Hansen's Sunday Notebook: Big men key to growth of UA, Gonzaga

March 23, 2014 12:05 am

In this week's edition of Greg Hansen's Sunday Notebook, the columnist dishes on Gonzaga being a catalyst for Sean Miller's recruitment of top big men, Bryce Cotton earning the respect Roy Williams heaped on him, what's behind Arizona's bad baseball start and how Jim Tiggas continues to keep baseball relevant in Tucson.

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  • I sat courtside at Seattle’s Key Arena a few days before Christmas 2011, as Gonzaga built a 10-0 lead over Arizona. It was soon 14-0 and then 22-4 as Sean Miller burned three early timeouts.

    It didn’t help.

    It was perhaps the only time in the last 25 years of watching UA basketball that I thought Arizona had no chance.

    Arizona trailed 39-21 at halftime and Miller, in his third UA season, knew his club was in over its head. The only other times that happened in a quarter-century was when Jimmer Fredette scored a McKale Center-record 49 points against the Wildcats in December 2009, Miller’s first season, and when Louisville smothered Arizona in the 2009 Sweet 16, Russ Pennell’s final game as the UA interim coach.

    Miller did a slow burn in that made-for-TV game against Gonzaga. After the game he told me the UA needed to recruit someone like the Zags’ Sam Dower, then an off-the-bench player, and now the club’s standout power forward. Dower scored 10 points that day.

    Imagine that: Two years ago Arizona coveted a Gonzaga sub.

    Today, Dower and the Wildcats meet again, in the third round at San Diego’s Viejas Arena. Motivated by that 71-60 loss in Seattle, Miller was relentless in pursuit of a front line to match Gonzaga’s Elias HarrisRobert Sacre and Dower.

    So much has changed in that span. Miller recruited prep All-America front-liners Brandon AshleyKaleb TarczewskiRondae Hollis-JeffersonGrant JerrettAngelo Chol and Aaron Gordon.

    It was almost overkill, but given the transitory nature of college basketball, Arizona arrives at tonight’s game with three of those six in uniform. The script has flipped. It will be Gonzaga coach Mark Few who looks at the Arizona roster and wishes he had a few like Tarczewski and Gordon, and especially someone like Hollis-Jefferson off the bench.

    The Dower of 2011-12 is the Hollis-Jefferson of 2013-14.

    “Those guys are good, they’re always good,” said UA guard Nick Johnson. “You know that Gonzaga is well coached and that it can win big games. They’ve got our total respect.”

    In that December 2011 game in Seattle, Arizona used Josiah Turner and Jordin Mayes at point guard. That seems like eons ago.

    But Gonzaga, too, has improved.

    In Seattle, current Zags starters David StocktonGary Bell Jr. and Kevin Pangos were dreadful. They combined to shoot 3 for 21 from the field — and still whipped Arizona.

    It’s a stretch to say Gonzaga and Arizona are the West’s two leading basketball programs. UCLA is loaded and has the resources to remain that way year after year.

    But it was Gonzaga that fully exhibited Arizona how far it had fallen in the transition from Lute Olson to Miller. If nothing else, tonight’s game will be a measure of how much the UA has grown.

  • Palo Verde High School grad Bryce Cotton’s final college basketball game was his best. The 6-foot-1-inch guard scored 36 points, handed out eight assists, snagged five rebounds, had two steals and played all 40 minutes in Friday’s two-point NCAA loss to North Carolina.

    Tar Heels coach Roy Williams told the media: “I’ve coached a long time and had a lot of people play against me. Bryce Cotton played one of the best games I’ve ever seen anybody play against us. My whole thought defensively was what can we do to stop him? He was truly dominating the game.”

    Cotton completed his Providence career with 1,975 points. He was the Big East Tournament MVP and finished the season with 763 points in 35 games. Here’s some context: Sean Elliott scored 735 points in 33 games in his senior season at Arizona, 1988-89, when he was the NCAA Player of the Year.

    Cotton isn’t listed on anyone’s draft board, which means he’ll likely begin his post-Providence days in Europe. But he’s never going to forget his lone NCAA appearance: He met NBA legend David Robinson and climbed to fourth on Providence’s career scoring list.

  • Arizona’s 11-14 start to the college baseball season is distressing because Andy Lopez’s junior class, all veterans of the 2012 national title team, haven’t produced. That signals another year without postseason play. Junior outfielder Joe Maggi was hitting just .263 through Friday, although he went 2 for 3 Saturday to lift the mark to .318; he led Pac-12 hitters with a .388 average in conference games last season. Junior catcher Riley Moore, a first-team freshman All-American in 2012, is hitting .207, and junior pitcher Tyler Crawford has an ERA of 9.78. That’s big trouble. 

  • Arizona’s 2012 All-Pac-12 guard Kyle Fogg scored 51 points for Finland’s Lapua team in the EuroLeague last week. He had 40 in a Feb. 15 game. Fogg leads the Finnish league with a 26.8 point average and is shooting 49 percent afield. 

  • Am I the only one who doesn’t get Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott’s “China initiative.” He has scheduled Washington to play a basketball game there, and is sending Oregon State coach Craig Robinson to coach a Pac-12 all-star team in China this summer. Why? Scott says it’s the “globalization” of the league, which is the “gateway to the Pacific Rim.” The expenses are staggering, all of which is taken from the pie split to the league’s 12 schools. And the benefit is what? A few more Asian students enrolling in Pac-12 schools someday? It’s excessive and unnecessary. 

  • When Stephen F. Austin advanced to the NCAA third round Friday night in San Diego, upsetting VCU, it brought to mind former Salpointe Catholic guard Will Porter, who averaged 11.2 points at Stephen F. Austin in 1998-99. But SFA was truly awful then, 4-22, prompting Porter to transfer to Cal Baptist. 

  • Since Frank Busch left Arizona’s swimming program to be the director of national teams for USA Swimming, the Wildcats have predictably ebbed. On Friday, the UA women’s swimming team, a top-five finisher in the NCAAs for 12 consecutive seasons, did not score a point at the NCAA championships. They usually average about 75 a day, or more. The UA was in 10th place entering Saturday’s finals. New coach Rick DeMont has a significant challenge to restore Arizona to Busch levels.

  • Few college basketball coaches “needed” a tournament victory more than ex-Wildcat Josh Pastner needed one Friday, as his club edged George Washington. Pastner has won 130 games in five seasons at Memphis, but before Friday had won just a single NCAA game (against 11th-seeded St. Mary’s a year ago). Pastner is way ahead of anyone’s schedule. He is only 36; Sean Miller didn’t get his first head coaching victory until he was 36. Pastner has a contract through 2019-20 that guarantees him at least $15 million. 

  • Rincon High School grad Chris Rastatter officiated the WAC basketball championship game last week; he had called the Pac-12 semifinal, UCLA-Oregon, but was prohibited from advancing to the title game, Arizona-UCLA, because of his ties to Tucson. Rastatter was then one of the Pac-12 referees chosen for NCAA tournament work; he called Friday’s Providence-North Carolina game. 

  • Tucsonan Bob Scofield officiated the Big Sky Conference women’s championship game in Grand Forks, N.D., between North Dakota and Montana. He then was assigned, for the fifth straight year, to work the women’s NCAA tournament. Scofield is in the Lincoln, Neb., Region. 

  • Amphitheater High School grad Lester Medford played in the NJCAA national championship game Saturday night. The point guard of Amphi’s 2011 state championship team scored 53 points in Indian Hills (Iowa) Community College’s first three games in the NJCAA finals in Hutchinson, Kan. 

  • Incoming UA guard recruit Kadeem Allen of Hutchinson CC completed his sophomore season with a 25.9 average, second overall in junior college basketball. He led all NJCAA players with 275 free throws made.

  • For probably the final time in their fabulous pitching careers, Arizona’s Kenzie Fowler and ASU’s Dallas Escobedo will likely face one another in a three-game series at ASU next weekend. They are probably the two leading pitchers in Arizona prep history, but a succession of injuries dimmed Fowler’s career. In 41ª innings this year, Fowler has walked 42. When she was a first-team All-American as an Arizona freshman in 2010, she walked just 148 in 284.1 innings. But the Canyon del Oro grad has a strong perspective. She told ESPN last week that she no longer feels the burden of “having to pitch a no-hitter every game. … If I can pitch two innings a game, if that’s what helps the team, I’m going to do that.” Well said. 

  • I voted Arizona guard Nick Johnson No. 3 on my Wooden Award ballot on Saturday. Maybe it was one spot too low. After Creighton’s Doug McDermott, who has helped his team more than Mr. Nick of Time this year? 

  • Arizona resumes spring football practice this week, and I thought Rich Rodriguez’s statement on his offensive line, as quoted by Star beat writer Daniel Berk, reflected RichRod’s attitude about spring drills. The coach is not happy with his veteran offensive line. “It’s soft at times,” Rodriguez said. “It resembles a pillow fight, a marshmallow-eating contest, a swimming relay at times. At other times, it’s aggressive. Some of the guys are aggressive all the time, and some guys I have to say, ‘Sic ’em,’ when I’d rather say, ‘Whoa.’ ” You don’t get anywhere in the Pac-12 football by eating marshmallows, even in March.

  • Kino Stadium has not been dark this spring, nor have the baseball fields at the complex formerly used by the Arizona Diamondbacks and Chicago White Sox gathered dust.

    On Friday, for example, 22 baseball games were played at the Kino complex by NCAA Division II, Division III and NAIA teams. They are part of the 72-team Tucson Invitational Games that surely bring more money into the Tucson economy than the Diamondbacks ever did.

    Tucsonan Jim Tiggas, who has been operating the TIG enterprise for almost 10 years, also brought 62 Division II, III and NAIA softball teams to Tucson this month.

    It’s fascinating to trace the origin of the teams who spent about a week in Tucson hotels and eating at Tucson restaurants. On Friday, for example, Minnesota’s Gustavus Adolphus College, Kansas City’s Avila University, Oklahoma Baptist and two schools from the University of Wisconsin system, in Eau Claire and La Crosse, played softball here.

    Saturday’s baseball schedule included St. Olaf College and Carleton College of Minnesota, Oberlin College of Ohio and even some West Coast schools, like Cal Lutheran.

    It’s not glamorous, the teams and players aren’t recognizable, but the money is good and Tucson’s tourism industry benefits more from the TIG baseball/softball operation more than any sports event of the year.

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