

Mark Few’s 18-year tenure at Gonzaga has seen the Bulldogs achieve an incredible amount of success considering the program’s West Coast Conference roots. Despite being a perennial NCAA tournament team who has reached the second weekend multiple times, preparing for the Final Four for the first time has involved new challenges for Few and his staff.

The Gonzaga staff spent the week calling other coaches about Final Four preparation while also relying on the guidance of assistant coach Donny Daniels — an assistant on Final Four teams at UCLA and Utah. The varying degrees of answers from other coaches has helped Gonzaga navigate the week.

Gonzaga players were asked to handle everything outside of basketball before Tuesday so that they could focus fully on Saturday’s game but they’re also trying to relish this experience at the same time.

“That’s the thing about athletics: everything is so regimented. Film is at this time and it’s this long. Practice is at this time and it’s this long. We eat breakfast at this time. And for 36 games, essentially everything has been the exact same,” Gonzaga assistant coach Brian Michaelson said. “Then you get here and your schedule really is chopped up. You get five minutes for film here, five minutes for film there. You may have one scheduled [film session] and it may not end up happening. That’s been different for us. But so far the guys have responded to it pretty well.”

Gonzaga’s current roster and coaching staff has far more NCAA tournament experience than South Carolina, but the last few weeks for the Gamecocks have prepared them for everything that is currently happening to them at the Final Four.

Playing the first two rounds in nearby Greenville meant that South Carolina already had to deal with exaggerated off-the-court hype before the 2017 NCAA tournament even tipped. Gamecock fans were just clamoring for the team to earn its first NCAA tournament win since 1973. Things accelerated quickly for South Carolina and its fanbase after they knocked off Duke and advanced to Madison Square Garden for two more wins.

So while the Final Four still has some new wrinkles that the Gamecocks are adjusting to, they’ve already had to deal with a circus-like atmosphere just to reach Glendale. Most of South Carolina’s strategy to limit distractions has to do with making sure that head coach Frank Martin and his staff can handle everything possible to keep the players focused. Players for the Gamecocks maintain that everything has stayed pretty consistent throughout the season as they treat Gonzaga just like every other opponent.

“Honestly, it’s been pretty easy for us. We’re so focused on the game that we have tomorrow,” guard P.J. Dozier said of the week. “I hate to say that everything else doesn’t matter. But we know what we came here to do. We came here to win a national championship and we’re just trying to take it one game at a time.”

Right now, it seems easy for Gonzaga and South Carolina to limit distractions and stay focused for the national semifinals. Historic Final Four runs have a way of instilling confidence in teams that haven’t been there before.

But things also have a tendency to change very quickly once the ball gets tipped. Mistakes are magnified and the pressure of the Final Four can ramp up very quickly.

Gonzaga and South Carolina are both new to this, but one of them is about to play for a title on Monday. And the previous lack of Final Four experience will ultimately mean nothing.

“Experience helps you manage your mindset, your emotions, as you prepare for something. But when the game goes up, everyone’s nervous,” Martin said. “I don’t care how many Final Fours you’ve played in, every time you show up for that game you’re going to be nervous. And anyone who says differently is not telling you the truth. I don’t care how many games you’ve coached. You’re always nervous for the next game on the schedule. It just, it is what it is.”

2017 NCAA Tournament: Duke has a legitimate gripe after getting left off of the No. 1 seed line

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Once again, we have a Duke vs. North Carolina argument on our hands.

The No. 1 seed in the South Region was awarded to North Carolina despite the fact that the Blue Devils have a better résumé when it comes to their hated rivals.

Winning the ACC by two full games, as North Carolina did, is certainly impressive, but the Blue Devils can counter with more top-25 wins than any team in the country (eight) and more top 50 wins than anyone (13) while Duke also owned a 2-1 advantage in the head-to-head matchup with the Tar Heels. Eight of Duke’s 13 top 50 wins and six of their eight top 25 wins came away from Cameron Indoor Stadium.

That said, a No. 1 seed has also never had eight losses before, and the Blue Devils suffered the worst loss of any potential No. 1 seed when they fell at home to N.C. State.

None of Duke’s accomplishments ultimately mattered when it came time to deciding the No. 1 seeds. It was explained by Mark Hollis of the selection committee after the bracket reveal that the Blue Devils were a No. 4 seed as of Wednesday. The committee uses a process they call a “seed scrub” as the week moves on, which essentially means they compare teams to the team above them and see which profile they like better.

As Duke started piling up impressive wins in New York this week, they kept ascending up the seeding chart until they reached Arizona. Since the committee decided that the Wildcats had a stronger case than Duke, that is where the Blue Devils stopped in the seeding debate.

Duke, a team who could have easily been a No. 1 seed, was never even compared to the other No. 1 seeds. Based on Duke having five more top-25 wins than Arizona this season, the committee dropped the ball on that one.

The only other No. 2 seed who won their conference tournament was Kentucky in the SEC.

The Wildcats have been playing better ball lately. They have an impressive 18-4 mark against the top-100 teams, but they only have two top-25 wins on the season. Kentucky may have the talent of a No. 1 seed but they aren’t as proven against elite teams as the No. 1 teams the committee decided on.

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This season’s No. 1 overall seed had the unique advantage of being able to pick where they played the opening weekend, the top spot took on even more meaning this season. After a strong season that included a Big East championship in both the regular season and conference tournament, Villanova is the No. 1 overall seed as the Wildcats are the best defending champion college basketball has seen since Florida went back-to-back in 2006 and 2007.

In a Championship Week where No. 1 seeds like Kansas and North Carolina dropped games early in conference tournaments — and Gonzaga only won the two-bid WCC — Villanova getting the No. 1 overall seed comes as no surprise given their overall body of work and conference-tournament title. With a 17-3 record against the top 100, the Wildcats have the most impressive record among the No. 1 seeds when it comes to facing quality competition as they’ll be a major factor in the East Region.

The selection of Gonzaga as the No. 1 seed in the West comes with minimal surprise after the Bulldogs took care of business in the WCC Tournament. With six top-25 wins and a head-to-head win over West Region No. 2 seed Arizona, Gonzaga had a stronger case than any of the Pac-12’s premier trio of teams this season to be a No. 1 seed.

Skeptics will always remain when it comes to Gonzaga being a top seed, but they have double the top-25 wins of Arizona, Villanova and UCLA while also having more top-25 wins than Oregon and North Carolina. If the Zags had gone unbeaten they might have been the No. 1 overall seed.

Midwest Region No. 1 seed Kansas might have dipped out of the Big 12 Tournament early with a shocking loss to TCU but it ultimately didn’t hurt the Jayhawks too much. Many considered Kansas to be the No. 1 team in the country before that loss to the Horned Frogs as the Jayhawks potentially cost themselves the No. 1 overall seed by losing in Kansas City.

With a 16-4 top-100 record and six top-25 wins, Kansas was as impressive as any team in the country when it came to quality wins as the Jayhawks won the Big 12 regular season once again.

But back to the point, the way Duke’s seeding was ultimately handled signifies that the committee really valued what teams did in the regular season with regards to conference championships. All four No. 1 seeds won their leagues by multiple games and that seemed to be something the committee respected a great deal.

Since Big Ten regular-season champion Purdue also received the league’s best seed as a No. 4 — despite an early quarterfinal loss to Michigan in the Big Ten Tournament — that theory would seem to hold some weight. The Boilers getting a top-four seed after the Big Ten was shut out of February’s seeding reveal is proof that winning a regular-season title matters.

Arizona being seeded higher than Duke means the same thing. Since the Wildcats won the Pac-12 regular-season title (and also conference tournament title) the committee clearly liked that Arizona had handled business in their own conference.

With seven losses during ACC play, that ultimately left Duke out of the No. 1 seed discussion based on the committee’s values.

The Duke and North Carolina debate is what is going to ultimately drive the No. 1 seed discussion over these next few weeks since the committee had three relatively easy selections.

You can make a strong case for either of the Tobacco Road rivals to earn a No. 1 seed this season, but the committee at least had a pattern that they followed when it came time to pick the No. 1 seeds. Selection Sunday taught us that conference regular-season championships still hold a lot of weight despite the excitement of winning a conference tournament.