In terms of near-flawless basketball efficiency, unbeaten Gonzaga looks a lot like a junior varsity version of the five-time NBA champion San Antonio Spurs — fundamentals that can crack iron.
The star of the rest of the NCAA men’s tournament field has been the Pac-12 Conference. It has three teams in the Elite Eight. A pandemic was more likely.
If the bracket ministers hadn’t screwed up and put Oregon in the same region as USC, where the Ducks Sunday night were eliminated by the Trojans 82-68, the round of eight might have had another Left Coaster. The Atlantic Coast Conference, which believes it has eminent domain in college basketball, is renting a trailer this tourney, with no place to park.
USC joins UCLA — together in the round for the first time in hoops history — and Oregon State Monday and Tuesday in pursuing Gonzaga for berths in the Final Four. The mind reels.
Especially if you’re a University of Washington fan.
The Huskies are stuck at the back end of the college hoops spectrum. Whatever collection of technology, tools and teams that gets that cargo ship unstuck in the Suez Canal, it should return to the U.S. for a similar job in Seattle hoops.
The Huskies’ fourth season under coach Mike Hopkins was a 5-21 stinker so foul that the team is generating news to compete with the actual tourney games — five players have bailed in the past 10 days, entering the NCAA’s transfer portal.
That probably isn’t a single-team, single-season record for the relatively new mechanism (the NCAA rules change begun in October 2018), but someone really should measure the cumulative length of the race-start skidmarks on Montlake Boulevard, just for perspective.
RaeQuan Battle was latest Husky to enter the transfer portal, joining Erik Stevenson, Marcus Tsohonis, Nate Pryor and J’Raan Brooks. Because of the portal, the size of the bailout is unprecedented in UW history.
Then again, entering the portal does not preclude a return. And it’s also possible that Hopkins is dry-eyed about the departures. He’s not going anywhere, so he may have subtly nudged the departing players, in order to seek others willing to commit to his bedrock 2-3 zone defense.
Hopkins is a two-time Pac-12 coach of the year who, with two subsequent bad seasons, has nearly burned up re-entering the college-sports atmosphere. But to fire him runs against not only common sense, the athletic department budget, reeling under lost revenues from the pandemic shutdown, can’t deal with it. His contract buyout is $12 million.
It’s true that the college tradition has boosters picking up the tab. But amid a host of urgent local and national financial crises needing philanthropy, can even crazy rich guys justify throwing money at a UW hoops coach to go away? Again?
Especially one that may have a way to get unstuck.
For whom the portal taketh away, the portal giveth.
According to an ESPN report, as of Thursday morning, there were 855 names in the transfer portal with two weekends left in the season. That’s about double the number from the same time a year ago.
Like it or not, the hoops world has changed.
The reality is college scholarship players are no longer chattel. Bowing to outside pressure, the NCAA was forced to give players some leverage. Pending likely changes coming out of Congress this year, players will gain more.
What Hopkins has to do is change with the times and avoid becoming a knucklehead. Like Wisconsin coach Greg Gard.
In an interview on an ESPN radio show last week, Gard characterized players who opt for the transfer portal as little more than cowards who are running from seasonal adversity.
“Do we place blame on everybody else, or do we have to look in the mirror and improve ourselves?” Gard said. “It’s part of the era we’re in. Is it good? In small instances, yeah, if there are situations where the player or student-athlete feels the change is in his or her best interest.
“My fear, and I think a lot of coaches fear, what are we teaching these young men and women where, any time there’s a little sliver of adversity, we go to where we think the grass is greener? We just turn and change courses.”
Gard had the audacity to analogize between the choices made in the entertainment business he’s in, and the hard choices made in family life.
“You have some adversity or some conflict in your life at home, you can’t go to the transfer portal,” he said. “If you have something with your kids go wrong, or your job, you gonna just transfer jobs all the time? Or you gonna trade in one of your kids on the portal?”
Gard is among the entrenched and entitled NCAA figures who profited enormously from the status quo, which was based on unpaid athletes, who had little choice about terms, conditions and health risks, producing massive sums of money for their coaches and schools.
If a student seeks a better athletic opportunity at another school, with the chance to potentially monetize it, Gard has no business guilt-tripping him with an inane child-giveaway metaphor, or insinuating voids in his character.
Whatever private misgivings Hopkins may have, there is no indication he’s a Gard-level Neanderthal when it comes to a systems change.
In fact, he’s already hired the former leading scorer in the Western Athletic Conference.
Garfield High grad Terrell Brown Jr. led the Seattle U Redhawks with 20.2 ppg in 2019-20, and was good enough to become a graduate transfer for Pac-12 Arizona, where he was a part-time starter averaging 26 minutes a game. Because the NCAA has granted an extra year of eligibility for the class of players who lost a season to COVID-19, Brown has agreed to spend that year at UW.
Hopkins also has recruited one of the state’s top prepsters, 6-10 Jackson Grant of Olympia High, who is said to have a 3-point shot. Also entering next fall is a 6-8 forward from Nigeria, Samuel Ariyibi (video here).
None of these guys will be confused with Zag-to-be Hunter Sallis, a 6-5 guard from Omaha who is said to be the No. 2 prep guard in the country and the highest-rated recruit in Gonzaga’s history. He announced his decision Friday, as if the Bulldogs needed more momentum entering the weekend.
But Hopkins isn’t in position to compete with Gonzaga; he’s got to be better than his past two years.
The way to get there is to not just accept how players’ rights have changed college basketball. He needs to embrace the transfer portal in a way that excites him that there’s 855 college players out there to be re-recruited, most of whom aren’t ex-Huskies.
Besides Gonzaga, he’s not going to be able to compete with, say, Auburn, which has the alum with basketball’s biggest platform: Charles Barkley. During one of the CBS studio shows between tournament games, the Chuckster said this on national TV to players in the transfer portal:
“If you want to get a quality education and be coached by a great coach, come on down to Auburn.”
But Hopkins sure as hell better out-recruit Greg Gard. And he better start making Bill Walton the best friend Huskies basketball ever has had.
For Huskies fans who don’t like the annual roster flushes abetted by the transfer portal, don’t let a sliver of adversity make you run for greener grass. There isn’t any. Best get used to it.