Zags' path to the promised land will begin at home

The first date that unsettled the stomachs of Gonzaga basketball fans was Aug. 3, when they sweated out the return of NBA-explorer Corey Kispert.

Surmounting that crisis, they look with trepidation to Wednesday, Aug. 26. And the 29th. And Sept. 1. And truth be told, sleep could be fitful any night thereafter.

New student orientation and a phased move-in is next Wednesday at GU. The 29th brings a phased move-in of returning students, who might be inclined to fete the fact they’re coming back to a semblance of their old lives. And Sept. 1 marks the start of fall-semester undergrad classes.

Cue the breath-holding by Gonzaga officials, from the president’s office to the athletic department. They’ve heard the alarm bells clang in recent days over Covid-19 at North Carolina, Notre Dame, Michigan State and Syracuse.

“It really comes down to a question of, if our students are part of the solution and not part of the problem,” says Mike Roth, Zags athletic director.

According to Roth, only two schools in the West Coast Conference, Gonzaga and Brigham Young, have opted for something other than remote classes only. GU chose a hybrid approach, offering both in-person and remote learning.

“We have a chance of being successful,” Roth says. “We just need students to buy in.”

When I asked Roth earlier this week how often athletes are getting tested, he said: “Thus far, we haven’t been testing, other than for symptoms or exposure. If student-athletes are showing symptoms, we get them tested, or if they’re exposed, we get them tested.”

Meanwhile, college sports’ fretful piece of the coronavirus response continues. Football is iffy, and the consensus is, basketball’s start date of Nov. 10 will be pushed back – to Thanksgiving, to Jan. 1, 2021, to . . . who knows? NCAA senior VP in charge of hoops Dan Gavitt says they’ll offer a more definitive date by mid-September.

This much we know, and it’s good news for Zag fans lusting to see the logical progression of a loaded roster: Everybody around the game, including the NCAA, is hell-bent to ensure that we don’t have a repeat skip of the NCAA tournament. That doesn’t mean a tournament is guaranteed to happen, only that people in power are going to move heaven and earth to try to see that in some form, it does.

To that end, we give you the Zags, who might be the busiest program in the country right now. You know already that, seemingly out of the blue the other day, Gonzaga and Baylor announced they had brokered a deal to play this season. Sometime.

If you’re Gonzaga, with visions of a second Final Four (and beyond), there’s a big need for a backup plan to its original schedule. By my reckoning, it’s bigger than anybody else’s.

Already, the Pac-12 scrubbed all schools’ athletic competition through the rest of the calendar year. That included Gonzaga’s games with USC, Arizona and Washington.

Now, introduce the possibility that the NCAA waves off its start until Jan. 1. If you’re Duke – where Mike Krzyzewski underscored the other day that a return of the tournament is a dire necessity – you can still build a resume against North Carolina, Virginia and Florida State, teams from your own conference.

In that scenario, if you’re Gonzaga, your opportunities to shine are limited to BYU, Saint Mary’s and perhaps San Francisco. If it all ended there, Gonzaga might be the most underseeded national-title contender in NCAA history.

Ergo, Mark Few’s fishing this summer has included trolling for big-name opponents willing at the 11th hour to engage his team.

“Fewie’s been talking to a lot of coaches,” Roth says, “and a lot of coaches have been talking to him.”

Were it not for the Zags’ considerable national brand, and TV’s thirst for sports programming, the possibility would be out there for a skeletal GU schedule. Roth is convinced that won’t happen.

“TV is still going to be a real major player here,” he insists. “Especially with the unknown of attendance. What TV wants is great matchups and great games. I don’t have any fear of Gonzaga being left at the curb.”

What of all those November-December non-conference screamers, not only involving Gonzaga, but others? Roth broaches the notion that ESPN might want to consolidate some of those events it owns – more games at one site, more teams, less travel.

“We don’t know what ESPN might be thinking right now,” he said.

Nor the NCAA for its tournament. Some form of pod seems likely, but could it handle the usual 68-team kaleidoscope? Perhaps 32? Baked into that discussion is the reality that the fewer the teams, the fewer the games, and the less cash CBS and Turner are going to pay for it.

At least there’s reason for hope that the run-up to the tournament – the regular season – could be achieved in some form with pods. Remote learning helps cover the “student” part of student-athlete, and Roth waxes enthusiastically about the Zags having three available courts – the McCarthey Athletic Center, Martin Center and the practice floor in the new Volkar Center.

“One of the concepts Mark and I talked about the other day is, if we don’t have fans, it actually makes things easier, that you could come to a single location,” Roth says. “You could have two or three games going on at the same time.”

But, as everywhere, the students must be willing. Gonzaga’s campus will be armored with the usual safeguards – signage, plexiglass, sanitizer – but this seems more about will.

Courtesy of the GU enrollment office, through senior director of community and public relations Mary Joan Hahn, this is the student breakdown on in-person/remote learning: Of 4,837 undergrads who responded to a questionnaire, 15 percent will be online only. Some 84 percent will do it both on campus and online. And, compared to most years, when on-campus residents number more than 2,500, about 1,930 will live on campus.

Meanwhile, the scattergun, helter-skelter messaging from the White House has sabotaged the national response in at least two ways, on campus and off: It made self-discipline seem unimportant to some. And a long, ineffective campaign – such as it is -- has been accompanied by Covid fatigue. Some are just sick of dealing with it, so they won’t.

In basketball terms, Gonzaga long ago established itself as a little bit different. Here’s another chance for its students to prove it.