Twenty-two months ago, this didn’t seem like a rivalry worth revisiting.
But a lot has changed since that dismal January evening in 2003, when Gonzaga University rolled into Memorial Coliseum and overwhelmed a grossly undermanned Portland State men’s basketball team 87-49.
In less than two years since their pitiful showing against GU, the Vikings have stockpiled a solid cast of talented players to complement veteran standout Seamus Boxley. And they come into tonight’s season-opening, non-conference rematch against the Bulldogs with a chance of avenging that embarrassing loss.
Tipoff is set for 7 at the McCarthey Athletic Center, the new $25 million, 6,000-seat arena that houses The Kennel. The contest will be the first official game staged in the Zags’ spiffy new digs, and a sellout crowd will be on hand to watch.
What they will see is a remarkably improved PSU team that has been picked by league coaches and members of the media to finish second to Eastern Washington University in this year’s Big Sky Conference title chase.
“This is their year,” GU coach Mark Few said of the Vikings, who got 21 points from Boxley, a 6-foot-7 senior forward, in their 91-62 exhibition rout of NCAA Division II St. Martin’s. “They postponed the series for a year, because they didn’t feel like they were competitive, and now they’re loaded for bear.
“Anytime you face a team that’s expected to be a major contender in their league, it’s a challenge.”
Boxley, a first-team All-Big Sky selection and the league’s defensive player of the year last season, can be a handful inside for any defense. And Blake Walker, a 6-5 senior guard who averaged a team-high 16.1 points last winter, is a perfect complement on the perimeter.
Third-year coach Heath Schroyer has built around Boxley with junior college transfers, including Walker and senior point guard Will Funn, who both played at San Bernardino (Calif.) Valley College. Funn, who started 24 games and led PSU in assists last season, had eight points, seven assists and seven steals in the Vikings’ exhibition win over St. Martin’s.
The Vikings finished 11-16 overall and 5-9 in the Big Sky last season.
Gonzaga is coming off a sensational 28-3 season, but is faced with having to replace five seniors from last year’s team – a task made more difficult by the fact that J.P. Batista, a 6-9, 269-pound junior transfer from Barton County (Kan.) Community College, still had not had his eligibility cleared by the NCAA as of Thursday evening and will probably not be available for tonight’s game.
GU officials are not commenting on the nature of Batista’s eligibility situation, but athletic director Mike Roth said earlier this week he is confident the matter will be resolved shortly and Batista will be in uniform for the Bulldogs.
In addition, the Zags will be without the services of junior guard Erroll Knight, who injured his hand in practice on Wednesday.
The doors at McCarthey Athletic Center will open 90 minutes prior to tipoff at all Gonzaga home games this season. … Both tonight’s game and Sunday’s 2 p.m. home matchup against Montana are sold out. … For the first time since 1994-95, GU will open its season with three consecutive home games. The Bulldogs entertain Idaho on Nov. 24. … PSU plays four of its first five games on the road. … The Zags have beaten the Vikings seven times in a row and lead the all-time series 15-6.
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