PULLMAN – More fans will fill Beasley Coliseum for Wednesday’s game between No. 13 Gonzaga and Washington State than attended the first four Cougars games combined.
The fans will be of mixed allegiance but nearly all live within a short drive of both schools, this being a matchup of the two most prominent basketball programs in Eastern Washington – the Pac-12 school and the perennial winner – whose campuses are separated by just 80 miles.
Wednesday’s game will be the 150th meeting between the two basketball programs. WSU holds a lopsided advantage in the all-time series 98 wins to 51, while the Bulldogs have dominated for nearly two decades, winning 13 of the last 16 matchups, though just two of the last four in Pullman.
Still, this is no rivalry, says WSU coach Ernie Kent. Not when one school dictates terms to the other as GU did when it demanded to play two of the last three games in Spokane. And not when the 150th meeting threatens to be the last, as the schools have failed to arrange matchups next season and beyond, despite Kent’s expressed wish to do so.
“Quite frankly, it’s not a rivalry because you do not play it,” Kent said. “A rivalry game to me is Oregon-Oregon State, Washington-Washington State. It’s played every year and it’s been played every year for the last 100 years. That has not been the case with Gonzaga because the series was stopped and it’s getting ready to be stopped again.”
GU did not have its typical media availability with Mark Few this week.
The teams first played in 1908, years before Duke first tipped off against North Carolina or Kentucky ever took the court against Louisville. Even recently, there have been memorable moments.
WSU freshman forward Robert Franks, who played his high school ball at Vancouver’s Evergreen High, recalls watching the games as a kid.
“I’d always seen it on TV and it always got hyped up,” Franks said. “I watched it last year on ESPNU. It was a great game.”
Junior forward Josh Hawkinson also grew up on the west side of the state, in Shoreline near Seattle, but was aware of the non-rivalry back east.
“I especially remember the game my senior year, after I committed,” Hawkinson said. “DaVonté (Lacy) came down and hit a shot, then Kevin Pangos hit one at the buzzer to win. That was the last home game that was here. I just saw the electricity and the atmosphere and wanted to be a part of it.”
This year’s matchup should be especially intriguing given that GU has one of the nation’s most potent frontcourt, but the Cougars actually have the size to match up. Conor Clifford is a 7-foot, 283-pound junior-college transfer, who Kent jokes wishes he could put the 30 pounds he’s lost at WSU back on for his upcoming matchup with GU center Przemek Karnowski.
Valentine Izundu, a 6-foot-11 transfer from Houston, is a defensive eraser, blocking 25 percent of the 2-pointers attempted by WSU’s opponents while he is on the floor. No other player in NCAA Division I blocks more than 21.7 percent.
The Cougars may also try to speed the Bulldogs up, although Kent acknowledges that his guards may not be ready to pester GU’s into turnovers or prevent them from entering the ball into the post.
“This team has played some outstanding competition that has the ability to put more pressure on them than my guards can put on them,” Kent said.
GU (4-1) has faced tougher tests than WSU (4-0), which has played an intentionally light schedule with seven newcomers. The Bulldogs have struggled to maintain the leads they build, allowing Washington back into a game that was seemingly over, blowing a second-half lead against Texas A&M and nearly doing it against Connecticut.
“Obviously we still need to grow in that area but it’s early in the season,” said guard Silas Melson. “It’s good to get those adversity moments out of the way so when it comes to March we’ll be ready for it.”