BOISE – The text messages started flying back and forth weeks ago.
Gonzaga was busy stating its case for a top-four seed. UNC Greensboro was closing in on its first NCAA Tournament appearance in 17 years.
Gonzaga director of basketball operations Stephen Gentry and UNCG counterpart Kyle Bankhead became unofficial directors of bracket guesswork.
“I’ve been telling (Kyle) Bankhead for a couple weeks we’re playing each other,” Gentry said. “He was like, ‘We’ll see.’ Right after it came out, I texted him: ‘Told you so.’ ”
“I didn’t want it to line up, to be honest, but it’ll be great, a great situation,” he said. “One thing I told our guys is they’re really going to experience the NCAA Tournament. We’ve traveled 2,500 miles (to Boise) and there’s going to be a crowd here. You and I both know the Zags are going to travel. If we ended up playing in Dallas, you never know what type of environment you’d run into.”
Bankhead, more than most, knows exactly what the Spartans are running into when they face the fourth-seeded Zags on Thursday at Boise State’s Taco Bell Arena. He was on the ground floor when Gonzaga began setting up residence in the national spotlight.
Bankhead arrived at GU as a walk-on and eventually earned a scholarship and a starting position. The deadeye 3-point shooter helped Gonzaga reach four NCAA Tournaments.
Bankhead quickly connected with teammates Gentry and Brian Michaelson, now a Gonzaga assistant coach. Bankhead and Michaelson were groomsmen at Gentry’s wedding.
Bankhead still calls Gentry “Shaggy,” his Scooby-Doo-inspired nickname.
“I think we were just gym rats,” Gentry said. “We were guys that kind of always had to work a little harder than everyone else because we weren’t the most talented or athletic.”
Bankhead was the Zags’ video coordinator for a few seasons before joining former GU aide Billy Grier at San Diego from 2007-15.
“Kyle’s part of the family,” Gonzaga coach Mark Few said.
Gentry and Bankhead have remained close friends and frequently counseled each other when job opportunities surface. They made two-hour drives to visit when Gentry was on Oklahoma State’s staff last year and Bankhead was head coach at Sunrise Christian Academy in Kansas, where Bankhead coached 13 Division I players in two seasons.
“When he was debating taking that job at Gonzaga, we had many conversations about that,” Bankhead said. “I stay close with the staff there. That program has been a big part of my life. It’s just a crazy turn of events to put us in the same bracket.”
The last crazy turn came when a spot on UNCG’s staff opened up. Spartans assistant Mike Roberts was teammates with former Zags great Blake Stepp at South Eugene High, coached by Blake’s dad Dean. Bankhead connected with Roberts via a Stepp assist years ago and they stayed in touch.
Bankhead met Spartans head coach Wes Miller, a New Hampshire prep school teammate of Roberts’, at the 2007 Final Four in Atlanta.
“We’re looking forward to seeing all the love Kyle gets in Boise,” said Miller, who has had the best two-year run in school history. “We joke around here that we should have the best scouting report in the tournament.”
Bankhead can’t say enough good things about Miller’s coaching strengths. Or about close friends Gentry, Michaelson and the entire Zags coaching staff.
That won’t change, no matter Thursday’s outcome.
“We always stay together at the Final Four,” Gentry said. “We find a way to get together, even when we’re split apart. He’s one of my best friends.”
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