It’s that time of year -- holiday spirit, a chill in the air, and if you’re a Gonzaga basketball fan in the Puget Sound area, the Battle in Seattle at KeyArena.
Well, hold that last thought, because for the first time since 2003, the BIS isn’t part of the December calendar for GU faithful.
Not to suggest this will be a blue Christmas -- your cue, Elvis -- for west-side followers of the Zags, but their timing obviously isn’t the greatest. Gonzaga has one of its best editions yet -- maybe the mother of all of them -- and its 10-game run of success to start the season is unprecedented in the NCAA Division I era at Gonzaga, dating to 1958-59.
The Zags, and the opposition they’ve enlisted, have been providing the best college basketball available at the maligned Key outside the NCAA tournament. In the first year of the Battle in Seattle, Gonzaga won an overtime game against Quin Snyder’s fifth-ranked Missouri team. Two years later came a gritty 64-62 Zags victory against Oklahoma State. “I called ‘bank,’ ‘’ Adam Morrison said devoutly.
Three years later, Gonzaga was about to upset a No. 2-ranked Connecticut team but a late three-point shot went down for the Huskies, who won in overtime, 88-83.
As college hoops goes, it hardly gets any better. Problem is, scheduling is hard. Every one of those games requires a return engagement, one reason why the playbill occasionally faltered in the Battle, with opponents like Massachusetts, South Alabama and Cal Poly.
In those games, drawing in the neighborhood of 9,000 people against the close-to-capacity houses they pulled in for the aforementioned heavyweights, the Zags learned that fans wouldn’t turn out merely to watch their beloveds. They needed an appealing matchup.
Nothing wrong with that. If you’re a season-ticket holder at the McCarthey Athletic Center in Spokane, it’s one thing to bite the bullet for the occasional “guarantee” game opponent, knowing you’re going to get high quality on other nights. But in a one-off in Seattle, Gonzaga couldn’t expect to trot out an RPI No. 167 foil and hope to fill the place.
“I haven’t heard too much wailing and gnashing of teeth,” GU athletic director Mike Roth told me this week about the BIS. “(But) people are disappointed, absolutely. And I’m disappointed.”
Here’s one of the difficulties with the game: Requiring a return for high-level opponents, the game annually takes up two spots on a non-league schedule bloated by the expansion of the West Coast Conference schedule from 14 to 18 games. There’s the game itself, and annually, the return of the game the year before. (Sunday, the Zags will be in Nashville, paying back Tennessee for its BIS appearance a season ago.)
Now, the intrigue.
At a Seattle alumni event in October, Roth teased attendees with what he called a “unique” proposal built around the Battle in Seattle. He wouldn’t divulge details, nor was he willing to shed any more light when we talked Tuesday. All he said was it’s pending, not yet finalized.
“I’m hoping we can pull it off,” he said Tuesday. “It’ll be met with enthusiasm on a number of fronts and some not-enthusiasm on other fronts.”
Hmm. This is just me musing -- Roth said nothing even off the record about GU’s intentions -- but you don’t suppose the Zags could be pondering a high-level conference matchup (hello, BYU and Saint Mary’s) at the Key?
Several factors would argue for the idea. One, the WCC schedule is now nosing into December, which it didn’t in the old 14-game format. Two, students are on holiday break, so that’s a constituency you wouldn’t be affecting as dramatically.
And three, the league has been struggling for national respect, minus Gonzaga. GU coach Mark Few made a pointed statement last March on the occasion of Saint Mary’s Selection Sunday snub about how WCC athletic departments weren’t funneling the profits from the tournament (much of it generated by Gonzaga) back into basketball.
Meanwhile, WCC commissioner Lynn Holzman told me over the summer that a new wave of WCC presidents seems much more attuned to the needs, and potential, of its basketball programs than the old guard.
So: Can you imagine the buzz this weekend if Saint Mary’s were meeting Gonzaga at the Key, two teams earlier ranked among the nation’s top 12? Guaranteed 17,000-seat sellout, appealing national TV draw, giving the WCC a large-crowd showcase it gets only when the Zags or Gaels travel to BYU. (And those often get lost in a blizzard of other key national games in January and February.)
The obvious downside is the removal of a top-notch game from the season-ticket package at the MAC, and that’s not a small consideration. But perhaps another high-level non-league game would make it more palatable -- of the Illinois-Michigan State-Arizona-UCLA ilk of recent years.
Mark Few probably wouldn’t find it a rousing idea, either, since coaches are extremely protective of home games. But there was a recent occasion when GU played four home games before its students returned to campus from holiday break.
Again, it’s just a thought. But as the Battle in Seattle takes a breather, maybe not a bad one.