In the extravagant tradition of Nike itself, the PK80-Phil Knight Invitational in Portland over Thanksgiving weekend is taking shape, such as a 16-team, two-arena, college hoops mega-monstrous gala takes place.
Gonzaga is a part of it, and all it is, is the biggest college basketball tournament in history outside the annual NCAA tournament (apologies to the NIT of bygone days). This pretty much makes the Maui Invitational or your basic Battle for Atlantis look like a CYO tournament (without the balmy weather, of course).
They came out with pairings Wednesday, and they’re suitably appealing. The event will celebrate Nike founder Phil Knight’s 80th birthday (next February), and it brings together many of the shoe baron’s affiliated schools -- among them Duke, North Carolina, Michigan State, Florida, Connecticut, etc., etc. By my count, 10 of the 16 schools in the thing have won NCAA championships, and with Carolina, Oregon and Gonzaga, it has three of 2017’s Final Four.
Nobody will be questioning any of these teams' strength of schedule, in other words, at least until the new year.
Games will be played in the Moda Center (the old Rose Garden) and nearby Veterans Memorial Coliseum, which is kind of cool. The old “Glass Palace” is still standing and still in use (and in fact, I confess to having attended the 1965 Final Four there). Everybody will play at least one game in each facility, with the breakdown dependent upon whether they win or lose progressively.
The Zags open play Thanksgiving night -- time to be determined -- at the older arena against Ohio State. The matchup opposite them is Florida-Stanford, the winners meeting Friday night, while the heavyweight looming on the top side of GU’s eight-team bracket is Duke. Each team will play three games, so two champions will be crowned, one in the “Motion” bracket and the other in the “Victory.”
Thursday and Friday offer full schedules, and after a day off Saturday, everybody’s back at it Sunday (Nov. 26), including the finals that night.
I reached out to a spokesman Wednesday, and he said single-session tickets -- at a price yet to be announced -- will go on sale June 9. (Those would get you a doubleheader).
The Zags have played Ohio State only once -- a 73-66 Buckeye win in 2012 in Pittsburgh. That was when OSU was seeded No. 2, and Gonzaga No. 7. After GU dispatched West Virginia in the first round, it drew the Buckeyes.
Jared Sullinger and Deshaun Thomas had 18 points each for Ohio State that day, matched by then-freshman Gary Bell Jr., who had one of the best games of his four years. He also had five assists and a single turnover, and led GU back from a 10-point second-half deficit to a late tie. But Sullinger muscled in a couple of baskets against Robert Sacre, and the Buckeyes advanced, eventually getting to the Final Four.
The real difference that day was Aaron Craft, the clever OSU point guard, who had 17 points on 7-of-9 shooting, 10 assists and two turnovers, and held his opposite number, freshman Kevin Pangos, to 10 points on 3-of-13 shooting.
A look at next year’s prospective Buckeyes and the next two possible Gonzaga opponents:
Ohio State -- The Bucks just went 17-15, 7-11 in the Big Ten, and appear to be in some disarray with potentially no more than nine scholarship players on the roster for next season. Since the season ended, one player, Trevor Thompson, forsook his senior year to try for the pros, a backup big man transferred out -- and then there was the weird case of guard JaQuan Lyle, a sophomore who had averaged 11.4 points and 4.6 assists.
Lyle was arrested on three charges, including public intoxication, in his hometown of Evansville, Ind., in May. Only then did it come to light that he had quit the Buckeyes in April, so 6-4 forward Jae’Sean Tate (14.3 points), the team’s scoring leader last season, is the only returnee among the top four scorers. Right now, there’s nobody bigger than 6-9 on the roster.
Coach Thad Matta will be on the griddle next season, after four other players transferred out after the 2016 season. He guided OSU to four straight Sweet 16s from 2010-13, but next year would be a third straight season out of the NCAA tournament, a first since he took over in 2004.
Florida -- The Zags would have faced the Gators in the national semis April 1 if Florida had hung onto a slim second-half lead against South Carolina.
Gonzaga scrambled back from an 11-point first-half deficit to beat the Gators, 77-72, in the semis of the AdvoCare Invitational last November. And of course, one of GU’s most memorable victories ever came in the Sweet 16 of its breakthrough 1999 run, when Casey Calvary slapped in Quentin Hall’s miss to beat the Gators.
Florida, a defensive-minded outfit getting early top-10 mention for 2017-18, would be the most formidable of the three possible early-round opponents for GU. Its backcourt of Chris Chiozza and KeVaughn Allen will be one of the nation’s best; it was Chiozza’s mad dash downcourt for a finishing three, accompanied by the buzzer, that beat Wisconsin by one in the Sweet 16 in March.
Stanford -- The Cardinal went 14-17 and 6-12 last season under Jerod Haase. They’re widely figured to be middle of the Pac-12 pack in 2017-18, and a matchup with GU would bring some familiar faces to the Zags.
They recruited Stanford forward Reid Travis hard but came up short, and Travis led the Cardinal with 17.3 points and 8.6 rebounds last season. Gonzaga also made a run at Seattle Garfield combo guard Daejon Davis, but Davis, after decommitting from Washington, chose Stanford.
With Travis, Stanford looms as formidable up front, but its guard play remains a questionmark.