Huskies, Cougars and the Zag schedule
02-20-18

Washington is 18-9 and seated squarely on the NCAA-tournament bubble. Washington State is mucking through a 10-16 season and the only real motivation of consequence is to unhinge itself from Cal, its fellow Pac-12 cellar-dweller.

What, if anything, do the respective seasons at Washington and Washington State say about how Gonzaga ought to schedule in the near future?

Plenty, in my mind.

Some backdrop first: In Glory Hounds, Zags coach Mark Few made it plain to me he was done with the Cougars, and inclined to be done with the Huskies. I don’t think it’s mischaracterizing his thoughts to say he believes his program is past all that.

So, what do we take from the 2017-18 seasons of the Zags’ in-state brothers?

First, WSU: Somehow, after taking down Saint Mary’s on Thanksgiving weekend, and then San Diego State, the Cougars have turned a 6-0 start into mush with a lot of bad basketball. They’ve done nothing to discourage the Zag view of playing the Cougars every other year in Pullman as a trip -- albeit a short one -- akin to going to Loyola Marymount or Santa Clara, with absolutely nothing to gain and everything to lose, in front of a largely hostile crowd.

I agree with Few on this one.

Think about some numbers here: Last spring, Gonzaga very nearly won six NCAA-tournament games in 18 days. The Cougars have won six NCAA-tournament games in their history.

If you take away the three years of Tony Bennett (2007-09), and go back two decades to the 1997-98 season, WSU is, in Pac-10/12 play, 162 games under .500.

The Cougars haven’t so much as won a game in the Pac-12 tournament since Bennett’s last year of 2009. Since then, Gonzaga has won 15 games in the NCAA tournament.

I get the argument from the traditionalists (hey, I’m one too; the Christmas tree not only has to be live, but big). You’re neighbors, and neighbors should play through thick and thin, and this was a series started 110 years ago. Indeed, that’s a valid argument.

But times change. Needs change. Gonzaga gets nothing out of playing Washington State, except risk, and don’t counter with the notion that the Cougars always used to accommodate Gonzaga in different times. Only in the early ‘80s, when WSU teams under George Raveling won NCAA at-large berths and were playing Gonzaga, was there real risk involved. By the time the Cougars next made the tournament (1994), Kelvin Sampson had shut down the series with the Zags.

With a mere couple of exceptions, then, over the decades the only thing the Cougars risked was a loss of face. You know, big school loses to little school.

If there were a shred of commonality between the two programs -- if, say, WSU had a computer rating of 115 instead of near 200 -- I might be persuaded otherwise. The Zag-Cougar collisions during the Bennett years were truly seismic. But until WSU rises to mid-Pac-12 level, I wouldn’t schedule the game, either.

Meanwhile, I’ll take the same tack on the Huskies as I took in the book: You play them.

True, Gonzaga has dominated Washington mercilessly during its glory run, including a 97-70 beatdown in December at Hec Ed. But here are the Huskies, threatening to make the NCAA tournament in Mike Hopkins’ first year.

(A couple of observations on that: As marvelous as have the Huskies performed, and Hopkins debuted, in some measure it’s flattered by the fact that Washington massively underachieved last year, going 9-22. Second, in coaching the zone defense, Hopkins has discovered something stunning and confounding: Many offenses are evincing no clue what to do when they get the ball to the high post, with options. Who knew?)

Few’s contention a couple of years ago was that Gonzaga needs high-profile pelts for its post-season resume, and the Huskies, under Lorenzo Romar, began falling short of that standard. True, but many years in the recent past, Washington has been at least within shouting distance of NCAA-tournament level. And they were a tournament regular in Romar’s early years.

Too, the prospect that Hopkins’ regime continues on a positive arc, combined with the rich Seattle prep talent pool and the likelihood that Washington continues to prosper from it, argues for keeping that series intact. It seems to be a fan favorite (especially Gonzaga fans).

Even if Gonzaga stays dominant, it can’t hurt the Zags to showcase that superiority to the west side.

For Few, this could be the sticky part: If he should choose to curtail relations with the Huskies, he might well be seen exactly as Washington was when it announced a stoppage in the series in 2006. The Huskies were roundly criticized for it, and I think the outcry took Washington aback.

You’d like to think Hopkins, a likable figure who seemed to give Gonzaga great respect in December, has shown enough chops in his first year for the Zags to want to make that an arrangement into the future. Especially if the separation with the Cougars is a lasting one.


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