For this Zags-Huskies matchup, crickets
12-08-16

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.


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