Saturday, Dec. 12 was going to be the day Gonzaga renewed its basketball series with Washington. But that was back about a jillion months ago (seemingly), and several permutations of the ever-evolving basketball schedule.
Of course, that game was a fall casualty to Pac-12 dictates. And as it turns out, it likely would have fallen victim to the Zags’ decision to pause for a week while it (hopefully) shoos the Covid-19 virus out of the program.
You know how we got here – as in, the weirdness of 2020. But how we got to the fact there are currently another three games left in the Washington-Gonzaga series, takes some explaining.
And just maybe, it ought to take some reconsideration from the Zags.
Let’s backtrack. When I wrote “Glory Hounds” back in 2016, Zags coach Mark Few made it pretty clear he was less than lukewarm about some regional rivalries, in contrast to much of his fan base.
The Zags checked out of the series with Washington State after the 2015-16 season, following a squeeze play by Gonzaga that resulted in WSU’s home game in 2014-15 being moved to Spokane Arena.
The arcs of the two programs made it hard to argue with Few. The Cougars were a drag on Gonzaga’s computer rankings. They epitomized the everything-to-lose-nothing-to-gain proposition.
Few ruminated that the Huskies were falling into that same category. Remember, the last years of Lorenzo Romar’s tenure resulted in regular, double-digit beatdowns by the Zags.
Closer to home, when Few weighed in for the book, the Zags were amid an eight-year hiatus from the series with Eastern Washington. The two programs met last season.
I wrote then that the scissoring of the WSU series was justified. The Cougars went 22-68 in conference games in the five-year run of Ernie Kent, and there was simply nothing in it for Gonzaga. But the Huskies hadn’t bottomed out like that consistently, and I felt that series was worth continuing; the talent level was going to keep Washington at least on a respectable level.
Well, a couple of odd things have happened. Notwithstanding Few’s reluctance, the Gonzaga-Washington series was extended a year or so ago through the 2023-24 season.
And suddenly, it’s the Huskies who are looking like the potential anchor on Gonzaga’s profile in future years.
Meanwhile, the Cougars seem to be on a positive trajectory under second-year coach Kyle Smith, who has fit into the culture; gotten a victory in the Pac-12 tournament, something that somehow hadn’t happened at WSU in a decade; and attracted a top-35 freshman class to Pullman.
If Gonzaga is inclined to view these relationships as fluid, there’s not a lot to say right now that the Cougars aren’t more of a potential force than the Huskies.
Why do business with Washington? It’s possible one rationale for keeping a tie to the UW is that with the Battle in Seattle in limbo with the renovation of KeyArena, meeting the Huskies on Montlake every other year provides GU exposure on the west side. Another is the appearance of a warmer relationship between Few and UW coach Mike Hopkins than was the case with Few and Romar.
But right now, the UW program is teetering. The Huskies finished last in the Pac-12 in 2020 and appear a solid candidate to repeat in ’20-21. Last year, it was the academic ineligibility of guard Quade Green that torpedoed the UW. Now, swingman Naz Carter is gone in the wake of allegations of sexual assault. So, two years in a row, a player betrayed the program.
It’s instructive to look at a confounding big picture with UW basketball. This is a program planted in a city rightly renowned for its basketball talent. Yet, over a generation’s time, for all the talk about the “206,” etc., etc., the best the Huskies have done is get to the Sweet 16 (three times).
When Isaiah Stewart and Jaden McDaniels went in the recent NBA draft, it meant this: Since 2007, the Huskies have had nine first-round NBA draft picks who didn’t get to the NCAA tournament in the year they were selected. Next-highest number nationally is three (Indiana, Syracuse), and the only adjective I can think of for that is “stupefying.” No program has frittered away high-end talent like Washington. (Obviously, there was no NCAA tournament in ’20, but at 15-17, the Huskies weren’t going there.)
This isn’t a recommendation to erase any Gonzaga rivalry; fans tend to love them, for good reason.
But if GU is going to assess these rivalries periodically – and it has – the Huskies are making a good argument to reassess.