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Grip on Sports: A tribute to Gonzaga’s consistency, the Pac-12’s inability and the best college baseball coach ever

Gonzaga Bulldogs guard Zach Norvell Jr. (23) reacts after hitting a clutch three pointer to put Gonzaga ahead late in the second half of the first round of the 2018 NCAA Basketball Tournament on Thursday, March 15, 2018, at the Taco Bell Arena in Boise. Gonzaga won the game 68-64. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)
Gonzaga Bulldogs guard Zach Norvell Jr. (23) reacts after hitting a clutch three pointer to put Gonzaga ahead late in the second half of the first round of the 2018 NCAA Basketball Tournament on Thursday, March 15, 2018, at the Taco Bell Arena in Boise. Gonzaga won the game 68-64. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)

A GRIP ON SPORTS • Yes, Gonzaga survived and, as the cliché goes, advance. And yes, the Pac-12’s historically bad basketball season culminated in Arizona giving up in the NCAA’s first round. But today is also about the past and the passing of the best darn baseball coach we ever met. Read on.

••••••••••

• It’s been two decades since Gonzaga hasn’t participated in the NCAA basketball tournament. And it’s been a decade since the Zags lost a first-round game, though they came close to that ignominious result yesterday morning.

Heck, if it wasn’t because Mark Few’s teams are always excellent at guarding the 3-point line (that’s a satirical joke, aimed at the folks who used to complain about the Bulldogs’ defense in the past), the Zags would have lost.

Instead, UNC Greensboro is the one wishing it could have stopped one more 3-pointer. In all, the two teams combined to hoist up 45 long-range shots. They made, wait for it, eight. That’s 17.8 percent. Old-man league bad.

And yet it was a no-conscience bomb from a guy with a little old-man game in him, Zach Norvell, whose 3-pointer broke a 64-all tie and lifted Gonzaga into the second round.

But let’s not forget a shot taken a half-minute earlier.

With the Zags down two, Josh Perkins did a bit of a shake and bake, freeing himself for an elbow jumper. It had been almost 4 minutes since the Zags had hit a shot from the field – also from Perkins – and they seemed as tentative as an 84-year-old at a stop sign. But Perkins didn’t hesitate. Miss and the season might have been over. But he didn’t.

The Spartans turned it over on their next possession, Norvell confidently hit his jumper and the Zags have a second-round rematch tomorrow evening with revenge-minded Ohio State.

• The second round. Uncharted territory for the Pac-12. The conference of champions only hope now is to produce the champion of the NIT.

UCLA and Arizona State out in the play-in games. Arizona, the champion of the champions, out last night, beaten, heck, humiliated really, by Buffalo.

There’s no sugar coating it. The Wildcats quit in the second half. The result was a 23-point loss and Buffalo clearing its bench in the final minute.

Before we say goodbye to Sean Miller and his Final Four-less tenure in Tucson, let’s look at the 2017-18 Pac-12 basketball season. Or not. How about a coat of black paint and forget about it? It was that bad.

It started with two assistant coaches arrested by the FBI – and three UCLA players arrested by the Chinese. It included a preseason that was notable in that only Arizona State really shined – and then the Sun Devils collapsed in conference play. Stanford lost to two Big Sky schools – one at home. Washington was boatraced by Gonzaga – at home. Washington State was, well, WSU after its 6-0 start. USC blew lead after lead, Colorado didn’t improve as it usually does and California was quite possibly the worst Power 6 school.

All that adds up to a historically poor season, one Larry Scott and Bill Walton will want to obliterate from their – and our – memories.

• With the Pac-12 down, the West is in trouble. There is a good chance Gonzaga will be the only school west of the Rockies to get to the second round. All that’s left today is Cal State Fullerton – as much as it galls me to remember 1978, it’s been 40 years since the Titans’ memorable run to the Elite Eight and that’s worth looking back at – and New Mexico State. Both are underdogs, the Titans by 20.5 points to Purdue and the Aggies by 4.5 to Clemson.

If chalk prevails, the Zags will stand alone.

• When I was a youngster, Rod Dedeaux and USC was college baseball’s powerhouse. Everyone was chasing the Trojans. But by the time I got to college, USC wasn’t even the dominant program in Southern California anymore.

That honor was beginning to move down the freeway to Cal State Fullerton.

All because of one guy. Augie Garrido. The best college baseball coach I’ve ever been around.

(Of this, I actually know what I’m talking about. Of the top 50 coaches with the most wins in college baseball history, I either was recruited by, played against or covered often a dozen of them.)

Garrido died yesterday at 79. He was not only an exceptional X and O guy, he also was one of the most personable college coaches, and the best motivator, I've ever been around. His players would do anything for him, including imitate his mannerisms – an easy thing to do and fun to watch at parties.

He also won, more than any coach in college baseball history.

But he was more than that. A son of poverty from Northern California, he rose to become friends with fashion designers (Ralph Lauren) and actors (Kevin Costner). He appeared in movies, he rubbed shoulders with titans of industry.

And did I mention his teams won 1,975 times?

Yes, he was a proponent of small ball, out of favor these days. But he once told me college baseball teams, even the best ones, had players who were going to be overpowered often at the plate. If they could do something productive with their outs, it helped the team and made them feel as if the contributed. It was a lesson I fell back upon often when I coached youth baseball.

In 1982, I covered Cal State Fullerton as they returned to the college World Series in Omaha. It was the Titans first time back since they had won the 1979 title. Being young and always looking for a different angle, I approached Garrido with a story idea. I wanted to catch batting practice and write about the banter.

Garrido said yes, but only if I could prove myself first by catching a bullpen. OK. I had done that for four years at UC Irvine. No big deal.

Garrido picked some wild-as-heck freshman with a 95-mile-an-hour fastball, an 85-foot curve ball and no idea where either was headed. He beat the crud out of me, including one breaking ball that rang my bell.

My first words after running the gantlet?

“If he’s starting the opener I don’t need to make the trip.” Garrido laughed. I got to catch BP and got my story.

•••

Gonzaga: Hope you have some time this morning. There is a lot to share, starting with Jim Meehan’s game analysis as well as his three keys to the win and a story on Johnathan Williams’ big game. … John Blanchette puts the victory in context with his column. He also has a story about the Zags’ locker facilities. … Whitney Ogden has stories on the fans, two Zags who stepped up at key times and the team’s free-throw woes. … Theo Lawson was also in Boise and has some UNC Greensboro coverage as well as a story on a makeshift court and GU’s opening-round games. … Rob Curley and Nathanael Massey combined on a story about nail-biters and your health. … The photo coverage is also in-depth as well, as Dan Pelle and Tyler Tjomsland had the honors. … The guys in the office put together the highlights package. … My job was to watch at home. I have a TV Take for you. … Larry Weir has a Press Pass podcast. … The women open NCAA play at Stanford tomorrow, with Jill Barta leading GU against Brittany McPhee and the Cardinal. Jim Allen has those stories as well as one on the Zags’ 3-point shooting improvement. … Back to the men, there is coverage of Gonzaga’s win from other spots, including Boise and Greensboro.

WSU: Honestly, could the Pac-12’s basketball season have been worse? Maybe but it’s hard to image a worse NCAA showing. Arizona’s loss wasn’t embarrassing but how the Wildcats lost was. There has got to be a lot of hand-wringing around the conference basketball offices today. … Colorado’s Tad Boyle and I agree on this one point: allowing agents more contact may not be the best thing for college sports. … Arizona State’s finish marred the season some. … There is some spring football news. No one loses then, right?

Idaho: The Vandal women fell behind early and never could catch up, losing their WNIT game at UC Davis.

Whitworth: The Pirates’ Kyle Roach was named a first-team NCAA Division III All-American yesterday. Jim Allen has the story.

Mariners: The M’s won yesterday but the No. 1 concern for everyone is the number of injuries. The company line is the organization is being extra cautious with players and they expect guys back for the regular season.

Seahawks: Have the Hawks lost their way a bit as Richard Sherman believes? Or are they just trying to rebuild the franchise again?

•••       

• That trip to Omaha in 1982? The Titans were shut out twice, the second time by future Mariner Billy Swift, and headed home. It was the first time that had ever happened. I think Garrido blamed me. Until later …


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