If it weren’t for Gonzaga, men’s college basketball in the state of Washington in 2020-21 would have collapsed on itself like a late-stage star, becoming a black hole from which not even light can escape.
After winning the West Coast Conference tourney championship Tuesday to finish 26-0, the Zags head into the NCAA tournament as the nation’s top-ranked team, where they have been all year.
Besides making it through a pandemic-stunted season undefeated, the Bulldogs are the most balanced, smart, ruthless team in college ball. Unless another wave of COVID-19 blows over Spokane from the yahoos in mask-burning Idaho, the Zags seemed destined to win their first national hoops title.
Washington and Washington State, meanwhile, closed out their seasons Wednesday in Las Vegas by losing the first two games of Pac-12 Conference tournament. The eighth-seeded Cougs fell to Arizona State, 64-59, to finish 14-13 (7-12 in conference) and the 10th-seeded Huskies lost to Utah, 98-95, to close at 5-21 (4-17).
The Huskies’ record is particularly smelly, tying as it does the record for fewest wins in the university’s modern hoops history (1993-94 under Bob Bender). Among the few positive developments regarding COVID-19 was that almost no one was allowed to witness the UW season in person.
It is believed UW set the NCAA record for easiest team from which to socially distance.
Evidence for the claim was immediately clear Wednesday, when the Huskies, after a layoff of 11 days, responded to the rest by falling behind 29-12. While much will be made of the late rally that drew the Huskies close, the fact was that the Utes nodded off almost completely, bored with the Huskies like everyone else.
Coach Mike Hopkins has offered his gospel over four years at Washington as 1) defense 2) defense 3) defense. So to wilt so anemically to a mediocre Utah team, one the Huskies beat in January and now was missing a starter to injury, was almost shocking, even for this bunch.
“Our plan was to make sure we can defend without fouling,” Hopkins said. “We thought that was a big part in the games that they’ve beaten us in the past.
“So they made more foul shots than we attempted.
“That was not a good thing.”
Exploiting the 21-14 disparity in fouls, Utah was 20 of 27 from the line, the Huskies 10 of 13. That the rally fell short by three was not a failure of offense but a failure to execute defensive basics, things that should, by season’s end, be fundamental to Washington. That it isn’t, is purely on Hopkins.
In what may have been his final UW game — the NCAA has granted an extra season of eligibility because of covid — senior Quade Green had a career-high 31 points. But his self-styled dual role as point and shooting guard took away touches from others, a season-long problem. He led the Pac-12 in turnovers.
We could go on about UW shortcomings. So we will.
Washington finished 11th in the conference in scoring, field goal percentage and free throw percentage, 10th in threes and turnovers, tied for last in rebounds, last in assists and worst in margin of defeat. On defense, they were 11th in points allowed and field goal defense, 10th in defending the three and ninth in forcing turnovers.
Then there was scandal. Just before the start of the season, the leading returning scorer, Nahziah Carter, was suspended after an investigation upheld charges of sexual misconduct against him from two female students.
Carter’s subsequent departure for the pros overseas followed the exits of five other big men through NBA early entry, graduation and transfer.
What was left was a roster rich in small guys and transfers with no taste for Hopkins’ favored 2-3 zone defense. An awful blend.
For a knife-point of recruiting irony, Gonzaga’s leading scorer, senior Corey Kispert, is from Edmonds. He attended King’s High, a 1A school in the Shoreline neighborhood. Washington State’s No. 2 scorer, Noah Williams, is from Seattle’s O’Dea. The No. 1 scorer, Isaac Bonton, is from Portland.
Not saying Hopkins is not holding serve locally. But the optics . . .
Speaking of views, moving up 60,000 feet from Montlake, we can the Huskies are part of a mediocre league in a western region that is nearly a college basketball desert, except for Mt. Gonzaga.
If you don’t count Texas and Oklahoma as part of the hoops west, the current Associated Press poll has a paucity after No. 1. The next western team is No. 19 San Diego State (20-4). The first Pac-12 flag shows up at No. 23 Colorado (20-7), then No. 24 USC (21-6). The top two also-rans are BYU and Oregon, the latter the Pac-12 regular season champion.
The once-formidable empire at Arizona is under house arrest, subject of a September 2017 raid by the FBI (really; no sarcasm), and more recently recipient of a notice of allegations from the NCAA of nine rules violations. Five are Level 1, considered the most serious breaches of conduct by the governing body for college sports.
Somehow remaining at his post despite the swirl of lawlessness is coach Don Vito (Sean) Miller. The UA athletics department volunteered to keep the Wildcats out of this year’s NCAA tourney, yet Miller is the face of Pac-12 hoops, now more for being notorious instead of meritorious.
Maybe it’s not so bad for Hopkins after all. Pac-12 coach of the year in his first two seasons at Washington for seasons of 21 and 27 wins, his past two teams have won 15 and five games. So what?
He hasn’t been caught with suitcases full of cash while whispering into burner phones.
Out here in college hoops west, our standards are modest. We live quietly and happily in the valley of the shadow of Mt. Gonzaga. You go ahead, Mark Few. We’ll be fine.