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Blanchette: Bryants of the world serve useful purpose while hoping pigs fly

In the fine old John Huston picture “Fat City,” a journeyman boxer named Arcadio Lucero is brought in from Mexico for the local favorite’s comeback fight – a worry for the manager, who thinks the import might be too tough. But in the end, Lucero is a pro who simply knows the drill: Put on a good show, hope to land a big punch and collect a check.

He’s the opponent.

College basketball in November and December is the kingdom of payday opponents. They’re in, they’re out, they bank good money – sometimes up into six figures – and the team covering the tab never returns the visit.

On Friday evening at Gonzaga, it was Bryant University, familiar to a few folks inside McCarthey Athletic Center only because the Bulldogs of Smithfield, Rhode Island, served in this capacity three seasons earlier. But as the games themselves become forgettable quickly – after Bryant got in a few jabs this night, the Zags would roll 109-70 – all these Arcadio Luceros tend to blur together.

Mount St. Mary’s, Coppin State, Campbell – who can keep them straight? A Southeastern Louisiana at least has helpful geography attached.

The Zags already dispatched Utah Valley in the season opener. Engagements with Mississippi Valley State and South Dakota come later. When season ticket holders get their packets in the mail, these are the ones they flip through and ask, “Why are they playing these guys?”

Well, because they can afford to, and because they have to – you can’t be risking your resume against Seton Hall and Arizona every night.

Unless perhaps you’re a payday opponent.

Mississippi Valley is the poster child for that kind of existence. The Delta Devils won’t play a home game until their conference schedule begins, and besides Gonzaga have trips to Northwestern, West Virginia, Kent State, Michigan State, Indiana, Iowa State and Drake, among others. It’s how they keep the lights on.

Bryant isn’t in quite such dire straits. But it did come looking for this one.

The Bulldogs are part of the Legends Classic on Monday and Tuesday at Eastern Washington. So coach Tim O’Shea found a creative way of paying for the trip.

“And we get acclimated here and maybe play better the next two games,” he said. “Plus we get to stay at the Davenport.”

O’Shea is an old hand at this. He was head coach at Ohio for seven years, and in a couple of instances made big-time opponents pay twice – beating North Carolina and Maryland in guarantee games. He’s in his ninth year at Bryant, where he took the school into the Division I ranks and won a payday game at Boston College four seasons back.

“If you look at the probability of winning, it’s pretty low,” he admitted. “What I look for is a combination of revenue and exposure – a TV tie-in – and throw in the experience.

“Some places you can go get a check, but there’s no sizzle in it. Last year, we opened at Duke and all spring and summer, it was a great target for our players to think about. This is just as good as playing a Duke.”

This year, Bryant opened at Notre Dame. After Thanksgiving, there’s a stop at Northwestern and an ESPN game at Ohio.

“I’m pretty much obligated to four,” O’Shea said. “But that allows us to do some things like take the team to Italy last summer for a playing tour. And the kids enjoy the challenges. It helps in recruiting. Bryant’s not a household name, but you tell them we’re playing Duke or Notre Dame or Gonzaga and they become a little more interested.”

For the Zags and teams of their ilk, it’s more about timing. As director of operations John Jakus noted, “There’s got to be a balance of when we know we need one in the schedule and when we can challenge ourselves a little bit.”

The Zags will veer from the formula a bit next month when they bring Akron to town. The Zips were 26-9 last season and, Jakus said, “could be a top 50 RPI team.

“That’s a unique deal and we went out of our way to do something that we hadn’t done in the past. Some of this is planning for the future, working around our tournaments over Thanksgiving and playing Villanova next year. Maybe you wind up having to plug a hole, so rather than plug it with a road game against a high major, we chose to play a high RPI game at home.”

Still, the whole point is to avoid buyer’s remorse. Oregon State losing to Lamar and Georgetown falling to Arkansas State is a reminder that even the checkbook provides no guarantee.

“You give it your best shot,” O’Shea said. “Like my wife said, ‘Trump’s president now. Pigs are flying. You never know.’ ”

But most of the time, you do.

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