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Sports >  Gonzaga basketball

Blanchette: Gonzaga’s big weekend shows team’s commitment to communal cause

This is Hoopfest’s weekend, but in the event’s DNA is a willingness to share, whether it’s with other causes or the avowed one: basketball.

Good thing.

Because this year, through both accident and design, it’s become Gonzaga’s weekend, too – maybe the Bulldogs’ biggest weekend, short of some of those March flights in the middle of all the madness that makes it seem as if the NCAA tournament has always been in Spokane’s DNA, too.

In the past 24 hours, the Gonzagaphile has seen:

The selection of forward Domantas Sabonis with the 11th pick in the NBA draft, the program’s fourth first-round selection in 11 years. No sooner had he donned an Orlando Magic cap than he was traded to Oklahoma City, which should not be held against him but probably will be by someone with a closet full of Sonics apparel. Draft picks are better paid, but they’re pawns, too, folks.

Sabonis’ teammate, Kyle Wiltjer, agreeing to a partially guaranteed free-agent contract with the Houston Rockets. The guarantee is a dollar figure, not a roster spot – but the three-year deal means Wiltjer will have more than the normal hopeful’s one bite at the apple.

A buzzworthy addition to the current roster in Jordan Mathews, who let it be known Thursday night that he’ll be transferring from Cal to Gonzaga – with degree work complete and eligible immediately. In 60 starts at Cal, he was a 42-percent 3-point shooter – with a large sample size – and is the kind of pickup that can be transformative.

The alumni run Friday night downtown on the eve of Hoopfest, with the participation of two dozen of the program’s finest grads, divvied up by draft. Though spectator entry was limited – in part because the organizers were unsure how the nostalgia would sell – it was nevertheless a valentine to a fan base that has played such a scenario out in their heads for years.

The Gonzaga phenomenon is pushing 20 years now, which makes it not any less phenomenal but, yes, more just The Way Things Are. A continuum has been established, even if there’s not necessarily a thread that directly connects lottery pick to not-so-old-timers game to the latest recruiting coup.

And just to make sure there’s something for everyone, there’s been no Final Four or national championship yet. So the Backlash Bunch has its own chew toy, and the true believers can still, well, believe.

As for these recent developments …

The flowering of Sabonis and Kelly Olynyk, the two most recent No. 1s, and even free-agent Wiltjer may the best examples yet of a program delivering on players’ developmental needs, and the players returning the favor – getting the best out of them, you could say, as well as getting the best from them.

This can be a delicate balance, as a look across the state reveals. On draft night, Washington sent two players to the NBA, the fourth and fifth Huskies to be first-rounders in five years. In that time, UW has played in exactly zero NCAA tournament games.

This isn’t meant as neener-neener ammo, though it’s sure to be crammed into the catapult sling for delivery over the Cascades. It obviously hasn’t stopped terrific players from signing on with the Huskies. But you have to wonder if they approach the mission with the same sense of, oh, responsibility to a communal cause.

Shared achievement is powerful stuff. The alumni gathering on Friday evening was evidence enough.

Every team from 1999’s Elite Eight breakthrough to last year’s Sweet 16 surprise was represented. And no one had to endure any darts for being on the team that couldn’t sustain the NCAA streak.

It was no accident that the Zags invited Mathews to make his visit this weekend – not that he needed special wooing. But he’ll come away with a full appreciation of what it is he’s getting into.

His commitment, meanwhile, is another example of how the college basketball landscape changes, and how the Zags change with it – maybe at some risk, but likely with greater reward. They have leveraged the graduate transfer rule as well as any team in the nation.

But in the sturm and drang of the 2016 season – when the Zags’ streak was very much in the balance – among the prominent problems was sheer numbers. In taking on midcareer transfers Nigel Williams-Goss and Jonathan Williams III, coach Mark Few tied up scholarships on players who had to sit out – and the injury to Przemek Karnowski exposed the lack of depth. Which was an issue right up until it was rendered irrelevant by GU’s late-season surge.

Now, comes another challenge – identity. Roster churn, Karnowski’s status and a wave of freshman have created just enough uncertainty that all those too-early Top 25s online have been slow with unqualified endorsements. Most rank West Coast Conference rival Saint Mary’s a few slots ahead.

Or did, until this weekend. Gonzaga’s weekend.

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