Deep, talented Gonzaga squad takes aim at lengthy NCAA tournament stay

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Beginning on October 3rd and running up until November 14th, the first day of the season, College Basketball Talk will be unveiling the 2014-2015 NBCSports.com college hoops preview package.

Today, we are previewing the West Coast Conference.

MORE: 2014-2015 Season Preview Coverage | Conference Previews | Preview Schedule

It goes without saying that the Mark Few era at Gonzaga has been a successful one, as the program has won 80 percent of its games since he took over in 1999, when Gonzaga was coming off of their magical run to the Elite 8. Included in that run are 16 consecutive NCAA tournament appearances, 13 WCC regular season titles and 12 WCC tournament titles.

But Gonzaga has made just three Sweet 16 appearances under Few, the last of which coming in 2009, and that fact is the reason why some may be skeptical to buy into the idea of this current edition having what it takes to make a deep NCAA tournament run.

Gonzaga’s dominance in the WCC and overall record isn’t to be questioned. They are one of the few programs that have climbed from a “mid-major” conference into the world of “high-major” basketball.

But when it comes to college hoops, more than a few choose to use the NCAA tournament as judge and jury. There’s no denying the fact that the NCAA tournament is important, but a successful six-game run depends as much on matchups as it does team excellence. In other words, reaching a Final Four doesn’t mean that team was one of the four best teams in the country, but that doesn’t change the value of a winning streak in late-March.

Gonzaga hasn’t had one of those in a while, so why should people be willing to consider this Gonzaga team as a legitimate contender to make a run to the Final Four?

Two reasons: their overall depth, and the fact that their two most experienced guards are completely healthy.

RELATED: NBCSports.com’s WCC Preview

Guards Gary Bell Jr. and Kevin Pangos played at less that full strength throughout the second half of last season, with Pangos enduring a case of turf toe and a sprained ankle while Bell dealt with knee discomfort. Bell underwent surgery at the end of the season to address the issue, with doctors removing a loose piece of cartilage from beneath the kneecap. The time spent on the sidelines was frustrating for Bell, but he did his best to remain positive about the situation. And now that he’s back to full strength, Bell feels better equipped to attack opposing defenses.

“I would say finishing around the basket,” Bell told NBCSports.com last week when asked what he looked to improve upon once cleared to return to the floor. “Now that I don’t have any nagging injuries, I feel more explosive. I feel the surgery helped me [become] even more explosive.”

Bell and Pangos combined with David Stockton to form the nucleus of the best perimeter attack in the WCC, with Stockton dishing out 4.2 assists per game and Pangos (14.4 ppg, 3.6 apg) leading the way scoring-wise. Bell added 11 points per game for the Bulldogs, who won 29 games and the WCC regular season and tournament titles. Guard play was one reason why Gonzaga led the WCC in both field goal and three-point percentage, both offensively and defensively, and they were also the WCC’s best with regards to both offensive and defensive efficiency. But that didn’t translate into an extended stay in the NCAA tournament, with the Bulldogs falling to Arizona in the Round of 32.

This year’s group has some talented offensive weapons, but in order to take the next step one task for Gonzaga will be to account for the loss of both Stockton and center Sam Dower Jr. While Stockton was their best distributor, Dower was the team’s best rebounder and front court scoring option. Dower’s ability to score both inside and out helped Gonzaga on that end of the floor, but while his loss is an important one the Bulldogs have a newcomer who has the skill set needed to fill that role in former Kentucky forward Kyle Wiltjer.

“[Sam] was an inside presence for us. He could score on the block, but he could also face up and shoot jumpers and help spread the floor that way,” Bell noted. “I feel that Kyle fits that role perfectly. Kyle can score on the block and shoot threes as well. We’re definitely going to miss Sam, but Kyle should do well at that position.”

source: AP
Kyle Wiltjer will be a major contributor (AP Photo)

The 6-foot-10 Wiltjer averaged 10.2 points and 4.2 rebounds per game as a sophomore at Kentucky in 2012-13, and the hope in Spokane is that he can reap the rewards from a redshirt season in a manner similar to that of fomer Gonzaga big man Kelly Olynyk. Olynyk was a reserve in 2010-11, averaging 5.8 points and 3.8 rebounds 13.5 minutes of action per game. But after redshirting the following season, Olynyk returned in 2012-13 and wound up being one of the best front court players in the country (17.7 ppg, 7.3 rpg).

During his sophomore season at Kentucky more than half of Wiltjer’s field goal attempts were three-pointers (150), double the number of three-pointers Olynyk attempted in his entire career at Gonzaga (75). The two players are different, but that doesn’t mean that Wiltjer can’t make the same kind of improvement. And according Bell, Wiltjer made good use of his season spent on the sidelines.

“We’ve seen his game develop, and he’s been more of a physical player than in the past,” Bell said. “He’s always been able to score, but he’s gotten better at rebounding every day. It’s fun watching these guys develop when they take off that year [to redshirt].”

Wiltjer, freshman Domantas Sabonis and senior Angel Nunez will need to do their part on the boards as the Bulldogs look to account for the loss of Dower, and they’ll need to defend as well. As for the perimeter, the addition of USC graduate transfer Byron Wesley gives Gonzaga a talented wing scorer who’s hungry for team success after experiencing so little of it at his last stop. Also in their first season with the program are Vanderbilt transfer Eric McClellan (eligible in January), and freshmen Silas Melson and Josh Perkins who will be asked to lead the way for Gonzaga in the future. And with that in mind, both Bell and Pangos have done their best to take the freshmen under their wing.

“With Josh and Silas, me and Kevin took them under our wing because they’re going to be the future of Gonzaga,” Bell said. “So we’ve tried to show them the ‘blueprint’ so they understand that we work hard here. We don’t take days off and we don’t take plays off here.”

Success is expected at Gonzaga, with this year’s team looking to raise another WCC championship banner and make another NCAA tournament appearance. Those goals are well within the Bulldogs’ reach, as is an extended stay in the NCAA tournament. The depth and talent are there, all that’s left to do at this point is make it happen. And in Bell’s view, the key for Gonzaga lies in how they go about taking care of business.

“We just need to keep our intensity,” Bell said. “Sometimes we’d let up in games and then a team would come back. If we keep our intensity and play every game like it’s a big game, we’ll be fine.”

Ivy League calls off fall sports due to outbreak

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The Ivy League on Wednesday became the first Division I conference to say it will not play sports this fall because of the coronavirus pandemic, a person with knowledge of the decision told The Associated Press. The league left open the possibility of moving some seasons to the spring if the outbreak is better controlled by then.

The decision was described to the AP by a person speaking on the condition of anonymity in advance of the official announcement.

Although the coalition of eight academically elite schools does not grant athletic scholarships or compete for an NCAA football championship, the move could have ripple effects throughout the big business of college sports. Football players in the Power Five conferences have already begun workouts for a season that starts on Aug. 29, even as their schools weigh whether to open their campuses to students or continue classes remotely.

The Ivy decision affects not just football but everything before Jan. 1, including soccer, field hockey, volleyball and cross country, as well as the nonconference portion of the basketball season.

Power Five conferences told The Associated Press on Wednesday that they were still considering their options. But it was the Ivy League’s March 10 decision to scuttle its postseason basketball tournament that preceded a cascade of cancellations that eventually enveloped all major college and professional sports.

“What’s happening in other conferences is clearly a reflection of what’s happening nationally and any decisions are made within that context,” said Dr. Chris Kratochvil, the chair of the Big Ten’s infectious disease task force, adding that there is no “hard deadline” for a decision.

“Clearly, regardless of what happens in the fall, sports are coming back eventually,” he said. “So we want to make sure that whenever that time (is) right to return to competition, that we have the infrastructure and the recommendations in place to be able to do so safely for the student-athletes, staff, coaches, fans, students.”

Ivy League schools are spread across seven Northeastern states that, as of mid-July, have seen some success at controlling the COVID-19 outbreak. But most of those states still ban large gatherings; under the Massachusetts reopening plan, Harvard would not be allowed to have fans in the stands until a vaccine is developed.

Harvard has already announced that all classes for both semesters will be held virtually; dorms will be open only to freshmen and seniors. Yale said it would limit its dorms to 60% capacity and said most classes would be conducted remotely. Princeton will also do most of its teaching online, with dorms at half capacity.

Coaches 4 Change: Siena’s Carmen Maciariello spearheads social justice initiative

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Carmen Maciariello found himself in the same place so many of us did in the days after George Floyd was murdered by police in Minneapolis.

Devastated by what he was seeing. Motivated to find a way to use his platform as the head coach at Siena College to enact change. Struggling with how, as he puts it, “a white head coach from privilege at a school in New York,” can have real, honest, open dialogue with his majority-Black roster.

So he picked up the phone. He called Louis Orr, his former college coach and now an assistant coach at Georgetown. He called his closest friends in the coaching business. He called his advisor, Brad Konerman, an entrepreneur who connected him with a couple of talented website designers. By early June, 25 like-minded people from all walks of life were on a zoom call.

“I’ve never been pulled over and feared for my life for not using my blinker,” Maciariello, who is white, told me. “We had those conversations. How are we talking to our teams about that? What are we doing with the police? How can we help our young people navigate through these tough times?”

That’s how Coaches 4 Change was born.

Maciariello has grand plans for the organization. On a zoom call with nearly all of the 43 coaches that have committed to the group to date, he said he wants “to try to change the world. Let’s not think small, we’ve gotta think big with this.” He is not lacking for ambition.

But Maciariello also understands that something like this has to start small and it has to start locally. It’s why he limited the first group of invitees to coaches that are “doing this for the right reasons.”

“I didn’t want to have a donate link and bring in coaches that felt like, ‘I donated money, I did my part supporting it,” he said. “It was about the time commitment and the vision. We have to focus on one thing first.”

That first thing?

Voting.

C4C developed a sleek, interactive website to help educate young people about social injustice and the Black Lives Matter movement, things as basic as the difference between systemic and systematic racism and Jackie Robinson’s impact on sports. But the site also provides users with all of the information necessary to vote in this year’s elections, information on what makes voting so important in a democracy and — most importantly — a tutorial for how a person in every state can register to vote, where their polling stations are and whether or not they are eligible for mail-in voting. Their website also has a ‘Keep Learning‘ page that links to all documentaries, podcasts, audiobooks and literary resources available on all streaming platforms, including content for children.

C4C has partnered with Vote.org with a goal of “100 percent voter registration for all college athletes” regardless of the sport they play, Maciariello said.

Currently, the only coaches involved with C4C are men’s college basketball coaches, but that will change. They are in the process of reaching out to counterparts on the women’s side, and will eventually invite staff members from other sports as well. One of the barriers to entry to become a member will be ensuring that every player on a coach’s team is registered to vote.

Eventually, Maciariello envisions C4C developing community outreach initiatives. He wants the members of C4C to connect with their campus communities and put together voter registration drives for students. He wants to eventually connect with lawmakers and work on changing legislation that helps systemic racism continue to exist.

No one ever said he wasn’t ambitious.

But he knows he has to start somewhere, and that somewhere is this platform.

“I want to engage people in issues,” he said. “Educate them, empower them to change, encourage them to grow and evolve.”

CBT Podcast: Pat Chambers, moving the season up, Running Back Buddy Hield’s 46 points at Kansas

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In the latest edition of the Run It Back podcast, Rob Dauster and Bobby Reagan recap Buddy Hield’s memorable 46-point outburst in a three-overtime loss to Kansas in Phog Allen Fieldhouse in a battle of No. 1 vs. No. 1 back in 2016. The game was unbelievable. Before they dive into the game itself, the boys talk through Pat Chambers’ noose comments to Rasir Bolton and the potential for the college basketball season to get moved up.

Michael Jordan, Roy Williams among UNC greats to condemn systemic racism

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Roy Williams and Michael Jordan joined numerous North Carolina luminaries in condemning systemic racism and voicing support for the Black Lives Matter movement in a video that was released by the school on Monday.

“Systematic racism has to stop now,” Jordan said in the video. “We must take the time to listen and educate our family, our friends, our children on social injustice and racial inequality. Black Lives Matter more now than ever before. We have to get this right, so please take time to educate yourself and improve the lives of many people, many Black people. Thank you.”

James Worthy, Sam Perkins, Tyler Hansbrough, Luke Maye and Sean May were among the former players that appeared in the video.

Williams led by discussing Charlie Scott, who was the first Black scholarship athlete in UNC’s history.

“Some of the greatest to play our game have been Black players, but here we are more than 50 years later and our country is still fighting systemic racism and police brutality against Black men and women,” Williams said. “The North Carolina basketball program, our family, our current and former players believe Black lives matter, and it’s critically important that we don’t just believe it. We must stand together and loudly and clearly demand that we as a country and the world embrace the fundamental human right that Black lives matter.”

Former Penn State guard Rasir Bolton left program after coach Pat Chambers made noose comment

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Former Penn State point guard Rasir Bolton has accused of Pat Chambers of making racially insensitive remarks, including a reference to a noose.

According to Bolton, who tweeted about the incident on Monday morning, midway through his freshman season in 2018-19 with the Nittany Lions, Chambers made a reference to a “noose” about Bolton’s neck.  Bolton described the encounter in an interview with the Undefeated, and said that the phrase was a result of Chambers talking about easing the pressure on his freshman’s shoulders. “I want to loosen the noose that’s around your neck,” Bolton recalled.

Bolton also alleged that after his parents went to the Athletic Director with their concerns about this statement, Chambers told him during an exit interview that he was impressed by how “well-spoken” and “organized” his parents are. Remarks like this are considered racially-insensitive because they are based on the underlying assumption that Black people are not expected to be either organized or articulate.

Chambers, to his credit, admitted his wrong in making the noose comment.

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“I’ve realized the pain my words and ignorance caused Rasir Bolton and his family and I apologize to Rasir and the Bolton family for what I said,” Chambers’ statement read. “I failed to comprehend the experiences of others, and the reference I make was hurtful, insensitive and unacceptable I cannot apologize enough for what I said, and I will carry that forever.”

Bolton left Penn State after his freshman season and transferred to Iowa State. He was given immediately eligibility with the Cyclones after mentioning the noose comment when applying for a waiver. He averaged 14.7 points this past season with Iowa State. He also alleged that after he came to the Penn State athletic department with this claim, they offered him a meeting with a sports psychologist who told him how to “deal with Coach Chambers’ personality type.”