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Sports >  Gonzaga basketball

Zags’ schedule softer? Not so you’d notice

Mark Few and Bulldogs at Michigan State.  (Associated Press)
Mark Few and Bulldogs at Michigan State. (Associated Press)

The record shows that Mark Few doesn’t lose often, except perhaps in those arguments with himself.

A few years ago, he sent his Gonzaga basketball team on a December odyssey from this coast to the other and back, and then back across the country again – hubris he insisted he’d never indulge in again, a pledge that lasted until it came time to put together the next schedule. As the 2009 season trudged toward February, he wondered what the Zags were doing playing Connecticut and Tennessee and Memphis when the latest darlings of Bracketology were 18-1 against a lineup of nobodies.

Then he looked at his roster for this 2010 season, reminded himself that nine of his 13 scholarship players would have a year or less in the program and knew that “without a doubt, we wanted to soften the schedule up.”

Hell of an idea. So the Zags start that experiment tonight … in East Lansing … against second-ranked Michigan State, last year’s NCAA runners-up.

Which leads us to ask: Is Mark Few an impulse shopper?

Because beyond the Spartans, Gonzaga is booked for its usual November-December demolition derby. There are three games against teams currently in the Top 25 (Duke, Oklahoma and Illinois) and another against a vote-getter (Wake Forest). There is the off-chance another ranked opponent could come out of the third night of the Maui Invitational, and then the annual game with Memphis, which would be ranked had not the state of Kentucky turned Fort Knox into John Calipari’s condo. And then there are Davidson, Arizona, Wisconsin and Washington State, which would be the most daunting names on 75 percent of the nation’s out-of-conference schedules.

The Zags have softened it up, all right. With quicksand.

“It really isn’t that simple,” said Few, referencing the art and science of scheduling and pleading self-defense. “There’s no way we should be taking this club to play Michigan State on Nov. 17. I’m not very smart, but I’m smarter than that.”

So then?

“But if Michigan State is going to return to the Kennel?” Few said. “And it’s going to be the prime game on ESPN? You have to weigh those things out. The same with Wake – if we’ve got a four-year deal with Wake, it’s tough to turn down.

“Last year would have been great to play Duke in (Madison Square) Garden – which is as big of a game in the middle of the non-league season as you can get. This year, with these guys, I don’t know if it’s such a great idea. But you can’t turn it down. Sometimes these opportunities come to you and they’re not perfect, like anything in life.

“So we just have to survive it and not let it take the will out of us.”

This may be as close as the Zags have come to being victims of their own success. Surely they have a fan base that’s become accustomed to this sort of scheduling, and wouldn’t much cotton to retrenchment, even given the youth of the new roster. And after years of beating on the doors of the biggest dogs in college basketball, cajoling them into neutral-site matchups or the occasional one-for-special in their backyards, the Bulldogs don’t have to knock quite so hard anymore – and are getting something in return.

“What’s opened up is 10 years of proving you’re a worthy national opponent,” said Few, “and maybe guys are tired of beating their heads against the wall in scheduling and figure that signing a four-year deal will make for an easier off-season. When you get mutual respect between programs and say, ‘Hey, let’s just do it,’ you’re not going into September trying to fill games.”

Not all programs are so enlightened. Once again, Syracuse will play outside the state of New York exactly once in the non-conference season. Others will never leave their time zones.

On a recent national conference call, NCAA tournament chair Dan Guerrero, the athletic director at UCLA, stressed that his committee “wanted to pay particularly close attention to each team’s non-conference schedule and a team’s willingness to play quality competition away from home” in selecting at-large teams.

Of course, last March this strategy was used more to keep non-traditional teams out of the bracket than to urge traditional powers to play fair in scheduling, or even test themselves the way Michigan State will this winter with games at Texas and North Carolina.

“I don’t think it necessarily makes you tournament ready,” said Spartans coach Tom Izzo. “What you do in November doesn’t necessarily help you in March. But I think it gets you to a point where you know your deficiencies along with the (attributes) of your team. And my philosophy is nobody’s cocky around here because when you are they get knocked down pretty quick by a 20-point loss to Duke or a 35-point loss to North Carolina.

“I don’t begrudge those who don’t, and sometimes I say those who do are insane.”

Before tipoff, he and Mark Few can take turns saying it to each other.

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