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The road is the best place to learn

A GRIP ON SPORTS

Watching a college basketball team on television is one thing. Watching that same team at live while it plays at home is another. But the best read on most college teams comes in person on the road. Read on.


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• Over the years I've been lucky enough to cover a variety of college basketball teams in hostile environments, from the pit that was Fresno State's Selland Arena many decades ago to, much more recently, watching Washington State have to deal with North Carolina in a “neutral” Charlotte during the NCAA tournament. So when the opportunity arose last night to observe Gonzaga up close in Pepperdine's not-as-good-as-many-high-schools gym, I jumped at it. Firestone Fieldhouse was once a state-of-the-art basketball facility with a futuristic rubber/composite floor and a bunch of rabid fans. Now it's a sad old building with a few new amenities (a large video scoreboard and a bunch of new paint) and a group of students who tried hard to take Gonzaga out of its game. They couldn't. But the Gonzaga players were able to return the favor. And, while doing so, they showed the essence of this year's Bulldogs. There have been many more talented Gonzaga teams in Mark Few's tenure but this Zag group has the opportunity its as tough as any in his, or Dan Monson's or even Dan Fitzgerald's careers. Pepperdine isn't a great college basketball team but it competes. And for 10 minutes, on its home court, the Waves did more than that. They battled and fought and threw themselves around enough to lead 18-16 when Malcolm Brooks drove and scored. At which point everything changed.

• There have been times over the years when Gonzaga would just put its offense in overdrive, push the pedal down and run away from teams, using its skilled athletes to outscore the opposition. This team isn't going to do that as often, in part because the WCC has improved from the bottom up and in part because there just isn't as many Bulldogs with those type of skills right now. But this team can put together runs in a different matter. Often in the past, the GU offense seemed to key the defense. Shots fell, the energy level went up and the defense stiffened. It's tougher to do it the other way, to pick up the intensity on defense, force the other team's offense into neutral and build a lead possession by possession. But that's what this group can do. And did last night. After Pepperdine took that 18-16 lead, the Zags became true bulldogs on defense. They doubled ball screens. They rotated into help quicker. They attacked the post, helped the helper, got hands on balls. Over the next seven Wave possessions there were four turnovers and three missed shots, all taken under duress. The amped-up defense keyed GU's break, leading to eight quick points. Finally, Stacy Davis muscled inside for Pepperdine bucket. It was just a blip. Eight more empty possessions ensued for the Waves, and 15 consecutive Zag points. The 23-2 run shut up the students and ensured the Bulldogs' fifth WCC win of the season, though their first on the road. See, thanks to an odd conference schedule, GU didn't venture out of the Kennel until last Thursday when Portland rode their crowd and effort to 82-73 win over the Zags. But this group is quick learners. They heeded the lessons. They have to win 50-50 balls. They have to give maximum effort on both ends. There is no star, no first-round draft pick who is going to bail them out. It's going to be a grind. A hard, pothole-filled road that needs to be navigated if they want to win another WCC title.

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• WSU: Kind of a quiet day with the Cougs between Pac-12 road games, but Jacob Thorpe took some time to look back at the Stanford loss as well as check around the conference in this morning's post. … It seems to be a good day to look ahead as well, as a couple of folks take a stab at next fall's football races, one individual and one for the teams.

• Gonzaga: I sat next to Jim Meehan last night while he covered the game and then tried to help with quotes from the Pepperdine coach. But alas, after waiting more than 15 minutes, Marty Wilson had not emerged from the locker room, so you won't see his thoughts in Jim's game story. But you can read Jim's observations in his blog post from last night and his day-after post this morning. … USD rallied in the second half to get past Santa Clara on the road. It was a win San Diego needed badly. … BYU won on the road as well, taking down USF. … Make it a sweep for the road teams as Portland won at Loyola.

• EWU: When the shots don't fall, the Eagles do. In a nutshell, that's been their Big Sky season thus far. Eastern struggled from the outside last night and struggled against Northern Arizona, losing 84-65 in Flagstaff. … Portland State broke a 20-game road losing streak with a 68-64 win at Sacramento State. … Idaho State had little trouble with Southern Utah. … Montana State handed Northern Colorado its first conference loss while Montana got back on the winning track. … The Eastern women picked up an easy win.

• Idaho: The tough season continued for the Vandals with a 71-66 loss at home to WAC-leading Utah Valley.

• Chiefs: Spokane didn't need to – or want to – make wholesale changes at the trade deadline this year, so it didn't. Chris Derrick has more in this story and blog post. … The Americans will try to turn things around this weekend.

• Preps: There are ways to earn an athletic scholarship to college and a lot of people willing to tell you how. Jim Allen was at a speech by one of the more respected ones last night and filed this story. … We can also pass along a roundup of Thursday night's action.

• Seahawks: This time tomorrow we will … well, we will still be waiting. Yep, we have to wait until Sunday for the NFC championship game with the 49ers. … The coaches have a lot of similarities in football styles but personal style? That's something else entirely. The Hawks' Doug Baldwin has played for both and he prefers the one he is playing for now. … Like many folks, Derrick Coleman has a hearing deficiency. But unlike many folks, Coleman has a soapbox. He's using it. … The two quarterbacks are the faces of their respective franchises. Last year, Colin Kapernick led his team to the Super Bowl. Jerry Brewer feels Russell Wilson can do that this season for the Hawks, if he's given the opportunity. … Yes, there are injured players for both teams. And yes, Percy Harvin is one of those for the Hawks. … Seattle's offensive line may finally be settling down. … The 49ers have had some heated rivalries before but the Hawks are their best right now. … A season is made up of a series of big plays. For the 49ers, many of those have been made by Anquan Boldin (pictured). … The 49ers want to run the ball. Everyone, including Seattle defensive coordinator Dan Quinn, knows that. … I do believe I made this comparison a few months ago.

• Mariners: The M's made John Buck's signing official. … Major league baseball gave its approval to more instant replay for next season.

• Sounders: Seattle tried to make its defense better in the MLS SuperDraft yesterday, taking two defenders early.

•••

• For fun yesterday afternoon I tried to drive down a private road to soak in the ambience of where Jim Rockford's trailer sat in the 1970s TV show. Only problem is the guard wouldn't let me through the gate unless I paid a fee. No thanks. It wasn't that important. So I had to be satisfied with just catching a glimpse of where Jim and Angel and Dennis used to sit around between adventures. Until later …


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Chris Derrick Chris Derrick is a sports reporter. His primary coverage areas are the Spokane Chiefs, Spokane Indians, women's basketball and high school softball and volleyball. He also contributes to the SportsLink Blog.

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Sean Kramer Sean Kramer is a freelance correspondent who covers the University of Idaho football team and men's basketball team.

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Vince Grippi is the online producer for SportsLink, a product of The Spokesman-Review.

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