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Sunday, July 21, 2019  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Grip on Sports: As college basketball conference play gets underway, Eastern prepares to play in the final FCS game of the season

Eastern Washington guard Tyler Kidd, center, attempts to dribble between Idaho guards Xavier Smith (11) and  RayQuawndis Mitchell  during the first half of a Big Sky Conference game on Thursday night at Cowan Spectrum in Moscow, Idaho. (Pete Caster / Lewiston Tribune)
Eastern Washington guard Tyler Kidd, center, attempts to dribble between Idaho guards Xavier Smith (11) and RayQuawndis Mitchell during the first half of a Big Sky Conference game on Thursday night at Cowan Spectrum in Moscow, Idaho. (Pete Caster / Lewiston Tribune)

A GRIP ON SPORTS • And we’re off. Every college basketball conference race in the area is underway. Expect some surprises. Read on.

••••••••••

• Who is going to win the Pac-12? The Big Sky? How about the WCC … wait, we know that one. OK, who is going to finish second in the WCC? And who will storm the court after knocking off Gonzaga?

There will be surprises in store over the next few weeks. Heck, there already have been some. Utah went into Tempe last night and looked awful for about 15 minutes. The Utes fell behind by 17. And then won by 10 against the one Pac-12 team with a great nonconference win on its resume.

There was another example in Santa Clara, where the Broncos, who did the win-one, lose-one dance in nonconference play, knocked off an 11-win San Diego squad to open WCC play.

We all know Gonzaga is the class of the West Coast Conference, as it has been for almost 20 years. But if the Zags go through conference play undefeated this season, it may be their most significant conference accomplishment ever. There are decent-to-good teams up and down the WCC – another example last night was USF defeating Saint Mary’s for the second consecutive time – and at least once or twice one will get hot with GU in town.

The Pac-12 is about someone getting hot – or everyone staying lukewarm. There is no dominant team. Heck, there may not be a good one. But there is enough talent in enough places – Westwood, Eugene, Seattle, Tempe, Tucson – that someone could emerge from the pack and run away with the regular season crown. But even then, they would have to win the postseason tournament to assure an NCAA berth. Yes, the nonconference was that bad.

The Big Sky is going more according to form, with Montana and Weber State once again surging to the top of the class. Everyone else is just trying to keep up. But in this season of equality – with a couple of exceptions – throughout the West, the Sky may still be cloudy occasionally for even the conference’s best teams.

• The Big Sky’s best football team has one more game left.

The Eastern Eagles will try to win their second FCS title tomorrow morning in Frisco, Texas. They are significant underdogs to perennial champion North Dakota State, winners of all but one title since Eastern’s 2010 championship run.

That one? It was in 2016, the same year NDSU defeated a ranked Iowa team and was nearly ranked in AP's FBS poll.

But the Bison lost the FCS semifinal to eventual champion James Madison as EWU was losing to Youngstown State in the other semi. Both probably should have been in the title game that year – Eastern also picked up an FBS win that season, over bowl-bound Washington State – so, in one sense, this is just a delayed meeting that should have happened a couple years ago.

Late or not, it should be a great way to spend a Saturday morning.

• If you are wondering, the game is on ESPN2 beginning at 9 a.m. Theo Lawson has a story on the many places you can watch, if you want to be part of a crowd.

•••

Gonzaga: Our Jim Meehan has his take on the WCC and Gonzaga this season, written before last night’s conference openers. … The women had their first conference home game last night and had to survive a spirited Saint Mary’s comeback. They did and the 17th-ranked Zags won, 74-62. Jim Allen and Colin Mulvany were in McCarthey, with Jim covering with words and Colin with photographs. … The Zag athletes had an exceptional athletic semester. Jim Meehan has that news. … Around the WCC, the biggest upset may have been Pepperdine getting past Loyola-Marymount in a Southern California battle. Alas, I couldn’t find a story to link. … As we mentioned, Santa Clara picked up the home win over USD. … Pacific started slowly and BYU took advantage, holding on for a 90-87 victory in Stockton. … Saint Mary’s couldn’t get it done at USF.

WSU: Want to get excited for next football season? Theo Lawson has 19 things for you to look forward to in the coming months. … It’s official. Antonio Huffman is leaving Pullman. Theo Lawson has the story of the Cougar administrator heading back to his alma mater, Texas Tech. … Steve Gleason’s Congressional Gold Medal is official. … Elsewhere in the Pac-12, just how will the basketball season finish? There has to be some way to put a positive spin on this season, doesn’t there? … Conference play started with Utah pulling the upset in Tempe against Arizona State. … Arizona will have something to say about who wins, as the Wildcats handled Colorado at home. … UCLA looked like a different team – there was energy – in a home win over Stanford. … USC opened with woeful California and the depleted Trojans picked up a victory. … Oregon was expected to build around freshman Bol Bol this season. It won’t happen. The center had surgery and is out for the year. He’s also headed to the NBA. … Oregon State feels it has a chance to win it all. … In football, the Ducks also lost an assistant.

EWU: So how do you stop the juggernaut that is North Dakota State? Ryan Collingwood offers some ideas this morning. … So does John Blanchette, though his are more esoteric. … Ryan also examines in this notebook whether one of Eastern’s best defenders will play. … Larry Weir’s most recent Press Box pod features a conversation with his radio sidekick, Paul Sorensen. … Around the Big Sky, Montana and Montana State picked up home wins. … So did Weber State and Idaho State.

Idaho: The Vandals smoked EWU from the outside early last night and held on for a 74-71 home victory. Peter Harriman was there and has this game story.

Chiefs: Spokane made two trades, one due to an injury.

Seahawks: There was finally some good news on the injury front. That has Pete Carroll smiling. … The game tomorrow night may come down to these players. … The Hawks’ playoff run may have come down to one thing. … Seahawks Twitter is pretty fun. … A few ex-Seahawks are Hall of Fame finalists.

Mariners: Yusei Kikuchi met the media yesterday and seemed to be a personable fellow. The M’s agreed to a development plan while recruiting him, so don’t expect a lot of innings.

•••       

• We won’t be here tomorrow. We have some personal business that forces us out of the house early. So you are on your own. We will be back later Saturday evening, though, with a TV Take as Gonzaga takes on Santa Clara in the Kennel. Until then …

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