Zags-Gaels: Here they go again

Spokesman-Review sports columnist John Blanchette. (Colin Mulvany / The Spokesman-Review)

LAS VEGAS – Welcome back to the championship game of the West Coast Conference men’s basketball tournament, the defending champs (Saint Mary’s) against the more-often-than-not champs (Gonzaga).

Or as it’s familiarly (and we mean familiarly) known, “Once more, with feeling.”

Make that feelings. Lots of them. Sometimes hard, sometimes desperate, some respectful. Competitors’ respect, borne out of this seemingly endless loop of Monday night specials in March.

Gonzaga vs. Saint Mary’s. Saint Mary’s vs. Gonzaga.

It’s not true that the sports books in town just leave the names up on the board year-round, to save the bother of rechalking in 12 months. But it’s not a bad idea.

For the fifth straight year, the two schools will tee it up in the championship game, this one figuring to be as fraught with emotion and mission as any, what with all the various elements: Gonzaga’s No. 1 ranking, the Gaels smarting from two defeats this season, the Bulldogs’ desire to reclaim what was taken a year ago and Saint Mary’s urgency to not cede its NCAA fate to 10 men in a hotel ballroom battling fatigue and room service indigestion.

And, yes, five years of heated history.

It’s not that the Zags and Gaels are starting to resemble an old, married couple. But they are starting to resemble an old, divorced couple.

“A love-hate relationship,” Gonzaga forward Elias Harris called it, “and that makes it a lot of fun to play them.”

Well, that’s at least an improvement over the “we hate them, they hate us” buckshot former Zag center Robert Sacre was so fond of gunning to the media.

“Hate is a really strong word,” cautioned Harris’ teammate, Kelly Olynyk, “and people throw it around kind of casually in this day and age. That was Rob’s personality coming through. The one thing we do is respect their game.”

“Absolutely,” coach Mark Few piped in.

And the rest of it – whatever emotions or opinions might bubble up – is just kind of bunting on the bleachers anyway, isn’t it?

The folks who handle the day-to-day steerage of the WCC are likely thrilled at another sequel. It’s good TV, and it’s something a college basketball nation mostly indifferent to the goings-on out here has picked up on as meaningful.

It’s also something they should be concerned about.

There was a time not so long ago that the sport the league excelled most at was hand-wringing over the 800-pound gorilla of Gonzaga basketball. Now there are two teams at the top, and the ceiling seems just as unforgiving to the others – even with the addition of Brigham Young, who abandoned the Mountain West to be a third banana here.

The Bulldogs are in their 16th consecutive title game. The only longer run that comes to mind is “The Fantasticks” off-Broadway. In college hoops, Murray State once made it to 11 straight Ohio Valley finals, and Duke to nine in the ACC.

The long-term lease the Zags and Gaels have signed on the WCC finale simply has no equal in the last 25 years. In the 1980s, Howard and North Carolina A&T did meet six times running in the MEAC, which is not exactly the marquee lounge.

This is not Gonzaga’s (or the Gaels’) problem to solve. But it recalls USC’s football and UCLA’s basketball dominance of years ago leaving the Pac-12 to battle forever the perception of having a monolith perched on a mound of mush.

Gonzaga assistant Tommy Lloyd notes the “cyclical” nature of any outside challenges, WCC programs that put together two or three good years and slip when a good senior class departs, to start over again.

“Saint Mary’s has found a way to become relevant and consistent over a period to time,” he said.

“What you hope to do is have those two or three years and then you’re able to recruit a little better than you did before and you take those incremental steps. Some schools, for whatever reason, have had trouble doing that. I think we’ve challenged ourselves not to settle or say, ‘Oh, this might be a down year’ and find a way to make the next team as good as you can.”

Now there’s another issue – the hard slap the NCAA gave the Gaels and coach Randy Bennett for assorted violations in recruiting, monitoring, benefits and off-season training. No postseason ban was included, but there are scholarship reductions, recruiting restrictions, off-season cutbacks and what amounts to a five-game red card for the coach to start WCC play next year.

There is also a stain. The Gaels no longer seem like such a charming alternative to Gonzaga’s dominance, even if you’re jaded about NCAA justice.

The penalties also open the question whether the Gaels can continue to play at the level they’ve enjoyed. Bennett believes they can.

Guess they’ll have to meet up here again next year to find out.


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