Were you as shocked as me when the NCAA tourney field was selected Sunday? All that time and effort into winnowing a solar system’s worth of teams to just 68 entrants, and no Nathan Hale High School? C’mon.
They were undefeated, won by an average of four touchdowns a game and were the state 3A champs for about a year ahead of the official assimilation. But no.
Denied, probably over some silly technicality about membership in the NCAA. Hey, if the NCAA is OK with being rented by the NBA as its farm system for zero dollars, then the NCAA should not have a problem with America’s best high school team renting a place in its tournament field for zero dollars.
Besides, it may be the only way the hoops nation will glimpse Michael Porter Jr. before he is drafted by the Los Angeles Lakers in 16 months.
As you may have read, Nathan Hale’s superstar-elect has committed to the University of Washington next fall. That means he has nearly the same shot at making the NCAA tourney as he did at Nathan Hale.
The Huskies have missed the tourney field for six years in a row. In fact, after finishing with a 9-22 record, they have never been farther away, certainly not in the 15-year tenure of coach Lorenzo Romar. Despite the presence of Markelle Fultz, who already is among the five best players in Washington history (as long as you didn’t blink and miss him), the Huskies lost their final 13 games and couldn’t qualify for a field of hay.
Fultz is moving on to the NBA, where Romar has sprinkled numerous players during his UW tenure, many of whom missed this week in their UW careers. Tourney week before the games is the peak experience in modern college ball, because in the few days after selection and before games begin, all players are BMOC as they never were before and never will be after.
Those few days when they have managed the feat of their youthful hoops lives and can imagine winning from one to six more games in the national spotlight, is the acme moment for the participants. The romance fades quickly after a loss. But, to paraphrase from Rick in Casablanca, they’ll always have Buffalo, or wherever the tourney sends them in the first round.
The point was made Sunday by Nigel Williams-Goss, who talked to reporters after Gonzaga, for the 19th time in a row, was chosen to carry the state flag into the tourney, this time as the No. 1 seed in the West. His remark was a shot to those he left behind two seasons ago when he transferred from UW to the doughty little Jesuit school in Spokane, where resides the big time for the sport in the state.
“This is every kid’s dream to play on the biggest stages and to play for all the marbles,” said Williams-Goss, who wanted it so bad he was willing to endure sitting out a year, per NCAA transfer rules. “That’s why I came here, to win championships. We’ve won a couple already. We’re ready to get this thing started and try to win another one.”
Williams-Goss felt he had to get out of Montlake to get into the tourney, a judgment based on, at the time, 17 consecutive appearances in the tourney field. The judgment was sound. The streak is 19 after the Zags won the West Coast Conference regular-season title, as well as the post-season tourney.
At 32-1, the Bulldogs begin play at 11 a.m. PT in Salt Lake City against South Dakota State and its 18-16 record. The Jackrabbits, in their fourth NCAA party after winning the Summit League tourney, are coached by another refugee from the Huskies program, T.J. Otzelberger, who was a Romar assistant from 2013-15.
It’s perhaps overstating things to say this coincidence represents a trend. But it’s at least a drift. For those involved in Huskies men’s basketball who are sufficiently talented, they feel compelled to back out of the cul-de-sac it has become and find a highway.
You know, from sadness to March Madness.
For Williams-Goss to have flourished in Spokane — 5.7 boards, 4.8 assists and a team-high 16.9 points a game — is no surprise to those who watched his first two seasons as a Huskies player. But he is also a perambulating commercial for the program’s virtues, as this essay published Monday on the Players’ Tribune attests.
“I don’t know if culture shock is the right way to say it, but transferring to Gonzaga was a big change for me,” Williams-Goss wrote. “I didn’t really know any other students outside of my teammates. I was coming from UW, a school with 30,000 undergrads, to a school with 5,000. At UW, my life was mostly separate from the rest of the student body. Things were very different at Gonzaga.”
Williams-Goss goes on to gush about the school, program and coach Mark Few in a way that should help keep the Zags’ national and international recruiting train on its tracks. Meanwhile at Montlake, the school has to work up rationalizations to justify keeping Romar in the face of another dreary season.
That isn’t to suggest the drift is irreversible. But the distance between Gonzaga and Washington is far more than a five-hour drive.
The Huskies are indeed fortunate Nathan Hale was denied a bid.