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Bud Withers' Blog

For this Zags-Huskies matchup, crickets

A funny thing happened on the way to the renewal of the once-sizzling Washington-Gonzaga basketball rivalry: Nobody cared.

Well, that's not completely true. I'm guessing there will be 6,000 people in an hour at the McCarthey Athletic Center who will care quite a bit about it, as well as the entire fan base of Zag Nation (every college rooting constituency is a Nation these days).

And there are no doubt diehard Husky fans curious to see whether their team can hold up against one of the Zags' most imposing outfits yet.

But when you compare the buildup to this game -- which does, after all, mark the warming of a once-frigid relationship between the two schools -- it pales in comparison to the slings, arrows and verbal barbs that accompanied the Cold War that preceded this.

Recall that when the Huskies curtailed the series in advance of the 2006 game, they did it to further the cause of a "national schedule." That drew a lot of snickers from Gonzaga fans, and a TV camera picked up Zags coach Mark Few saying, "If I'd lost to somebody eight times in nine years, I'd probably want to cancel the series, too." Naturally, that drew major catcalls from Washington partisans.

Virtually forgotten -- or at least unmentioned in contemporary reports -- is the "offer" the Huskies made to Gonzaga in the fall of 2009 of a three-year contract to stage the game at KeyArena. Sure, the 17,000 Key was 5,000 bigger than any other reasonable alternative (the Spokane Arena), but that would have meant Washington was annually traveling four miles for the game, while Gonzaga was doing an overnight 285 miles away.

The Zags laughed at that one, and I can't say I blame them. No doubt that would have been a rousing restart to the series -- virtually guaranteed to sell out -- but Gonzaga would have been at a decided disadvantage.

UW's then-athletic director, Scott Woodward, made that proposal to his GU counterpart, Mike Roth, at about 5 p.m. one day via e-mail. Roth, leaving his office at quitting time, felt he didn't have time even to review the terms before the Huskies leaked it to the media.

Of course, Gonzaga eventually rejected it, Few saying something to the effect that he would have a baby with "Bigfoot" before the Zags would do something like that.

As the years passed, the public passion for the series seemed to wane rather than intensify. Maybe that's what the two sides preferred -- a turndown of the heat around the game.

Or maybe that's what happens when the distance between the programs becomes a gulf. When they tip it off in Spokane tonight, the Zags' RPI computer ranking will be No. 8, the Huskies' No. 180. Surely that's the largest such spread at game time since around the turn of the millennium, when the Zags were getting to three straight Sweet 16s and Washington was nearing the end of the Bob Bender era.

And even if they had been playing every year in the interim, that might still be the largest gap.

So the hubbub around this one is less than fervent. Newspapers have essentially sort of yawned about it. An informal poll on KJR AM Wednesday afternoon found about 75 percent of respondents believing a Washington victory over Alabama in the national football semifinals is a greater likelihood than a UW win at Gonzaga.

That's skepticism, bordering on apathy. We'll see if the Huskies can rouse their faithful to believing tonight.

#uwhuskies #ZagsMBB

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UW, Gonzaga and the home fires


Among the various points of contention when Washington and Gonzaga began a dance aimed at resuming their basketball rivalry was this: Where to resume it?

The Huskies, naturally, wanted it at their place. They argued that the last game (not counting the neutral-site matchup last year in the Bahamas) before the series ended was at Gonzaga (in December of 2006), so it only made sense to restart it at Hec Edmundson Pavilion.

Gonzaga said no dice. You ended the series, they countered, so we hold the cards on where it picks up.

The Zags won out, of course, getting the game in Spokane, and that could be important when east and west meet again Wednesday night.

There is precedent that it matters. In 2004, shortly after Gonzaga opened the McCarthey Athletic Center, the 14th-ranked Huskies were coming off a tournament victory at the Great Alaska Shootout, and when they added another trip, to Spokane, an Adam Morrison-Ronny Turiaf-Derek Raivio team thwarted the Huskies in an extremely high-level game.

A year later, the Zags, after a memorable, third-place trip to the Maui Invitational, played at Hec Ed in early December and lost 99-95 to a Brandon Roy Husky team. (If you saw those two games, you’d have a hard time not arguing the series should have continued.)

Home court was worth a lot in those instances. Whether it matters again Wednesday night might be viewed as debatable, what with Gonzaga now ranked No. 6 by the coaches, and the Huskies scrapping to remain relevant.

But think of it this way: Washington played last Wednesday night, and will have had a week to plot against the Zags. Gonzaga (8-0) spent the latter half of last week dealing with No. 16 Arizona -- albeit injured and depleted Arizona -- so the Huskies have a decided edge in prep time. Washington hosting the game, especially with the Zags having just traveled, would have cut further into that edge.

This could be tantamount to a crusade game for the Huskies (4-3), who have underperformed to date. They could turn the ship around in a mere two hours by getting a win that perhaps nobody else will this season at the MAC.

Two obvious narratives: How Gonzaga deals with the Huskies’ uber-freshman, Markelle Fultz; and how Washington acquits itself against the balance of the Zags.

Fultz will probably see several different Zag defenders, including Jordan Mathews and Silas Melson, and it’s routine for Gonzaga to throw up some zone in such situations, though Fultz (.481) and the Huskies (.424) shoot the three well.

On the other side, there’s this ridiculous stat, which must be unequaled anywhere in Division 1 basketball: Through Gonzaga’s first six games -- three against NCAA-tournament-worthy opposition -- the Zags had seven different players either lead them in scoring or tie for it.

Both teams have functioned well on offense. Washington shoots .492 and Gonzaga .484, the Zags ranking a healthy 12th in Ken Pomeroy’s adjusted offensive ratings. Washington’s biggest concern must be its defensive chops -- or lack thereof; No. 160 by KenPom -- against the offensively adroit Zags. Five GU players average in double figures and a sixth, Mathews, is at 9.1.

Gonzaga has an efficient team assist-turnover ratio of 1.33-to-1, while the Huskies are a shade on the negative side in that category.

And a final item on Washington’s to-do list: In three games against NCAA-tournament-level teams -- Yale and TCU (twice), the Huskies sent the opposition to the foul line 95 times. Gonzaga hurt Washington a year ago inside in the Bahamas matchup, and can (and will) send waves of bigs at the Huskies, who can’t afford to be dominated down deep.

As the series resumes, they’re already conceding a bunch of decibels to the Zags.
#uwhuskies #ZagsMBB

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


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: )

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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