A GRIP ON SPORTS
The Gonzaga Bulldogs reached unprecedented heights during last college basketball regular season. How unprecedented? How about No. 1 in the land? Hard to get any higher than that. But that was last season. In our what-have-you-done-for-us-lately culture, we put that away with the Christmas decorations and ask about this year's team. Especially after a less-than-daunting preseason still resulted in two losses, an odd occurrence around the program. Which brings us to last night, the West Coast Conference opener against Santa Clara. Read on.
• We were in the Kennel last night, working for the Associated Press on a fill-in basis. Sort of like Ryan Edwards and Luke Meikle. Those were the two callow freshmen that filled in for Sam Dower Jr., out with a back injury suffered in a horrendous fall against Kansas State. But it wasn't just Dower who was hurt. Kevin Pangos is nursing a case of turf toe and it was aggravated last night, leading to a four-minute stretch in the training room. And Gary Bell hurt his shooting hand early in the contest, which led to a 1-of-4 night and the ignominy of having to high five everyone with his left hand. At one point late in the game, Angel Nunez (pictured), playing for the first time since becoming eligible after his transfer from Louisville, all 6-foot-8 and 200 pounds of him, was manning the 5 spot. Edwards and Meikle combined for 10 minutes, four points, three rebounds, one block and a foul in their all-hands-on-deck stint. But don't get the impression this is all about injuries. Nope. This is a Gonzaga group without an overwhelming presence. There's no Adam Morrison or Kelly Olynyk, no NBA first-round draft choices to ride to the rescue. As coach Mark Few told John Blanchette in the McCarthey Athletic Center halls afterward: “Every night will be like this. Literally, every night. This is who we are now. Where in the past we might have had enough to have an off night and still win by 20 at home, now we have to fight for our lives every night out. And if there’s any night we don’t bring fight, we have no chance.” And what does that remind you of? If you answered Gonzaga of 10, 15, even 20 years ago, you would be right. This is the throwback version of the Zags in an era when throwback usually only applies to jerseys. There is a the sneaky, smart point guard in David Stockton (he of the career-high 21 points last night), the high-scoring combo guard in Pangos, the fill-role guys like Drew Barham, Kyle Dranginis and the freshmen bigs. There is even the hard-to-move, hard-to-get-up-high-enough-to-dunk big guy in the middle in Przemek Karnowski and an athletic guy in Gerard Coleman that the coaching staff isn't quite sure what to make of. All those pieces have been in GU uniforms before, albeit spread over the years back in the day. The Blake Steppes, the Cory Violettes, the Richard Foxs, the Erroll Knights. Heck, even the Mark Spinks. They won not only through talent – and don't get me wrong, many of those players and this year's Zags were and are extremely skilled – but through brains, brawns and effort. Even when everyone gets healthy – it's easy to wonder if Pangos ever will – this team isn't a wow-you-in-the-airport group. Which is kind of fun, isn't it? The Zags at the turn of the century were a scrappy, underdog group that was easy to root for. The underdog label will never return, not with an arena that draws 6,000 of Spokane's finest even when the students are gone, but the scrappy part is still in the Bulldogs' DNA. And that's worth watching.
• WSU: If you've ever had your appendix out – I have and it nearly killed me – you know the pain Cougar leading scorer DaVonté Lacy was feeling Saturday. And it would have been worse if WSU had lost to overmatched Mississippi Valley State. But the Cougars didn't and Lacy could rest easy after surgery. Jacob Thorpe has the story of WSU's 85-48 rout, along with video of the players and Ken Bone postgame. He also has a morning post today with Pac-12 links. … Want to read something long and interesting? Then settle in and read this piece on Oregon coach Mark Helfrich's roots. … Michigan State will face Stanford in the Rose Bowl without its heart and soul on defense.
• Gonzaga: One other thing before I get to the links. The Kennel isn't the same place without the students. Not even close. The decibel level only really rose a couple of times during the game and quickly subsided when the action did. Say what you will about the propriety of some of the students' cheering but you can't deny the basis of the homecourt advantage lies in their section. OK, having really talented teams is the crux of it all, but 2,000 voices that never stop? That helps too. … Jim Meehan catches the essence of Saturday's 74-60 win perfectly in this game story and blog post. He'll be back later today with a morning-after post. … John Blanchette does the same with his column, though he catches the essence of this year's GU squad. … Jesse Tinsley caught all the images you would need in this photo story. … San Francisco stunned Portland with a late 3-pointer and an overtime victory. … Speaking of stunning, BYU's effort at Loyola-Marymount was just that. As was San Diego's at Pepperdine. … St. Mary's did not play, but the school named an interim coach to fill in while Randy Bennett is on NCAA-imposed furlough. … On the women's side, Gonzaga didn't hit its few-and-far-between free throw attempts – including one that would have won the game at the end of regulation – and lost to St. Mary's in overtime. The Gaels had one player attempt more foul shots than GU's team. … The USD women remained undefeated.
• EWU: Speaking of foul shots, No. 15 Connecticut connected on 25 of 27 in a 82-65 win over the visiting Eagles. Eastern was 6 of 7 from the free throw line. … Weber State is getting on a roll of sorts, defeating Northern New Mexico last night.
• Idaho: The Vandals can't seem to deal with prosperity. At least against Montana. They blew a 15-point lead against the Grizzlies at home for the second consecutive season, losing 72-71 Saturday. Josh Wright has more in this game story and blog post.
• Whitworth: Playing the No. 1 team in the nation, Division III style, is a challenge. And the Pirates weren't up to it Saturday, losing to Wisconsin-Stevens Point 93-75 in a tournament in Las Vegas.
• Chiefs: The WHL played a lot of back-to-back games this weekend coming out of the breaks and the Chiefs were one of the teams who couldn't sweep, even though the second night was at home. Chris Derrick has the story of Spokane's 2-1 loss to Kootenay. Chris also has a blog post with more. … Portland did sweep Tri-City while Everett went on the road and salvaged a split at Seattle.
• Seahawks: Today will tell the tale of the postseason. Win and CenturyLink is the tollbooth on the road to the Super Bowl from the NFC. Lose and the Hawks have to turn into road warriors. Which would you prefer? Me, I would like to see the Hawks win. That way if (or when?) they fall apart in the playoffs, the disappointment will be that much greater. Like many Northwest fans, we draw sustenance from failure. After all, we are so used to it. … The Rams gave Seattle all it could handle when the teams met earlier this year in St. Louis, but the Hawks say they are confident bunch coming in. Maybe it's because they have Russell Wilson back in the shotgun. He displays that Alfred E. Neuman persona, that “what, me worry” attitude. And that's a good thing. … What will next year look like in the Seattle sports scene? Larry Stone believes the Hawks will set the tone. … Finally, Thomas Clouse has a story in today's news section about a local man whose hawk (pictured) leads the way for the Seahawks.
• OK, leave me alone. It's Sunday and I want to spend the day with my RedZone family. We only bond about 17, 18 times a year, and this is the final one, so I'm tuning you folks out and spending quality time with my buds. Don't judge me. Until later …