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Steve Christilaw: Early basketball season strategies vary

UPDATED: Wed., Dec. 27, 2017

It’s time to get serious.

The first full month of the basketball season is an interesting time. Teams learn who they are as much as they learn how to win. Just as people have their own unique personality, teams develop a characteristic way of being that distinguishes them from the versions they were in the past and pave a road to who they will eventually become.

For some teams, that means seeking out opponents who will help them on that path. Coaches have been known to seek out specific opponents who will help them prepare for key games later in January and February – teams that run a particular defense they will face from a league opponent.

Gonzaga fits into that category. As the Bulldogs have gained in national stature, so too has their nonconference schedule. This year GU has played a host of quality opponents. Ohio State. Florida. Texas. Creighton. Villanova. The Gonzaga squad that opens West Coast Conference play against Pacific and Santa Clara has been tested by some of the best teams in the country from some of the best conferences.

At the Division III level, Whitworth fits nicely in this same category. So does the Pirates’ national ranking.

The Pirates play their share of Division I opponents – ones who take care in putting Whitworth on its schedule and making sure they are ready to play basketball from the opening tip, let they turn out to be an upset victim.

Some teams will stock up on lesser opponents in order to begin to build a culture of winning, working their way up to the start of the conference season.

Ernie Kent and Washington State have done a nice job getting this year’s Cougar team ready for Pac-12 play. There are some quality wins in the Cougs 8-4 record. And some of their losses have shown a strong growth curve from a squad looking to do a better job stepping up against the week-in, week-out grind of conference play.

The way the Cougs battled back and went toe-to-toe with Kansas State last week in the Arena shows that Cougar basketball has a solid future. With Gonzaga, Washington State, Idaho, Eastern Washington and Whitworth, the area is chock-full of quality basketball anywhere you care to look.

Thankfully, none of those teams falls into the third category of college programs. These teams love to stock up on Christmas goodies.

Cupcakes, to be exact.

Not the kind with plenty of icing and sprinkles.

No. These cupcakes tend to be struggling programs who take to the road in late November and December to play designated opponent to programs looking to pad their record against lesser opponents. When a struggling program needs money, being a Division I team’s sparring partner is a way to help make ends meet. It’s hard on the psyche. It beats the ego to an absolute pulp. But it keeps the lights on.

You’d be surprised how many successful programs dip deep into the Division II, Division III and NAIA ranks to add wins – and not just wins, but triple-digit wins and season-highs for the record books.

But here’s the secret. You have to pick your opponents carefully. For every program that gets used as kindling to help spark a D-I flame, there’s the hungry, upwardly mobile small school looking to make a name for itself by knocking off a big brother.

The most famous school for pulling that trick is a little school from Honolulu, the Division II Chaminade Silverswords.

In 1982, the No. 1-ranked Virginia Cavaliers, led by All-American Ralph Sampson, rolled into Oahu with an 8-0 record and a chance to play then-NAIA Chaminade and take a few days off at Waikiki. Chaminade shocked the nation by pulling off an upset, 77-72.

And just to prove they are never to be taken lightly, the Silverswords pulled the same trick this year, knocking off Cal in the Maui Invitational.

Perhaps my favorite example happened recently in Shreveport, Louisiana.

Northwestern State, from Natchitoches, Louisiana, and the Southland Conference, is one of those teams that tends toward being cannon fodder for bigger schools while trying to pad a few wins by stocking up on small schools early in the season.

On Dec. 16, the Demons played in the Shreveport-Bossier Holiday Classic in the Gold Dome in Shreveport.

Their opponent for the night was little NAIA Louisiana State University-Shreveport.

It was supposed to be one of those comfortable wins with a lopsided score that sees the whole bench get into the game.

Instead, the Demons lost, 85-84.

It does the heart good to see upsets like these.

You see upsets like this at the high school level, as well.

Look at what Freeman boys basketball has accomplished already this season. One of the top Class 1A teams coming into the season, the Scotties already have upset both Cheney and West Valley from the Class 2A ranks.

That’s the thing about good basketball teams.

They defy efforts to classify them.

And in doing so, they define class.

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