For the Zags, some downbeat deja vu ...
02-25-17

Saturday night, Brigham Young comes to the Kennel, party to a coronation. At least that’s what the script says. Gonzaga has a chance to become one of college basketball’s rarities, a team negotiating the regular season unbeaten.

(According to my browse through the NCAA record book, there have been 12 Division I teams that finished a complete season unbeaten and another 15 that went undefeated in the regular season but lost in the post-season.)

Indulge me here, Zag fans, with a bit of déjà vu that seems like it couldn’t have been more than, oh, 36 years ago.

What’s that you say? It was.

In writing for three Northwest newspapers over 45 years, I was blessed to cover two different college basketball teams that attained a No. 1 ranking. What are the odds, in this neck of the woods?

The latter was Gonzaga’s 2013 outfit that slipped into the top spot early in March and had it three weeks before Wichita State happened. You know that story.

My first brush with No. 1 was in 1980-81, working for the Eugene Register-Guard and tagging after Ralph Miller’s irresistible, homegrown Oregon State outfit. It rose, improbably, to a No. 1 ranking in January of ’81 and proceeded to hold a piece, or all, of the top spots in either the Associated Press or United Press International (coaches) polls all the way into March -- eight weeks.

I could regale you for hours with Ralph stories. Ralph was just, well, Ralph, a bespectacled, wrinkled larger-than-life guy whose open practices consisted of him sitting on the sideline at mid-court, chain-smoking brown More cigarettes while occasionally barking at his players. He was also somebody who routinely invited the press to his road hotel suite after games, to down a couple of drinks and listen to him tell tales of a long career coaching at Wichita State and Iowa.

Anyway, Ralph had the team of his life that year, a pressing, running group dotted by several Oregonians, including Portland-area guards Mark Radford and Ray Blume and McMinnville’s Charlie Sitton. It blew through the Pac-10, surviving a close game at Arizona State, and it was the toast of the state of Oregon. It’s worth noting that while this was going on, Mark Few’s Creswell High team just south of Eugene was also No. 1 in Oregon’s AA high school rankings, and he has said the Beavers were sort of a collegiate role model for that prep team. (In my Gonzaga book, “Glory Hounds,” Few’s teammate Randy Schott told me they considered themselves the prep version of OSU.)

The Beavers were unbeatable, or so it seemed. The season wound down, and, back in the days before there was a Pac-10 conference tournament, they were 26-0 and on the precipice of going unbeaten in the regular season and into the NCAA tournament. The team earned the nickname “The Orange Express,” and toward the end of their staccato victories, their terrific radio play-by-play man, Darrell Aune, would roar, “The Orange Express is ro-o-o-llin’!”

Came the last Saturday of the regular season, and all OSU had to do was win on Senior Day to complete the perfect year. Surely, at home in front of the adoring crowd at Gill Coliseum, this would be a mere formality.

That’s the afternoon that, for ever after, made me wonder what effect the sweet sentimentality of handing roses to your mom on Senior Day has on the hard business of maintaining the mental edge to compete.

That’s also the day we realized how outrageously talented fifth-ranked Arizona State was -- more than Oregon State. It had Lafayette Lever and Byron Scott at guard, two guys who had lengthy careers in the NBA. It had seven-foot Alton Lister, a future Seattle SuperSonic, at center.

At halftime, it was 40-20, Arizona State. This was back in the days before the three-point shot. The sellout crowd was stunned beyond description. This can’t, couldn’t, shouldn’t be happening.

OSU made a wan charge in the second half, getting the deficit back to 12 as I remember, but the motivated Sun Devils weren’t to be denied. They won by the preposterous score of 87-67 -- I don’t even have to look it up -- and it was such a signal occasion that three and a half decades later, the ASU basketball press guide has the boxscore of the game as a stand-alone item in its historical section.

Worse, that OSU team would never win again. It fell to Kansas State in its first game of the NCAA tournament, still the most devastating loss in school history.

There was a popular motel then in Corvallis, Nendel’s, and that’s where the Sun Devils were staying. I still remember Alton Lister on the dance floor of the hotel bar that night, boogieing at the expense of the Beavers.

To be clear, I don’t see anything like this spoiling Gonzaga’s celebration Saturday night. The Zags are too good, too focused, too hell-bent on history to have BYU mess it up now. Gonzaga has the advantage of the bitter memory of two straight Brigham Young victories in the Kennel in 2015-16 (the first on Senior Night) and this is a lesser Cougar team than those.

And Fat Lever ain’t walking into that BYU locker room, and Byron Scott, who shot 11 for 14 that day, won’t be casting perimeter jumpers.

If there’s a moral, maybe it’s this: Enjoy the ride, and don’t take anything for granted.


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