DENVER – This was the game – Gonzaga vs. Brigham Young – that wasn’t supposed to happen until next year.
So let today’s third-round meeting in the NCAA tournament serve as the preface to BYU’s entrance into the West Coast Conference for the 2012 men’s basketball season.
Not that players on either team confess to having thought much about it.
“They’ve got some great teams in that league,” said BYU junior forward Noah Hartsock. “I do think it’ll be nice going to California in the winter instead of Colorado or Wyoming.
“That’s a bonus.”
The Cougars were admitted to the WCC last August after deciding to declare football independence, splitting from their charter affiliation with the Mountain West Conference. The expansion was the first for the WCC in more than 30 years, though the school’s move was ultimately football-driven.
“We understand as basketball coaches that we’re not really in control of those things,” said BYU coach Dave Rose. “We won’t know really for a year or so on how it really affects our program.”
It figures to affect the WCC immediately. BYU has appeared in 25 NCAA tournaments, including eight of the past 11, and the Cougars’ average RPI the last five seasons is 20. They also play in the 22,700 Marriott Center – more than three times bigger than Gonzaga’s McCarthey Athletic Center, currently the league’s largest arena.
“That’s crazy in itself,” said Gonzaga guard Demetri Goodson.
Will having a program as pedigreed as BYU entering the league take the target off the Bulldogs’ back at all?
“Maybe,” said Goodson, “but we’ve won the conference 11 years in a row. Until BYU – or anybody else – gets a title, we’re still going to be the big dogs.”
Gonzaga junior guard Marquise Carter absorbed a fall on his left wrist and a knee to the thigh on the same play late in Thursday’s win over St. John’s. He was knocked to the floor near GU’s bench.
“I just fell on it (wrist) awkwardly,” Carter said. “I just tried to catch myself and hit it the wrong way. It kind of bruised up a little bit and it’s sore, but it’s nothing too bad. I got up and was able to hit the free throws. I’ve been hit way harder than that before.”
Ray Giacoletti’s name has been mentioned as a possible candidate for several jobs, but Northern Illinois appears to have serious interest in the Gonzaga assistant coach. The Mid-American Conference school is replacing Ricardo Patton, who was fired after compiling a 35-83 record in four seasons.
Giacoletti has been at Gonzaga for four seasons. He’s been a head coach at three schools (North Dakota State from 1998-2000, Eastern Washington from 2001-2004 and Utah from 2005-2007). His career record is 171-123.
Gonzaga and BYU don’t have too many connections. They did meet once in 1950 with Gonzaga winning 46-41 in the L.A. Invitational, but there is a tie between GU senior guard Steven Gray and BYU junior forward Noah Hartsock. As prep standouts, they were roommates at an Adidas camp that included Michael Beasley, Nolan Smith, Brook and Robin Lopez and ex-Zag Matt Bouldin.
“One thing I do remember is there was an all-star game and I asked him if he wanted to go watch it,” Hartsock said. “He said, ‘Oh Harry Potter’s on, I think I’ll stay here and watch that.’ He was a really fun roommate, really relaxed and chilled.”
Gray said they didn’t stay in contact afterward, but he enjoyed getting to know Hartsock.
“That was my first camp and I couldn’t have asked for a better roommate,” Gray said. “We went our separate ways, but I saw him the other day and it just clicked: ‘Hey, that’s my roommate from Adidas.’”
Some Bulldogs said they felt the effects of playing in Denver, which sits a mile above sea level. Gray was spent when he went to the bench with 10:27 left in the first half.
“It’s one thing to have a practice here in Denver,” Gray said. “It’s another to go against St. John’s, one of the fastest transition teams in the nation, in Denver. That first stretch was really rough.”
Gonzaga players couldn’t have been more relaxed in the locker room during a half-hour of media availability. They needled each other and made fun of teammates when they were surrounded by television cameras. Manny Arop was handed a microphone by a Spokane TV station and interviewed a few of his teammates.
“Everyone is so close and it’s such a tight-knit group that it just comes naturally,” sophomore forward Kelly Olynyk said. “It just lightens the mood and helps us come together more.”
Olynyk was asked what teammates might say about him.
“They say my hair is kind of grimy,” he said. “They say I have big ankles, that’s a huge one. They say that I waste all the tape when they tape my ankles. People won’t let me try on their shoes. It’s just funny.”