Gonzaga may or may not play Oregon this week in the Battle 4 Atlantis. It depends on whether the Zags can vanquish Southern Miss (2-3), which seems likely, and whether 11th-ranked Oregon has an answer for 13th-rated Seton Hall, which is iffy.
Gonzaga and Oregon. For two teams that have achieved considerably in the Northwest, it might seem like crickets is the best way to describe their relationship, even as the Zags' head coach is an Oregon alum who grew up 10 miles from Eugene.
Indeed, they haven’t played in 20 years. Yet under the surface, there are a good many might-have-beens and coulda-shouldas and even a little unseen rivalry simmering.
First, to 2017. How cool would it have been if Oregon and Gonzaga had each found its way into the national-title game? (Never mind the TV moguls, who would have cringed.) As it was, of course, only the Zags made it; Oregon stalked North Carolina the entire second half, got within a point, saw UNC’s Kennedy Meeks miss two free throws with five seconds left – and promptly allowed an offensive rebound that sealed it for the Tar Heels.
Stat-wise, it was hard to separate Oregon and Gonzaga that year, cosmetically, anyway. Each had five scorers in double figures, Oregon led by Dillon Brooks’ 16.1, Gonzaga by Nigel Williams-Goss’ 16.8. The Zags shot .382 on threes, Oregon .380. GU hit .717 of its free throws, the Ducks .712.
What might have materialized if they’d met? Could GU have found a way to guard both Brooks and Tyler Dorsey? Or would Williams-Goss or perhaps Zach Collins been the difference?
We’ll never know, obviously. So we’re left to the sketchy history of the “rivalry,” and the scheduling subplot beneath the surface.
About 12-15 years ago, I asked Zags coach Mark Few about playing Oregon, and he responded about as enthusiastically as if I’d recommended to him a 5-8 guard who can’t shoot. You know, turf-war considerations, coaches staking out territory, etc. What was in it for them?
Not that he was alone, of course. Ernie Kent, back when he had it going with Oregon, may have set the tone first. Asked, well before my conversation with Few, about playing Gonzaga, Ernie said he’d only do it if the GU home game were at Spokane Arena; the 6,000 seats in the McCarthey Athletic Center was too small-time for the Ducks. Kent was willing to make it a Spokane Arena-Portland series but Gonzaga never got on board, saying it was already playing annually at the University of Portland.
After that, silence. Then Kent got fired after the 2009 season and Dana Altman came aboard. He said he was open to playing the Zags, and at one point, there was a tentative agreement to get together – in Seattle and Portland. Then – as Oregon told the story – Gonzaga agreed to a late addition by another opponent and turned its back on the Ducks, quashing that series and leaving Altman feeling less than cozy about the Zags. Scheduling in late summer, the Ducks had to scramble for a stand-in.
I’m only speculating here, but as long as Gonzaga is committed to playing Washington, another worthy Northwest opponent, that probably dims the chance of anything happening with Oregon. Right or wrong.
Here we sit then. Failing the would-be ’17 title meeting, or a Battle in Seattle confrontation before that, the last game Oregon and Gonzaga played was in the semis of the 1999-2000 Rainbow Classic and Oregon won, 70-64. Matt Santangelo and Richie Frahm were held to a combined 11 points and the Zags essentially did it to themselves at the foul line, shooting 15 of 27 while Oregon was 13 of 14.
Oregon leads the series 19-3, and the last time Gonzaga won was almost 90 years ago. In fact, it’s been so long ago that the details are in doubt. Gonzaga’s press guide doesn’t list year-by-year results that far back, and Oregon’s guide has Gonzaga winning that game, 29-27. Aha, but the Eugene Guard newspaper of Feb. 20, 1930, had a two-paragraph Associated Press story from Spokane under the headline “Gonzaga Defeats Webfoot Quintet in Tilt Wednesday, in which the score was said to be 36-28. So there.
The rest of the Duck-Zag series, as they say, is history. What there is of it.