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Blanchette: rare meeting of midmajor powers

Tue., Dec. 20, 2011, 10:53 p.m.

It is rare – in the same way that finding a touch of refinement on “Jersey Shore” is rare – that the Gonzaga Bulldogs hook up with one of their own and can legitimately regard themselves as the hunter, even if the distinction can be debated.

And by “one of their own,” we mean the tiny club of basketball schools that don’t run with those trying to turn college athletics into their own megalopolis – but have established themselves as name perennials in ways that, oh, Iona and Cleveland State haven’t.

Gonzaga. Butler. A few other aspirants.

The two Bulldogs programs get thrown together in a lot of sentences and on Tuesday were thrown together in the same gym, the Zags prevailing 71-55 at The Kennel with another mostly solid effort over a Butler team that has lost four of its last five and, while still a handful, is not what you remember from where you became familiar with it:

The last two NCAA championship games.

This is a step that has so far escaped the Zags in their Golden Age and seeded some envy and grouchiness out there among the Cult of More. New to the neighborhood, Gonzaga freshman Kevin Pangos simply allowed how “it was pretty cool having them in the building” – then went out and carved up the visiting Bulldogs with a delicious 19-point turn.

Butler has lost seven games already and may well lose that many more – but so what? They lost 10 and were still playing for the big hunk of walnut last year. Besides, what the Zags extracted from this game may be of more value down the line than their other November and December outings.

“Absolutely – nothing comes easy against them,” said Gonzaga coach Mark Few. “Defensive stops don’t, rebounds don’t, scores don’t. They wear teams down, frustrate them, make them take shots or impossible passes out of frustration. They’re just a hard out.”

What was made clear Tuesday is that these programs play with different rhythms and, for all their relatable accomplishments, are not twin sons of different mothers. Still, the Indianapolis school’s Final Four breakthroughs have made for some interesting gains.

“Our university admissions applications jumped 43 percent last year,” reported athletic director Barry Collier. “A good year is a three or four percent increase.”

Sound familiar?

“The publicity value has been phenomenal,” he said. “We did a media study and the figure they came up with was $1.1 billion. We couldn’t afford something like that and you can’t buy it anyway.”

Sound familiar?

“And the other opportunity is scheduling,” Collier said. “Two, three years ago we didn’t have this kind of game.”

Sound familiar?

You may have to be pushing retirement age to remember that Collier was Don Monson’s top assistant when they took Idaho to the Sweet 16 a mere 30 years ago. In 1989, he landed his first head coaching job – at Butler, his alma mater, and did a decade’s worth of heavy lifting in turning the Bulldogs into an overnight sensation. Before he took over, they’d had just three winning seasons in 15 years.

Collier, who went on to coach at Nebraska before returning to Butler as AD, cited presidential “investment” in basketball for helping turn the tide (sound familiar?) and noted that the coaches who really found the high gear, Thad Matta and Todd Lickliter, “came from within the program” – and, indeed, had been Collier assistants (sound familiar?).

Collier’s notable contribution was the elevation of another assistant, Brad Stevens, at the callow age of 31. He has yet to win fewer than 26 games in a season, and now gets mentioned as a candidate for every opening in the seven-figure conferences (sound familiar?).

“There’s a real strong fit for Brad and Butler on a number of levels,” Collier said, “but we’ve also done everything we possibly can to make the program better. He likes the kinds of kids he can coach at Butler – and we’re not finished. We’re trying to do it again.”

Sound familiar?

If there’s one divergent path the programs have taken, it’s in the physical plant. Gonzaga rode its great success to a new building. Butler, of course, has the most venerated of all basketball barns, historic Hinkle Fieldhouse, immortalized in “Hoosiers” and an Indiana shrine. The school is putting some money in the joint, but mostly to slather fresh mortar between the 820,000 bricks and reglaze the 10,000 window panes. Oh, there’s a new scoreboard on the way, too – “but it can’t be a ship from outer space hovering over the court,” Collier said.

But in the meantime, the Bulldogs of Butler have mixed up a different kind of mortar.

“We’re fortunate to have what we have and it’s not by accident,” Collier said. “There’s also a lot of pressure involved. And it’s just fine. It helps you perform, and we don’t back down from that, either.”

Sound familiar?



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