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Gonzaga, Battle in Seattle on hold for at least a few more years

UPDATED: Tue., Feb. 20, 2018, 8:50 p.m.

Gonzaga’s Robert Sacre, right, battles for the ball against Arizona  in the 2011 Battle in Seattle, won by the Bulldogs 71-60. (Ken Lambert / Seattle Times)
Gonzaga’s Robert Sacre, right, battles for the ball against Arizona in the 2011 Battle in Seattle, won by the Bulldogs 71-60. (Ken Lambert / Seattle Times)

Gonzaga’s 2019 basketball schedule is taking shape, with a loaded Maui Invitational field and a road trip to face North Carolina.

But for the third consecutive year, there won’t be a Battle in Seattle, which prompts two questions.

Has the game, once an annual highlight on the Zags’ schedule, run its course? Not necessarily. Is the game returning anytime soon? Probably not, in part because of several factors beyond Gonzaga’s control.

“It hasn’t gone away for good, but right now with them redoing KeyArena we’re not going to have a place to play until that gets done,” Gonzaga athletic director Mike Roth said. “Once that’s done, we’ll revisit it.”

A $600 million renovation to KeyArena is planned as Seattle pursues an NHL franchise. Construction is scheduled to begin in November and could be completed by October 2020. Gonzaga’s 2020-21 season would be the earliest opportunity to bring back the Battle in Seattle.

“It was a great event for our fans and folks in Seattle, and even folks in Spokane who would go over,” Roth said. “It’s something we know is important, not just basketball-wise, but it’s important institutionally because of the amount of GU alums, benefactors and students in the Seattle area.”

The Zags scuttled the Battle in Seattle in 2016 after a 13-year run when they couldn’t line up a marquee opponent. Attendance figures illustrate that when Gonzaga has faced a premier opponent (Arizona, UConn) crowds were often north of 15,000, reaching a Battle in Seattle-record 16,770 when the Zags defeated Tennessee in December 2015.

Conversely, matchups against Massachusetts, Davidson, South Alabama and Cal Poly drew between 9,100 and 13,200.

“To play that game, we need to make sure we have the right type of opponent,” Roth said. “We did play a couple games that weren’t a high enough level of opponent. That’s not what we want to do. It wasn’t good for our fans or our program.”

There were additional challenges. The WCC’s addition of BYU in 2012 bumped the conference schedule from 14 games to 16. Pacific’s arrival in 2014 created an 18-game, round-robin schedule, significantly reducing the number of nonconference games.

If the Battle in Seattle returns, Roth indicated it would likely be on a biennial basis. It usually involves a return game – Gonzaga faced Tennessee in Nashville last season – so it’s essentially a two-year commitment.

“Now you’re giving up two games out of the schedule to make the BIS work,” Roth said, “which was OK when we were only playing 14 WCC games.”

The Zags’ 2019 slate includes road dates against North Carolina, which edged Gonzaga in the 2017 national championship game, and Creighton, which lost 91-74 to GU in Spokane in December. Washington will return to the Kennel for the third game in a four-game set.

The Maui Invitational field is already being called the strongest in the tournament’s history. Gonzaga joins Arizona, Auburn, Duke, Illinois, Iowa State, San Diego State and Xavier. Chaminade will continue as host but won’t be in the tourney field. Five of the eight teams are currently in the top 14 in the AP poll.