Blanchette: Nine-team schedule adds to craziness

The lower-bowl exodus to The Kennel’s merlot tap began at the last TV timeout in the first half, confirmation that Wednesday’s Gonzaga-Portland game was living up to its billing.

Or down. Your pick.

Sometimes what college basketball needs is a good rear naked choke or some other submission hold.

And, no, that isn’t meant to give any of the Boy Scouts at Xavier any ideas come Saturday.

The 90-51 pasting the Zags laid on Portland as the West Coast Conference opened its 60th season was a food-chain episode of a good team meeting an overmatched one, compounded by Gonzaga’s growing confidence and the Pilots’ lack of anything like it. Also, some of the visitors looked almost old enough to drive.

These sorts of things happen, but for a team in Gonzaga’s position, are never to be taken for granted. Just recall the pratfall Saint Mary’s took against lowly San Diego last year which opened the door for the Zags to share in an 11th consecutive WCC regular-season title, and may have been a convenient excuse to eliminate the Gaels from any serious NCAA discussion.

It was odd and sad to see the Pilots, winners of 60 games over the past three seasons, so toothless, and just as odd to come to grips with a pre-New Year’s start to conference play – brought to you by the hottest thing in college athletics this side of soul-wringing scandal: expansion.

Most every conference is now too unwieldy to squeeze in a full (or even partial) round-robin between the calendar’s turn and early March, when ESPN tells them to have their tournaments. The WCC added just one school during musical chairs – Brigham Young – and still needed a December start.

“And next year, the way the calendar runs, we may have to start even earlier,” cautioned Gonzaga athletic director Mike Roth.

The obvious flaw, of course, is that it’s one or two more games that are played with the students still away from campus. This year alone, the Zags will play a third of their home schedule with the students on holiday.

The joint gets filled anyway, yes. And sometimes it doesn’t hurt for the players to learn to generate their own energy.

“And it’s better than the alternative,” said coach Mark Few, “those years when we had five games on the road over the holidays.”

More curious is how the league’s members will adapt to the off-brand scheduling required to accommodate nine schools rather than the traditional eight, with the easily aligned travel partners and two-home, two-away rhythm.

As other conferences have experienced, there’s no way to cobble together a nine-team round-robin equitable to all, nor to avoid the odd Monday game after an open weekend.

“Some teams just aren’t going to be happy,” Roth allowed, “but it’s not unique to the WCC. It’s what happens with nine teams and when you have TV wanting certain games in certain places.

“ESPN has Rivalry Week, and it’s not happenstance that Duke and North Carolina play the same week every year – and the ACC has to make its schedule around that game. That’s been the case with Gonzaga and Saint Mary’s the last couple of years, and that could include BYU soon enough.”

The crazy quilt that results can be confusing to follow.

BYU, San Diego and Pepperdine, for example, have seven weekends that include at least one road game. The Zags have but one of those home/road split weekends, but will be on a plane multiple times on all but their one visit to the Bay Area.

Loyola Marymount has four straight home games. USF plays four of five on the road in one stretch, and finishes at BYU and Saint Mary’s.

“It’s different than we’re used to,” said Few, “but it’s also kind of what we’ve been doing for years in the nonleague portion, so in that regard we’re as prepared as anybody. We’re used to jumping on planes and going all over the place – much like the game this Saturday.”

Ah, yes, the New Year’s Eve encounter with the Xavier Gangsters, to borrow a descriptive from their combative guard, Tu Holloway. The Musketeers – their traditional nickname – will be whole again for the first time since their donnybrook with Cincinnati, having fallen from eighth in the polls to unranked after three whiffs in a tournament in Hawaii while suspensions were being served.

“But the team that was heading to the top five, that’s who they are,” said Few. “You can throw that Hawaii thing out the window.”

Surely it’s a coincidence that the stiffest sentence Xavier coach Chris Mack handed down ended just in time for the Zags to come to town. But then, this is a game that should be played with all the principals in place.

In any case, it might be prudent to wait until halftime to refill your glass.

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