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Zag-Duck series: It's mostly left to the imagination

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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.
#zagmbb #wcchoops #theslipperstillfits #zaghoops #zagup

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As usual, Zags are quick out of the gate

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With about seven minutes gone in Gonzaga’s game at Texas A&M Friday night, I got a text message that had frown wrinkles. The Zags had come out flat, it said. The chemistry wasn’t quite there yet.

True enough. In its first real test of 2019-20, the Zags fell behind 14-11. They looked disconnected.

And right about then, they turned on the jets, blew away A&M with a 20-0 run and won by 30 points on the home floor of a Power Five school. What looked like a grinder turned into a night on Easy Street.

Granted, A&M isn’t a team that needs to be checking bracketology every week to see where it’s headed. For much of the night, it looked like it was playing with a medicine ball, not a basketball.

Still, it’s hard not to give props to a Gonzaga team that, despite a wholesale makeover, put the throttle down against an outfit from the SEC.

Maybe we shouldn’t be surprised. One of the standards of the Gonzaga program over the years under Mark Few is the ability to start the season fast. It’s almost a necessity, given that the Zags play an inverted schedule, zigging when a lot of other folks zag. The tough games are in November and December, and then the schedule turns mushy in January and February.

Think about some of the pelts Gonzaga has accumulated early in the season. As far back as 2003-04, it won a tournament in Washington, D.C. by beating Maryland. The next year, its first signature victory in the McCarthey Athletic Center was a thunderous 99-87 conquest of a ranked Washington team. In 2005, in Maui, it upset Maryland and won the memorable triple-overtime screamer over Michigan State.

And on and on. There were two championships in the Old Spice Classic, a Maui title in 2009, and then last year, the mother of all November accomplishments, a second Maui title won by beating No. 1-ranked Duke.

Want to go really retro? About the time Gonzaga was clearing its throat for its improbable burst onto the national scene under Dan Monson, it won the Top of the World Classic in Fairbanks in stunning fashion, in what turned out to be the last season (1997-98) before going to the NCAA tournament was a regular deal.

So, to tonight. A&M has a new coach, Buzz Williams, assembling his own system. Few is trying to replace three players who went to the NBA, plus Josh Perkins, GU’s career assists leader. There’s some continuity for GU with players like Filip Petrusev and Corey Kispert and Joel Ayayi, but . . . a 30-point margin?

For me, the most palpable aspect of the game was, after those first several fragile minutes, GU looked connected. It still has guys who pass the ball, seek the best shot and have a knack for finding the open man. That’s an unexpected quality when you’ve just remade your roster. At times, the Zags’ interior defense let them down, but still -- a 30-point road victory. The guard tandem of Ryan Woolridge and Admon Gilder matched each other with 16 points and seven rebounds, and I thought Joel Ayayi was a revelation with eight points, seven rebounds and six assists.

Pat Forde, the writer, tweeted the other night in the wake of Kentucky’s shocking loss to Evansville that he believes Kentucky coach John Calipari “undercoaches” intentionally in the early season, the implication being that he likes to let players struggle so as to allow them to see the error of their ways, then get them ready for the important part of the season. At Gonzaga, Few doesn’t have that luxury. If the first six weeks of the season pass without notable victories, it’s a 10 seed waiting to happen in March.

The Zags are going to face a whole bunch of teams better than Texas A&M, and soon. In the Battle 4 Atlantis tournament later this month, Oregon and North Carolina could await. But by now, we shouldn’t be surprised when Gonzaga, new cast or old, starts fast.

#zagmbb #wcchoops #theslipperstillfits #zaghoops #zagup

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