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Zags-Huskies: Reunited, and it feels so . . . weird

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So here we are, 10 years later. When the Gonzaga and Washington men’s basketball teams meet in Spokane Wednesday night, it will be two days short of exactly 10 years since they ended an annual series on the Zags’ home court. (They did get together last November in a first-round game of the Battle4Atlantis in the Bahamas, Gonzaga winning, 80-64.)

First, a quick word on what you’re reading. This is a blog created in conjunction with the release of my new book, “Glory Hounds,” which details the stories behind Gonzaga’s sustained success. The aim is to weigh in weekly -- maybe more often -- on some aspect of the GU program, or on occasion, Pac-12 and national hoops. (With that in mind, here's a link to an excerpt the Seattle Times is running this weekend from Glory Hounds: http://bit.ly/2gREVpw )

So much has changed since 2006, when the Huskies opted out of the Gonzaga series. First, it was voiced in some quarters that it was justified because the Zags needed the Huskies more than vice versa, a notion I never bought into. Gonzaga was doing just fine with its schedule, and didn’t need the Huskies to burnish it. It was the fans who were forgotten with that move.

“We’ve got to do the best thing for our basketball program,” Washington athletic director Todd Turner told me back then. “It’s been a great game, but the nature of our program is changing.”

Little did Turner know how accurate he would be.

I recall being on a Seattle radio show about that time, perhaps a little earlier, and being asked which of the two programs would get to a Final Four first. It was a good question. I picked the Huskies, simply on the basis of the teeming talent pool nearby.

As history shows, the right answer -- to date, anyway -- was neither. The Final Four has continued to elude the Zags, and the Huskies haven’t really been within a country mile of one since the series was interrupted. In fact, in the decade since the GU-UW series stopped, the Huskies failed to make the NCAA tournament seven times.

Remarkably -- given the transient, here-and-gone nature of players and coaches nowadays -- the same two head coaches are at work. Mark Few has had Gonzaga on a generally steady trajectory, while Lorenzo Romar has lately struggled to recapture the excellence he brought to the Huskies in two doses in what is now a 15-year run at Montlake.

Here’s what is differentiating the two enterprises: As a program, the Huskies are trying to discover whom they are. Gonzaga has figured it out.

Washington is just hip enough -- Pac-12 program; fetching, world-class city; personable, engaging coach -- to have cachet with the occasional highest-level recruit. It’s nigh-incredible that a program a continent away could lure a mega-talent like Markelle Fultz from the East Coast.

But it happens only sporadically, not nearly enough to build a program that way. What Washington desperately needs is a measure of stability, an end to the revolving door that has plagued the program lately. What it needs is a blend of the occasional superstar with veteran players devoted more to the ideals of the program than in what their draft status might be next June. (That’s not to suggest Fultz is so preoccupied.)

By and large, the Zags don’t have this problem. With the rare exception of somebody like freshman seven-footer Zach Collins, they don’t get those top-shelf guys. So they’re defined, you could say, by their limitations. They’ve settled on a system built around capable veteran players, European imports, and lately, transfers.

They’ve made it work nicely.

Ten years after the hiatus began, here’s where we are: Gonzaga is percolating at a high level, ranked No. 8 this week (entering a game with bete noir Arizona Saturday in LA), seemingly better equipped than ever to make a run at that Holy Grail, the Final Four. The Huskies (4-3) are trying to find themselves, failing defensively, trying to urge the pieces around Fultz to deliver.

From the time I’ve spent around Few, I’m fairly certain he’s lukewarm about the restart of the series. He figures his program has long passed the Huskies. And whether you believe that’s reason to abandon it, it’s hard to argue it hasn’t.

Direly, ahead of a Pac-12 schedule that appears pedestrian, the Huskies need to make a statement that they’re relevant. There’s nothing else in December with any juice.

Ten years later, the Huskies need the Zags in the worst way. Go figure.

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