BY Art Thiel 06:00AM 03/11/2021

Thiel: Gonzaga’s No. 1, Huskies nearly zero out

The Huskies and Cougars closed out their men’s college basketball seasons quietly with losses in the Pac-12 Conference tourney. Then there’s the colossus in Spokane . . .

Erik Stevenson had 14 points in Washington’s 98-95 loss to Utah in the Pac-12 tourney in Las Vegas Wednesday. / Pac-12 Conference

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.”

No kidding.

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.


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YourThoughts

  • LarryLurex70

    Ok, I’ll say it: GU can’t really be considered a true national powerhouse until they’re standing in the winner’s circle at the end of the NCAA Tournament. Steamrolling through the WCC before coming up short after that, year-in-year-out, doesn’t quite make it. Great regional programme, but, not yet a real heavyweight.

    • Husky73

      They beat Kansas, Auburn, West Virginia, Iowa and Virginia.

      • LarryLurex70

        Not in the NCAA Final they haven’t.

        • jafabian

          Past five seasons, not including last season, they had 2 Sweet Sixteen appearances, 2x in the Elite Eight and were runner up once. They deserve to be respected.

          • LarryLurex70

            Where did I say they don’t deserve respect? What I’ve said for the last several years is that they can’t be considered a true national powerhouse or heavyweight until they win it all. Duke had to go through the same thing until they finally did in ‘91, remember? Of course, facing stiffer competition in the ACC helped their cause, but, they too were also-rans who couldn’t quite take that final step between ‘86-‘90. Just like GU now. Because of the cupcakes they usually face, I wouldn’t even rate them ahead of Duke ‘86-‘90. Not until they win the championship.

          • art thiel

            Few and every reasonable Zags fan understands that. An SI.com story this month quotes Few saying, “We’re judged on March.”

          • LarryLurex70

            I’m not attempting to break new ground on the subject, Thiel. I’m just tired of the annual build-up, particularly from the local yokels, about how great GU is…before they come up short, that is. Yet, their fans still get defensive when someone points it out.

            When they win it all, I’ll eat crow and keep clam. But, until it actually happens, I don’t think anything I’ve said over the last half-decade or more about Few or his programme is invalid.

          • art thiel

            So fatiguing, these local yokels. Thanks for your view from on high.

      • coug73

        True. Yet, the WCC rarely challenges GU.

      • art thiel

        Few consistently schedules perhaps the toughest non-conf schedule in the country every year because the WCC is mostly weak. As Husky73 has pointed out for this year. You’re not breaking new ground, Larry.

  • Husky73

    Not sure politically if the folks in Spokane, and many of the environs, consider themselves part of the state of Washington.

    • jafabian

      In 2019 Rep. Matt Shea of Spokane Valley proposed that Eastern WA secede from Washington and become its own state. But Shea is known for some pretty outlandish proposals.

      • Cheryl Boyle

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      • Husky73

        That has happened many times over the years, and also in many states. It never goes anywhere.

    • art thiel

      Some folks in Eastern WA have been trying to create a separate state for 75 years. Everyone needs a hobby.

  • 1coolguy

    Good, informative sports column Art. Well appreciated.
    I had not realized Hop lost SIX players – how does a team recover from that exodus, especially one focused on defense, when their big men leave? I’d say after their leaving, the season record was predictable.

    • art thiel

      Most every team loses half a dozen or so. It’s the failure to recruit behind them. Carter was the worst outcome.

      As for the Zags, there’s really no better conference. P-12 isn’t admitting them without football, and the WAC and MWC aren’t upgrades.

      • Rebecca Thompson

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  • busterbluth

    Corey Kispert, not Casey.

    I’m hopeful that Hop can turn things around. He’s obviously a good coach based on what he did in his first two years. But his recent lack of recruiting results doesn’t exactly scream that there’s a turnaround coming.

    • art thiel

      Fixed. Thanks. Hopkins can coach a good game, but he mismanaged the past two recruiting classes.

  • Stephen Pitell

    We don’t lose faith in coaches around here like they do back east. Give Hop more time, but he does need to get the local talent even if it means hiring someone local who is a recruiting guru. Ethics? Sure, ya betcha.

    • Larry StoneB

      In Ballard, it goes, “Ya, sure, you betcha”. Lol

      • jafabian

        Uff da!!!

        • Larry StoneB

          Ditto!!!

    • art thiel

      Maybe they can re-hire Romar to recruit, and Hop to coach.

  • Larry StoneB

    “We could go on about UW shortcomings. So we will.”
    Love that choice of words, Art.

    • art thiel

      Thanks.

  • jafabian

    Watching UW the two things that stood out to me was that if the game was close they couldn’t close it out and if they led in the closing seconds they couldn’t defend to protect that lead. There’s wasn’t a cohesion among the players that’s needed to succeed. Losing nearly half your roster can do that. But it’s still a talented roster with basketball smarts so I thought they’d win 10-15 games. There should be a concern that a losing mentality could set in and a bad season will impact recruiting. Meanwhile the Zags continue to dominate the PNW. Not even the Nike-powered mighty Ducks can match the Zags.

    • art thiel

      It is fairly remarkable that this season was SO bad. Hop had no answers at all.

      • jafabian

        I thought that Hop should have taken a page out of Mike Fratello’s Cleveland Cavaliers playbook and go to a slow down halfcourt offense and trapping defense. Nothing else was working.

        • art thiel

          The shot clock renders a slowdown offense moot, and this group didn’t have a quality big man for post play.

  • Hockeypuck

    I think we need to accept the fact that the UofW is a graveyard for basketball coaches; where careers go to die. Just ask Lynn Nance, Andy Russo and Bob Bender, and now Mike Hopkins. Even LoRo – as popular and respected as he was – couldn’t make make it work consistently. He was good with four-year players, but competing with the Kentucky’s of the world for “one and done-ers” was his downfall. The one and out players have literally destroyed college basketball – I have no interest in following this ruined sport. Makes me long for the days when Marv Harshman would (after three years of coaching) turn the Dan Caldwells, Andre Griffins, Don Vaughns, Stan Walkers, and Shag Williams, et all into solid play college players. And then outcoach, outplay and embarrass UCLA every other year. Alas, those times of good coaching and solid fundamental are gone, replaced by pandering, desperate criminal coaches (Sean Miller) who sell their souls for 18 year-old basketball vagabonds that think they rule the world – because Twitter tells them so.

    • art thiel

      I’d like to discourage your cynicism about college basketball, but I can’t. It’s even more corrupt than college football. The one-and-done has been a horrible development. I’d like the NBA G League to work as a minor league, and allow the best prep players to skip college and get paid. The colleges could create a three-and-done and probably have a more varied March competitively, and still be entertaining.

      UW hoops isn’t any more of a graveyard than the anywhere else in the great middle of college hoops. Bender, Romar and Hopkins have had tourney teams. The blue-blood programs didn’t get that way without gaming the system. Just as Wooden did at UCLA.