Spokane Arena (and the Zags) take another whack at it

The NCAA announced future NCAA subregional and regional sites Tuesday, and it was good news for Northwest college hoops fans -- Seattle (2019), Spokane (2020), Boise (2021) and Portland (2022) all got first- and second-round action, which is merely the best weekend in all of sports. Essentially, it means that anybody in three Northwest states can drive to see the Madness.

(I’m not quite sure how the assignment of games to Seattle’s KeyArena would dovetail with two proposals to do massive renovations to the building in the ongoing -- make that never-ending -- discussion of attracting the NBA and NHL to the city. Either players are going to be executing crossover dribbles amid wrecking balls and exposed rebar, or the successful NCAA bid only serves to underscore how interminable this process is.)

This will be the sixth time the Spokane Arena has hosted an NCAA men’s subregional, and the award reminds us of an oddity in Gonzaga’s glory years of 19 straight NCAA tournaments.

Never have the Zags played an NCAA-tournament game there. And they could have.

Sending them elsewhere in years when Spokane Arena is hosting isn't the slam-dunk you might think. Essentially, it could have happened -- more than once -- if three thresholds were reached:

-- The subregional’s host school can’t be one of the eight teams assigned to the site. Gonzaga qualifies there; Idaho is now handling the chores of hosting, while Washington State did it in the past.

-- A school can’t play more than three games at the arena in question -- or that’s considered a home floor, and about three decades ago, the NCAA took tournament games off home floors.

-- A team must land one of the basketball committee’s so-called “protected” seeds -- that is, top four (16 overall). The NCAA couches this in terms of protecting those teams from a “potential home-crowd disadvantage,” but what it equates to is, putting them in the most friendly site available.

Offhand, I can’t think of a much friendlier place for the Zags than Spokane Arena. It’s about a mile and a half from the GU campus.

At any rate, it’s more than a little quirky that, in 19 years of making tournaments, Spokane Arena has never lined up for them.

Consider: Seven times since 2003, the first time Spokane Arena hosted the men’s sub-regionals, Gonzaga has earned a No. 4 seed or better. And five times the Arena has hosted. That’s a bunch of occasions when it could have happened.

Except: Every time Spokane has had the event, Gonzaga has had one of its less dominant teams, falling far from the magic No. 4 seed line.

-- 2003: Gonzaga, a No. 9 seed, played in Salt Lake City, beating Cincinnati and playing a memorable, double-overtime loss to top-seed Arizona.

-- 2007: While Kevin Durant’s brief college career was ending in a blowout against USC at Spokane Arena, Gonzaga, a 10 seed, was getting eliminated in the first round in Sacramento by Kelvin Sampson’s Indiana team, only weeks after Josh Heytvelt’s arrest left GU short-handed.

-- 2010: Michigan State and Maryland advanced to the Sweet 16 in Spokane, while the Zags were sent east to Buffalo as a No. 8 seed.

-- 2014: Michigan State (hello again, Jud Heathcote) and San Diego State reached the round of 16, while Gonzaga went to San Diego as an 8 seed.

-- 2016: Top-seeded Oregon survived a big upset bid by St. Joseph’s in the second round at the Arena, while the Zags were off to Denver (and damn happy to be in the tournament at all) on their way to the Sweet 16.

I always wanted to see the look on the face of some unsuspecting No. 5 seed from three time zones away when it realized it was going to be matched up in a second-round game at Spokane Arena with fourth-seeded Gonzaga, which could pile in a couple of vans to make the road trip.

I wrote about this a few years ago, and I think it still holds. In the era of no home floors for the NCAA tournament, I believe the nearest an NCAA participant’s campus was to a neutral floor was Georgia State, in downtown Atlanta, maybe a five-dollar cab ride to the Georgia Dome. Make no mistake, Georgia State was no protected seed in 1991; it was a No. 16, and got demolished, 117-76, by Arkansas. (The committee must have figured it really didn’t matter.)

The year 2020 seems a long way off. Who knows what Gonzaga might look like in three seasons? Ostensibly, that’s a roster that could include Killian Tillie, Jacob Larsen, Rui Hachimura, Zach Norvell, Corey Kispert and Jesse Wade. Maybe that’s the season of home cooking in March.