Downtown Zag Nation

After losing to Arizona by 23 in the NCAA Tourney, the Zags will get at least two more shots at the Wildcats over the next two seasons.

What if I told you a Gonzaga nonconference schedule would be greater than you ever dreamed it could be?

No, this isn’t the plot of the newest ESPN 30 for 30 film, but an actual question that Zag fans have been waiting to hear for a long time.

I sat down with Gonzaga Athletic Director Mike Roth on Monday, and although I didn’t go in to talk about men’s basketball, it’s hard to leave a 40-minute conversation with anyone in GU Athletics without discussing the university’s million-dollar baby.

Here are three notable points I gleaned from that conversation, points that have a significant bearing on the short- and long-term future of GU men’s basketball:

1. The nonconference schedule for 2014-15 includes at least five Pac-12 and American Athletic opponents, two of which are rematches with teams the Zags lost to this year. 

2. If you’d like to see GU switch conferences, take it up not with Roth, but with the Big East Conference. 

3. GU’s revamped academic policy for men’s basketball has made it systematically easier for players to go pro while making the program look better at the same time.

Details and analysis:

1. According to Roth, next season’s nonconference schedule includes away games at Arizona and UCLA, along with a rematch with Memphis in the Kennel and a matchup with Washington State at Spokane Arena.  

The games against Arizona and UCLA are part of a home-and-home series for the next two years, meaning that both the Wildcats and Bruins will be coming to McCarthey two seasons from now.

In addition, Southern Methodist Athletic Director Rick Hart announced Tuesday on Twitter that SMU and GU are working to finalize a home-and-home series starting next season.

Roth said GU is looking to get one more high-profile game in the Kennel next season, aiming for a Top 25-caliber opponent from a power conference.  It’s unclear at this point whether SMU is the high-profile opponent Roth was referring to.

Combined with GU’s appearance in the Preseason NIT at Madison Square Garden, the Bulldogs could potentially play three Pac-12 teams, two American Athletic Conference teams, and four or five more from some combination of the Power Five conferences (Big East, Big Ten, SEC, Pac-12 or Big 12).

This news is a godsend for Zag fans who have hoped desperately over the past few seasons that GU would increase the strength of its nonconference schedule.  

The only drawback to the nonconference schedule? Because of undisclosed logistical issues, Roth said the prospects of bringing a high-quality opponent to meet the Zags in Seattle are dicey. The Battle in Seattle opponent might look a lot more like the South Alabama Jaguars than the Oklahoma State, Missouri, Arizona or Kansas State teams the Zags have faced in the past.

However, the many power opponents GU will face next season are more than just an immeasurable improvement over the likes of Colorado State, New Mexico State and Oakland, three teams that passed as potentially challenging — maybe — in the 2012-13 slate. Tough matchups are necessary in a world where NCAA Tournament seeding depends more on strength of schedule than ever before.

On Selection Sunday just about a month ago, Ron Wellman, Wake Forest athletic director and head of the tournament selection committee, had to explain on national television his committee’s reasoning for why some teams were included over others and why teams were seeded higher than others.

Wellman made it clear that strength of schedule was a monumentally important factor in the selection process. Teams that tested themselves early in the season would be rewarded. But it wasn’t only Wellman who said that.  Ex-WCC Commissioner Jamie Zaninovich, who also served on the selection committee this year, told ESPN’s Ted Miller much the same thing.

“It’s not definitive, but if you’re getting towards the bubble, you better make sure you’ve at least shown some initiative to play some teams in the nonconference schedule or then it could become an issue,” Zaninovich said.

Granted, with the talents GU brings in next season, it’s likely that the Zags will be much closer to a top-four seed than the bubble by mid-March of next year. But as was proved over the last month, a few spots in the seeding could have saved the Zags from running into teams like Oklahoma State and Arizona.  

And if GU does indeed receive a top-four seed, a good nonconference schedule could influence the seeding difference between a four and a three, a three and a two, or — this is a prospect that shouldn’t be ruled out yet — a two and a one.

Setting up home-and-home series with Pac-12 teams is a brilliant move. Doing so links GU with high-profile teams for an extended period of time and, specifically, rekindles the growing rivalry with Arizona. The decision on the series with Arizona was decided before this year’s NCAA Tournament, which makes the fact that the Zags met them in the tournament either the product of fate or of basketball gods who wanted to see a preview of what is to come during the next two years.

It’s worth mentioning that with this week’s news of Arizona’s Aaron Gordon leaving for the NBA Draft and Nick Johnson potentially following right behind him, next year’s Zags-Cats tilt in Tucson could be one of the college basketball games of the year. The Wildcats will likely be ranked within the top five spots in the nation, but at minimum, GU’s chances are a whole lot better than they were a few weeks ago.

Most of all, placing challenging games on the docket will mean that an unfamiliar adjective could finally apply to the Bulldogs as they head into the 2015 NCAA Tournament: battle-tested.

2. As we head into the The Summer of Conference Realignment, Part 2: One Year Later, it’s becoming clearer that GU isn’t going anywhere.

But Roth says it’s not his fault.  When the Big East Conference reformed in July 2013, he had GU Athletics ready to move to the new Big East along with the other “Catholic Seven” schools. He recognized that GU would be a perfect fit in every way with the other private, Catholic, similar-size, liberal arts schools from that conference.

One single problem threw a wrench in the gears: geography. As much as a program can request to join a conference, it eventually has to be invited by the conference, Roth said.  Unfortunately for GU, the Big East programs were not willing to fly their sports teams five or six hours to Spokane dozens of times every year, even if Roth was.

Roth says he likes to say that the only way GU would be accepted into the Big East is if teleportation is invented.

Anytime teleportation enters a discussion of conference realignment, things aren’t looking good.

And with a lack of a football team and no foreseeable way GU could re-establish its football program, don’t expect the Pac-12 to come calling, either. 

For now, GU looks to be stuck in the ho-hum WCC. While it won’t do us any favors in terms of men’s or women’s basketball, at least the Zags won’t be constantly flying to the Northeast for every away game. That might qualify as low-level silver lining.

3. At a time that Roth estimates was about 10 to 12 years ago, GU Athletics approached Duke and Georgetown with a question: How do you make sure your basketball players graduate on time?

The answer led GU to institute a requirement that men’s and women’s basketball players take a certain number of credits every summer in order not to have credits left over once their basketball eligibility is finished. The system largely solved GU’s problem of having athletes fail to graduate once their playing careers at the university were finished.

That means each player must take credits — Roth says that the minimum is somewhere around six, so it’s not an unreasonable total — even during the summer before  freshman year.     

Not surprisingly, it’s a system modeled after Duke’s and Georgetown’s, and not surprisingly, the time since that system was implemented was the time in which nearly every NBA player out of GU has been produced.

Although six or nine credits every summer seems like small potatoes, it’s a complete game changer, and a win-win for every party involved.  

The university and GU Athletics look better, since almost every player who doesn’t leave early for the NBA now graduates. During Mark Few’s reign as head coach, only one player has failed to graduate during his years of college basketball eligibility, Roth said. Statistics like that are a big deal for a major university athletic department. 

For the men’s basketball program, it allows players to finish their degrees early so that they can potentially leave early for a pro career. It’s a taste of the NBA-centered college programs that some coaches (hello, John Calipari) run, just with a heavy dose of class instead of sleaziness.  

As Roth said, although Drew Barham is an anomaly because he already graduated at Memphis, it’s probably not a coincidence that a player like Kelly Olynyk could leave GU with one year of basketball eligibility left. He had already graduated and subsequently made a smart decision to leap to the NBA, where he’s thriving.

Don’t expect Olynyk to be the last Zag to make that leap in the coming years.