Zags: Requiem for a remarkable season

My last dream on the night before Selection Sunday went like this: The office called and proposed doing a story on how the tournament might have looked, were it not wiped out. When I woke up, I realized that not only was there no tournament, there was no office, either. I left newspapering a few years ago.

Of course, the dream was no more tortured than the finish of the 2019-20 college basketball season. It was like the pari-mutuel window at the racetrack at post time, boom, that’s it, no more wagering, leaving us only to speculate – at a healthy six-foot distance, minimum.

Sunday, some on the Twitterati were incensed that the NCAA didn’t “release a bracket,” as if the selection committee was holding out, depriving us of one final morsel for conversation. Folks, when 72 hours’ worth of conference tournaments are scrubbed, there is no bracket. Go home.

CBS, I thought, missed a bet in not gathering its studio analysts for a proper sendoff to the truncated season, in the space usually allotted for the bracket reveal. They could have reviewed the unprecedented succession of events last week; discussed how the tournament might have unfolded; debated the impact of a proposed NCAA waiver that would return seniors to their schools next season; and shown highlights of the season. Perhaps that was seen as superfluous in a time of national crisis.

Ultimately, it took a global pandemic to keep Gonzaga out of an NCAA tournament. A question, admittedly of minuscule import: Does the Zags’ string of years making the tournament inch to 22, or stay at 21? Technically, they were in the field as of last Tuesday night, and the schools in front – Kansas (30), Duke (24), Michigan State (22) – still had business to sort out.

Another one: Does the grad transfer market change this spring? If, as widely forecast, a widespread societal shutdown continues for 2-3 months, do prospects freely get on airplanes and take visits, per custom? Or will it be recruitment-by-Tango? And for those on the fence about an early entry to the NBA, does that league's uncertainty in the months ahead in any way tilt such a player toward a return to school?

For Zag fans, the far bigger imponderable is how far their team might have barged through the ’20 bracket.

Mea culpa: I wasn’t especially sanguine about a deep run by Gonzaga. There were continuing defensive issues; the .422 field-goal percentage allowed is the worst at GU since the 2006 Adam Morrison-led outfit. Besides that, the Zags, using a tight, seven-man rotation, were one sprained ankle away from curtains.

On the other hand, you can argue this team was so good offensively – tops in the nation in scoring (87.4), scoring margin (19.6), second in field-goal percentage (51.5), fourth in assist-turnover ratio (1.49), that it could obscure the weaknesses at the other end. We’ll never know.

TV announcers would talk about the Zags’ depth, as a compliment. They must have been referencing six double-figures scorers, and close to a seventh, because GU wasn’t deep.

All of which, flipped on its head, underscores what a fabulous season it was at Gonzaga. On the first weekend of May 10 months ago, I ran into Mark Few in Spokane, when the Zags were hosting Admon Gilder. At that point, Gonzaga didn’t have Gilder, it didn’t have Ryan Woolridge, and it had no conclusive evidence Joel Ayayi would become a productive force. All that was, was the entire backcourt.

Gonzaga lost three guys who have played in the NBA, two prominently, plus its career assists leader. Freshman big Oumar Ballo was declared ineligible in October. A month later, touted guard Brock Ravet left the program. In and out of shoulder problems, freshman Anton Watson kept playing before yielding to surgery in mid-season. Killian Tillie’s ankle would occasionally render him unavailable.

A team I thought was overrated at preseason No. 8 got ranked No. 1 again and was headed for its fourth No. 1 seed. Looking back, it was preposterous, off-the-charts stuff. It was a testament to culture. This team won 31 times and lost twice, tying the 2017 Final Four team for fewest defeats in a season at GU.

Maybe the message in a March without Madness is that nothing is promised, that the journey is worth celebrating as much as the destination. For GU fans, that would mean the “smaller” triumphs – the Thanksgiving Day tightrope act against Oregon; the grit that shook loose a victory at USF; a rollicking 30-point win at Saint Mary’s – merit their own special attention.

Meanwhile, I’m scrolling ESPNU for today’s showings of classic college basketball. It's about to air the Cal State-Bakersfield/Georgia Tech NIT semifinal of 2017.

It’s come to this.