For longtime Zag fans, it just gets weirder
03-12-20

So you’ve wondered about those funky, end-of-October closed scrimmages that college basketball teams stage at neutral sites? The ones unfettered by media coverage, fans or fanfare? What must the atmosphere be like?

Well, I guess we’re about to find out, to the deep chagrin of Gonzaga fans and the Spokane business community. Like a snowball rolling downhill from high on Kilimanjaro, the concern over the coronavirus claimed another victim Wednesday, as NCAA president Mark Emmert decreed that tournament games would go on only with “essential staff and limited family attendance.”

(That’s if there’s a tournament at all. I wouldn’t bet your 401K on it.)

So, Zag fans, unless Ancestry.com can vouch for your tight relationship with Killian Tillie or Martynas Arlauskas, you’ve got no shot of getting into Spokane Arena next week.

Moments before Emmert weighed in, I heard a well known hoops analyst on Sirius radio say that he thought what was happening – at that time, attendance bans on conference tournaments – was overreaction. I think that’s a rash statement, tantamount to saying, “We know better. This isn’t that serious.” Well, we don’t know better. We don’t know what we’re dealing with, and when experts like Dr. Anthony Fauci, head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, issues sobering warnings, we’d be foolish not to listen.

Basketball is a pretty small slice of life right now, let’s be honest.

Still, Zag fans can only shake their heads at a numbing irony. For all the serendipity that has kissed them over the years with a ludicrously successful program, it’s seemingly beyond the pale for the Zags to play the first weekend of the NCAA tournament at Spokane Arena. With fans there, I mean.

This is going to be the sixth time Spokane Arena has hosted the subregionals. To stay home, a team needs a “protected” seed, which means no worse than a 5, probably a 4. Against reasonable odds, the Zags never have been able to line up one of their premier teams with one of those years when WSU or Idaho hosted the Spokane subregional (GU isn’t official host of those games, partly because that would cancel the ability to stay home).

The Arena has hosted in 2003, 2007, 2010, 2014 and 2016. Always, the Zags were betwixt and between. In ’03, Dan Dickau had just left. In ’07, the Josh Heytvelt drama hit. In 2010, they were a year past one of their best rosters. In ’14 and ’16, they were either a year before or after some of their most talented teams.

It was dodgeball gone bananas.

And then came 2019-2020, a confluence of Spokane hosting and an impending No. 1 seed by the Zags. It was going to be so cool. It was going to be one of the shortest distances in NCAA history from a protected seed’s campus to the host arena – what, maybe a mile and a half?

What could go wrong? Not Saint Mary’s or BYU, but … the coronavirus.

You have to hurt for the businesses this will impact. And for players like Tillie, who has soldiered through an incessant string of injuries to come out the other side a senior, ready to create a final bang. And yes, to a lesser degree, you hurt for the fans.

But they’re used to it. Remember how, when the Zags were only an ascendant force, not a national colossus, Gonzaga lobbied the WCC to play the league tournament at a neutral site such as Oakland rather than have to risk everything at a WCC bandbox? They played in the pre-McCarthey Kennel (capacity 2,600-2,800, according to athletic director Mike Roth), not big enough to host the tournament, so it annually went someplace like Santa Clara or San Diego.

Of course, they built the McCarthey by 2004, so at last they were voted the host berth for 2006, which, after all those years, only seemed poetic. To everybody, anyway, except USF coach Jessie Evans. Stating his case for a California school to host it, he said something very much like, “Who wants to go to Spokane?”

Sure, who would want to go to a basketball hotbed that cares passionately about hosting the event?

Bottom line: For all the celestial basketball that has graced GU fans over the years, marrying the Zags to a post-season event in Spokane has been akin to an ultramarathoner tackling a mountain trail with a 60-pound sack of concrete strapped to his back.

So here we are. What a break for the 8 or 9 seed opposite the Zags. It was going to have to face a noisy partisan crowd. Now, aside from the travel to Spokane, it has to overcome … crickets.

Small solace for Spokane, but know this: It’s going to get moved to the front burner when the next round of future NCAA sites gets awarded.

Unfortunately, the next such available games, as I read it, are in 2023. When each day brings so much uncertainty, that seems like a long way away.


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