The Front Row with MARK NELKE March 17, 2013 - Coeur d'Alene Press: Sports

The Front Row with MARK NELKE March 17, 2013

Weighing in on Zags' NCAA hopes

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Posted: Sunday, March 17, 2013 12:00 am

Bruce Pearl says he loves Gonzaga's men's basketball team, and is rooting for the Zags to reach the Final Four this year.

Matt Santangelo says, no matter what happens in the NCAAs to this year's team, which is 31-2 and ranked No. 1 in the country for the first time in school history, just enjoy the ride.

Jon Rothstein says he still can't get a good read on how good the Zags are this season.

A few minutes on the phone - in Rothstein's case, an email exchange - with a trio of college basketball analysts/insiders produced some interesting perspectives on how the Zags are viewed nationally.

Pearl, who formerly coached at Wisconsin-Milwaukee and at Tennessee, is now an analyst for ESPN.

Santangelo, a point guard on Gonzaga's Elite Eight run in 1999 - the first of what will be 15 straight trips to the NCAA tournament for the Zags - is now a color commentator on Gonzaga radio broadcasts.

Rothstein is the college basketball insider for the CBS Sports Network.

Gonzaga will likely be a No. 1 seed - and perhaps the overall top seed for the 68-team tournament - when the bracket is announced this afternoon (3 p.m., KREM). The Bulldogs will likely be sent to Salt Lake City or San Jose for their first tournament game on Thursday.

IS THIS the best Zags team ever?

The 31 wins are the most in a season by Gonzaga. And if you don't count the 1910-11 season, when the Bulldogs went 8-1 under Frank McKevitt, the only other times they lost two games were seven times early in the 20th century, though they didn’t play any more than 12 games in any of those seasons.

Gonzaga has played its usual challenging nonconference schedule this year, with the only blemishes coming from a loss at home to Illinois, and a late-game hiccup at Butler.

“I love Gonzaga’s depth,” Pearl said. “I love their offense balance, they’ve improved defensively throughout the year, they’ve got great size, they’ve got a Hall of Fame coach.”

“They are certainly the most balanced,” Santangelo said. “They also have the best chemisty of any group I’ve been around, besides the groups that I played with. And they’re playing at an extremely high level. This group has just been so consistent all year long, and they’ve been able to get better.

“I don’t know if they’re the best or not, it’s hard to say. I tease them, I think against the ’99 team, we’d probably only win 7 or 8 out of 10, and they’d probably only beat us a couple of times.”

“It’s tough to say that,” Rothstein said. “This Gonzaga team may wind up being a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament, but we still can’t get a real gauge on them since they haven’t played a team that’s a lock for the NCAA tournament in nearly two months.”

GONZAGA HAS long outgrown the “mid-major” label. The mere mention of it elicits cringes around here. But, in today’s NCAA landscape, the Zags do benefit, to a degree, from being a smaller school in that they rarely lose players early to the NBA draft. Adam Morrison left after his junior year and Austin Daye was gone after just two seasons, and that’s about it during the recent run.

Pearl coached at Division II Southern Indiana for nine seasons, then coached at Wisconsin-Milwaukee for four more — including NCAA tournament appearances in 2003 and ’05.

In ’05, Pearl took Milwaukee to the Sweet 16, where they lost to eventual national runner-up Illinois.

“I had seven redshirt juniors on that team, so I had seven guys that had been in college for four years, and it definitely made an enormous difference,” he said.

And Pearl scoffed at the notion that teams not from the “power” conferences can’t be competitive at the highest level.

“I was a mid-major coach for a long time,” Pearl said. “Did we talk about Vegas, coming out of the PCAA, the same way we’re talking about Gonzaga? No. And there were good teams in the PCAA and, guess what, there are good teams in the West Coast Conference. Saint Mary’s and BYU, guess what, there are Big Ten teams and ACC teams and Big 12 teams that would go on the road and lose at those places. So I’m not buying the fact that they’re not prepared. They went out of conference and did everything they were supposed to do to challenge themselves ... there’s nothing wrong with their resume.”

WHAT KIND of team would give Gonzaga problems in the tournament?

“Every team has got warts,” Pearl said. “The only thing Gonzaga may lack is just an incredible offensive breakdown guy that can get into the lane, and do they have anybody that can stop that kind of player?”

Santangelo: “You still have to deal with big guards, or guards that are able to put the ball on the floor and get into the lane and create trouble, but then you start to ask, who wouldn’t have trouble with those types of players? There’s not a team in the country.”

THIS ZAGS team seems to be deeper than previous squads, with a talent level to match.

Santangelo was asked recently, if he could take one player off another GU team and place them on this year’s Zags, who would it be?

He thought of Richie Frahm, a big, strong, athletic wing — but he didn’t want to take Mike Hart off the floor.

He considered Blake Stepp, a big point guard who can get his own shot — but that would mean sitting Kevin Pangos.

Finally, he decided to leave this team as is — it’s a special team, 1 through 12, he said, and why mess with such great chemistry?

“Balance and depth,” Santangelo said of this year’s Zags. “And then they have one player (Kelly Olynyk), obviously he’s in conversations for player of the year for good reason. I think in the NCAA tournament you have to have one, maybe two, possibly even three players that, when all else breaks down, you have those guys that can say, give me the ball, get out of the way, I’m going to go try to make a play. And I think they do in this particular group in Kelly Olynyk and Elias Harris, and of course the outside shooting of Kevin Pangos and Gary Bell.”

About that depth ...

“You have Sam Dower, who can fill it up every night coming off the bench,” Santangelo continued. “Przemek Karnowski has a big body and is going to be a great player at GU, and he can’t even get on the floor, because the guys in front of him are playing at such a high level. And the guards — David Stockton is a complete pace-changer, gets his guys easy shots and changes the pace of the game. And how can you not talk about Mike Hart? — and what he brings to the table with his defense and his ability to rebound and create extra possessions through charges or offensive rebounds.”

Said Pearl: “They’re a better program now because I think their defense and rebounding have really improved, and their toughness. They used to say that if you could push Gonzaga around ... that is what they used to say. I don’t know that that was necessarily the case, but it’s clearly not the case now.”

WHAT HAS kept Gonzaga from advancing farther in the tournament than they have?

The Zags have never been to a Final Four. Their only Elite Eight appearance was the one in 1999. They’ve lost in the Sweet 16 four times. The other nine years, their season has ended the first weekend of the NCAA tourney.

When you note that Butler has played in the national title game twice in the last three years (2010, ’11), and a pair of 11 seeds, George Mason (2006) and VCU (2011) have made the Final Four, it’s logical to ask, why not the Zags?

But a look at the results over the last 14 years would attest, with a few exceptions, the Bulldogs have went about as far as their seed would suggest.

Only four times did their loss come to a team seeded lower than them — in 2002, No. 6 seed Gonzaga lost in the first round to No. 11 Wyoming; in 2004, No. 2 Gonzaga was routed by No. 10 Nevada in the second round; in ’05, No. 3 Gonzaga lost in the second round to No. 6 Texas Tech; and in 2008, No. 7 Gonzaga lost to No. 10 Davidson in the first round.

In 2006, when Gonzaga blew the big lead and lost to UCLA in a Sweet 16 game — though it was a golden opportunity gone astray — the Zags were a 3 seed, the Bruins a 2. That might have been the only other season where the words “Final Four” might have come up when discussing the Zags.

“If you evaluate the quality of their games, the vast majority of those matchups, when they got beat, they played well,” Pearl said. “Really, only a couple of times did they not have one of their (better) games. I just think they wound up losing to a better team, in most cases.”

Santangelo: “For all the success, and all the consistent play, and the record, and coach (Mark) Few’s winning percentage, there’s always that caveat — well, they haven’t done this, and they haven’t done that. I don’t know if that’s human nature, or the nature of sports media. We always tend to tear things down, and I think with this particular group, you’ve got to build them up. I think what they’re doing is really special, and we’ve got to enjoy it while we’ve got it.”

So what has kept them from a deep NCAA run?

“The beauty of the NCAA tournament has prevented them,” Santangelo said. “If you’re fortunate enough to get through the first weekend, and you get to the Sweet 16, after that it’s a crapshoot. In college basketball, there’s so much parity, that it’s about matchups, and it’s about who’s hot and who’s not. That’s really why we love the NCAA tourney is because of the unpredictability, and why it makes it so exciting, but unless you’re one of those few teams of recent years — Kentucky of last year, North Carolina of a few years ago, I don’t think it’s realistic to say, if they don’t win a national championship, or they don’t get to a Final Four, that it’s a disappointing season. I think that’s unrealistic expectations and certainly, in my humble opinion, not a great perspective on what the success or failure of a season is.”

Said Rothstein: “Different things keep programs out of Final Fours. Jim Calhoun (former UConn coach) for a while was a coach who was perceived as someone who couldn’t win in the tournament because he lost in his first three regional final appearances. Fast forward 15 years and he’s won three national titles. Sometimes when you least expect it, you break through if you’re at bat year after year. That’s what Gonzaga has to hope for this year.”

IF THERE are people questioning why the Zags haven’t done better in the NCAAs, they are few and far between, especially in these parts. Every year is pretty much another love affair between the Bulldogs and their fans, every season-ending loss signifying a day of sadness ... until next year.

“I think if you look at their roster, those teams that finally win a national championship, it’s because they have a roster full of McDonald’s All-Americans,” Pearl said. “And Gonzaga’s had guys go to the NBA, but I don’t think anybody’s sitting there going, when are they going to win a national championship?

“If you say, when is Gonzaga going to get past a Sweet 16? That is what you’d be saying right now. And you would expect, given their season, and the seed they’re going to receive, they should get past the Sweet 16. I’ve got them as a 1 seed, and I think they’re good enough to get to the Final Four.”

Santangelo said the Zags and their fans seem to be enjoying the ride more this year — an interesting take considering how much closer a possible title seems this year — saying expectations may have weighed down some GU teams in other years.

“I think people here have an understanding on what Gonzaga is, that it’s a tiny little Jesuit school in Spokane, Washington, and for them to even go out and battle with the big boys every once in a while, let alone every single year, is pretty special,” Santangelo said. “But I think when you start to listen to some of the national pundits ... I think that becomes a question. And especially this year, being the No. 1-ranked team in the country. That’s one I’ve heard over the past few years, and over the past few weeks as well. Not warranted.”

SO, BOTTOM line — how far can the Zags go in the NCAA tournament?

“I think with this particular group, it’s hard to judge the success or failure of a season on how deep a run you make in the NCAA tournament,” Santangelo said. “Our group went the furthest, and I’m ready for a team to go further ... but it also makes me appreciate how special that tournament is, and how hard it is to win any games, let alone 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, let alone 6.

“I guess I’m a glass-is-half-full kind of guy. I really enjoy this particular group, I’ve enjoyed ‘em all year long. They’re really easy to be around. They’re great in hotels, they’re great with the media, they’re great with fans. It seems like they’re having fun.”

Santangelo played in the NCAA tournament twice. As a senior in 2000, Gonzaga reached the Sweet 16, losing to Purdue.

He said the Zags have played big, athletic teams as well as small, quick teams — with equal success.

“They’ve won enough different types of games that ... it’ll just be interesting to see how they perform when the big, bright lights are on,” Santangelo said.

When Pearl coached at Tennessee from 2005-11, he faced Gonzaga three times, winning once (in Seattle) and losing twice (in Orlando and in Knoxville).

“I love the Zags, and I have all year long,” Pearl said. “There are no super teams this year, but there are some awfully good teams. And I think they have the things that you have to have to win a championship.”

Mark Nelke is sports editor of The Press. He can be reached at 664-8176, Ext. 2019, or via email at mnelke@cdapress.com. Follow him on Twitter at CdAPressSports.

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