Each week until March Madness, I’ll be taking a look at the broader scene outside the Pac-12 in college basketball, looking at trends and faces in the game and previewing the next week’s best action on TV. Some weeks, the column may also run in the Times’ print edition.
Late in the afternoon of Dec. 6, Gonzaga and Arizona were engaged in an epic battle in the desert, knotted at 60 as the final seconds of regulation time wound down, the Zags ranked eighth by the coaches, ‘Zona third.
Gonzaga was having a difficult time finding quality shots in the late minutes against the Arizona man-to-man, and now Gary Bell Jr. drove on the left side of the key and put up a wild shot with a couple of seconds left. It missed.
On the right side of the hoop, Zags freshman Domas Sabonis positioned himself for a possible rebound. The tape shows Sabonis giving a slight nudge to 6-5 guard Elliott Pitts, stationed in front of Sabonis.
As the ball came down toward Sabonis, Pitts went low trying to back Sabonis away. At that moment, Arizona forward Rondae Hollis-Jefferson crashed onto Sabonis’ back, causing Pitts and Sabonis to hit the deck and the ball to drift out of bounds off Hollis-Jefferson’s hands.
No call. No call, although it was the closest athletic equivalent to football’s chop block. You can make a case Sabonis was fouled twice, by Pitts undercutting him low and Hollis-Jefferson collapsing him from behind.
I ran the tape by a veteran official and he responded, in reference to the Hollis-Jefferson move, “Clearly a foul on Arizona that should have been called by trail official . . . not equalized by minor Sabonis push.”
The Zags were in the bonus, so Sabonis, a 68-percent free throw shooter, would have gone to the line. At a pressure moment, that’s hardly a slam-dunk, but if he hits the shot, the game’s over. (It also could have ended on Kyle Wiltjer’s subsequent off-balance jumper, which missed.) Instead, it went to overtime, and Arizona won, 66-63.
Frankly, in the netherworld of the final frantic seconds of a pitched battle, it seemed like the worst example of the credo “Let the kids decide the game.” In some officials’ minds, anything short of an assault-and-battery charge is OK in the final seconds.
And yet, I can’t help but feel that trail official unwittingly did the best possible favor for Gonzaga.
Ahead of a visit by St. Mary’s to the McCarthey Athletic Center Thursday night, the Zags sit at 18-1 and are ranked No. 3 in the nation.
As we all know, in college basketball a loss can be just around the corner. And it could be for Gonzaga. But the Zags also look to be better than any other opponent the rest of the way.
In a season when their quest seems more about March than ever, I don’t think they needed to add the scrutiny of carrying an undefeated season, with its attendant questions – How good are they? Is this the year? – possibly even into the NCAA tournament.
They don’t need comparisons to Kentucky. Nobody does.
You might argue that pragmatically, a victory over Arizona would solidify the prospect of a No. 1 seed in the tournament. True. But if the Zags keep damage elsewhere to a minimum – I think they can afford another loss leading into Selection Sunday and be viable for a 1 seed – the committee will be inclined to look at that December defeat and see it as a near-miss at one of the most feared venues in the country. It will be about as quality a loss as quality losses get.
So, to pervert the old phrase: No foul, no harm.
State of the State
With improvement by Washington State and Eastern Washington bumping up the level of hoops in our state, a reader asked the other day about the best showing by the Division 1 teams in terms of reaching the NCAA tournament.
That came in 2004, when the state had three teams in the Big Dance – Eastern Washington, Washington and Gonzaga.
This year, Gonzaga will be there, Washington has a decent shot, while Eastern Washington will have to win the Big Sky tournament to get there, and is scrapping to host that event. So getting a record fourth team would likely hinge on Seattle U. going through a relatively tepid WAC field in its post-season tournament.
Of course, it’s a very uneven history of Division 1 teams in our state. The last of Seattle U.’s 11 NCAA appearances came in 1969, while the first of Gonzaga’s 17 wasn’t until 1995.
Washington has made it 16 times, WSU six and Eastern just once. Oddly, the Huskies and Cougars have never made it in the same season.
The week ahead
Thursday night is an appealing one for West Coast hoops, with No. 7 Arizona at salty Stanford (6 p.m. ESPN2), followed at 8 by Gonzaga-St. Mary’s on ESPNU.
Saturday, No. 17 Texas starts the first of a dangerous two-step, hosting 11th-ranked Kansas (11 a.m., CBS) before a Monday-night roadie with No. 9 Iowa State (6 o’clock, ESPN).
And Sunday could be coronation day for Coach K, seeking his 1,000th-career win for Duke in New York against Steve Lavin’s St. John’s. Try to determine who has the coaching edge.
Most Division I
Mike Krzyzewski 13
Roy Williams 10
Rick Pitino 8
John Calipari 7
Bill Self 7