Gonzaga, where "the ball doesn't stick"

The conversation began with the obligatory smack chatter.

“I haven’t watched you play a whole game,” Ray Giacoletti said over the phone to Mark Few following Gonzaga’s beatdown of Brigham Young earlier this month. “Holy s---.”

“Well, whatya been doing?” Few challenged.

“What the hell you think I’ve been doing?” Giacoletti fired back.

Indeed, Giacoletti has been busy – while not being busy – as an assistant at Saint Louis University, one of the college basketball programs hardest-hit by the Covid-19 pandemic. Between Covid updates, schedule jockeying and the occasional peek at the AP poll – which has the Billikens No. 25 this week – Giacoletti has been able steal a look at the top-ranked Zags.

“The thing that strikes me immediately, is how well they all pass and share the basketball,” Giacoletti said. “To the level of the NBA – NBA teams pass the ball like that.”

Giacoletti has a novel description for it.

“You always have one guy – the ball just sticks,” says Giacoletti. “And probably two or three. They don’t have anybody where the ball sticks.”

No black holes, in other words. No apparent selfishness in sleuthing out the best shot possible.

“This group,” Few told Giacoletti that night, “just innately does it.”

Giacoletti was supposed to have had a lot more free time these days. When, a few years back, I caught up with the former Washington assistant (1993-97); Eastern Washington head man (2000-04) and Zag aide (2006-13), he was exploring a career in broadcasting after leaving a tortured rebuild at Drake University. But, halfway through a month’s vacation in Italy with his wife Kim in August, 2019, he got a call from Saint Louis coach Travis Ford, offering an assistant’s job. He bit.

Behold, the Billikens are on an upward arc. They’re the 13th-best shooting team in the country (a stat led by the Zags at 55.3 percent), but if you haven’t heard much about them, there’s a reason. They haven’t played since Dec. 23, so if they pull off their scheduled game Saturday against St. Bonaventure, it will have been exactly a month between games.

To look at the Atlantic-10 standings is to glimpse the sports disruption of Covid-19. St. Bonnie and UMass are 4-1, Dayton and Davidson 4-2, Rhode Island 4-3 – and Saint Louis is 0-0.

“We have three groups,” Giacoletti said. “People that have had it (Covid), people that have it now and people that don’t have it. We literally could do nothing with any of them. So everybody sat for a minimum of three weeks.”

It’s the weirdest season ever, but it has been good to former Gonzaga assistants. Bill Grier (1991-2007 at GU) is an aide to Tad Boyle at Colorado, and the Buffs are a robust No. 7 this week in the NCAA’s NET rankings. Leon Rice is in his 11th year as Boise State head coach, and his team is 12-1 and sharing the Mountain West lead with Utah State at 8-0.

Everybody’s Covid experience is different. As fraught as the weeks have been at Saint Louis, Rice says, “I think the number of changes in our schedule is at 11. The crazy thing is, I don’t think any of them have been us. I think we had most of ours (cases) early in the fall. Just keep doing what we’re doing.”

The Mountain West’s coping mechanism is eye-catching: In a difficult travel league, each road trip means staying at that site for two games, split by a day off. So, for instance, BSU just played two at Wyoming. What it means is, later on, the Broncos get to host Utah State twice, but finish with two at San Diego State.

Rice likes to think his program is a slice of Gonzaga Lite – good chemistry with enough offensive balance that multiple players might go for 20 on the right night. He’s bullish on a staff (including former Eastern Washington coach Mike Burns) that allows him to think big-picture on program culture. It works, and now Rice, with 210 victories at BSU, is only three from Bobby Dye (1983-95) at the top of the school list.

As for the Zags, Rice says, “Gonzaga’s always been good offensively, but this team is just off the charts with how explosive they are.”

Because, among other things, the ball doesn’t stick.