Zags-Huskies in the NCAA: It could happen

So … might it happen this March? Might the Gonzaga-Washington series, previously truncated and occasionally tortured, resume in the NCAA tournament?

And would Gonzaga want that?

OK, I get it: It’s way premature and there are other bigger fish to fry. Gonzaga is licking wounds applied by Saint Mary’s Tuesday night. Washington is still doing business in the Pac-12 tournament. But hey, in the days leading to Selection Sunday, let’s speculate. It’s not just whistling in the wind, it’s a real possibility as a second-round matchup. Don't anybody get overly lathered about it, but file it away, just in case.

It appears there’s more than a passing chance that the two could line up in the second round. The Zags’ WCC-finals loss either leaves them as a No. 1 seed, or, depending on other results, drops them to a 2. So if Washington rates from a 7-10 seed, the possibility is live. Gonzaga is going to be placed in the West, and Washington would need to join GU there, and they'd each have to advance.

Remember, a good many bracket analysts through January and February have had the UW as an 8 or 9, and the Zags a 1, in the same region.

Here is probably a good place to insert the disclaimer that we don’t know with certainty that Washington is in the tournament, but its quarterfinal win over USC Thursday in Vegas surely helped. And its fate Friday night (and Saturday, potentially) will have a lot to say about its seed. My guess is that even winning the tournament wouldn’t kick them higher than a 7 seed.

Let’s dig deeper:


On Dec. 5, the two teams met in Spokane, and in an expected sizzler, Gonzaga pulled out an 81-79 victory on Rui Hachimura’s elbow jumper inside the final second. It was the Huskies’ first competitive effort against GU in well, years and years (owing partly to the nine-year hiatus in the series exacted by ex-UW coach Lorenzo Romar).

I reviewed that game tape and came away with several impressions, probably the most prominent that Washington seemed comfortable running its offense against the Zag defense. Indeed, the Huskies shot a healthy 47.5 percent to GU’s 42.9, and as noted in this space a couple of times, Gonzaga had historically shot the lights out against Washington – eight straight times of 50 percent or better.

The biggest problem for GU was Jaylen Nowell, who had 26 points and six assists. The Zags tried Corey Kispert, Zach Norvell and Josh Perkins on him at various times, mostly without success. Kispert isn’t quick enough and Perkins, needing to conserve energy for the other end of the floor, isn’t ideal. So if it happens, it’s probably going to fall largely to Norvell.

Essentially, the Husky offense flourished because of slashing drives by Nowell and Matisse Thybulle (18 points, four assists), and when they didn’t have openings themselves, they flung it out to the perimeter for teammates’ threes.

Other takeaways:

-- Filip Petrusev was hugely important for Gonzaga, with nine points and three rebounds in 14 minutes.

-- This was one of Brandon Clarke’s poorer games; he went 4 of 11 from the field and had five turnovers. He never looked comfortable on offense, including on scoring opportunities from the high post. (An aside: The Huskies seem oddly willing to concede damage from the high post, almost as if to say the shot is something opposition big guys can’t convert. And indeed, a couple of times, Clarke obliged with leaning attempts, trying to make a 13-footer an 8-footer.)

-- When Washington elevated its matchup zone defense – collapsing its bigs farther toward the foul line to confront penetration – the Zags hurt the Huskies a few times by getting the ball to the corner for baseline drives.

-- My guess is, upon review of tape, the Zags saw several cringe-worthy moments down the stretch, when they were, frankly, horrible. Perkins got caught at the end of a shot clock taking an off-balance mid-range attempt that misfired, GU didn’t get back and Washington pushed the ball and hit Thybulle for a dunk with 35 seconds left. Then Norvell, with 17 seconds showing and 13 on the shot clock, drove the baseline and missed a three-footer, not using the backboard, to give the UW a final possession on which it tied the game.

-- With 4:50 left and GU ahead 73-62, Kispert missed an open three that very likely would have turned the lights out on the Huskies. Instead, they returned fire with their own three, so a potential 14-point lead quickly became eight points.


For one, the presence of Geno Crandall and Killian Tillie, unavailable in the first game, would help GU. Crandall is a good match for UW guard David Crisp, who has shown the ability to get hot. Tillie, coming off his foot injury, should be ready for perhaps 20 minutes a game the first weekend, and he was a key figure when GU throttled Washington 15 months ago in Seattle.

Probably the biggest imponderable is this: How much has each team improved since Dec. 5? The Huskies made significant advancement, then struggled down the stretch before the USC victory. Perhaps the biggest strides have been made in Gonzaga’s defense, which was spotty early but is now top-20.


My sense is that the rivalry has cooled. For one, Gonzaga has dominated the Huskies for a long time. And there’s that long interruption in the series from 2006-15. Too, Romar is out now, so there’s no immediate connection to the ruffled feelings of years past, although Cameron Dollar is on the UW staff. Mark Few and the UW’s Mike Hopkins seem to have a healthy relationship.

For two reasons, I don’t think it’s a good game for Gonzaga. First, Washington’s defense is a curveball for anybody it plays, and the last thing the Zags need after the schooling by Saint Mary’s and its possession game is curveballs. Having seen the zone this season probably would help Gonzaga, however.

Second, to whatever degree the rivalry provides a sideshow, there’s that amount less focus on the task at hand. Gonzaga would have to entertain off-day questions about the rivalry, about how much attention they pay the Huskies, etc., etc. For Washington, the nothing-to-lose element might be deepened by the chance to get back at a rival (a one-time rival, anyway).

I’d give it maybe a 25-30 percent chance of happening. Obviously, the selection committee has to comply. And each would need to win a game in the tournament to get there. At the very least, it's something to watch as the bracket is revealed Sunday.

Yeah, it would create a stir. But for Gonzaga, I suspect the thinking is: Who needs it?