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Blanchette: Main event has arrived, Gaels vs. Zags on Saturday

UPDATED: Fri., Jan. 13, 2017

Saint Mary’s coach Randy Bennett has raised his program to a level that can challenge Gonzaga in the WCC. (Steve Dykes / Associated Press)
Saint Mary’s coach Randy Bennett has raised his program to a level that can challenge Gonzaga in the WCC. (Steve Dykes / Associated Press)
John Blanchette

As a culture, we are death on warmup acts, no matter how earnest the artist or how eager to entertain. It starts as soon as the tickets are in our hands. The giddy anticipation that comes with seeing the name of your favorite rock band – “Mattress Stain” – and the dread of the words printed directly below.

“With special guest.”

Special guest gets no respect. Special guest the folksinger gets the talkers and laughers. Special guest the country band gets the Pre-Function All-Stars.

Special guest has been on the bill the last month or more of this Gonzaga basketball season, but never more so than Thursday night.

This is no airy dismissal of the Loyola Marymount Lions, who came to McCarthey Athletic Center not only earnest and eager but battle-tested (eight last-possession games this season). In coach Mike Dunlap’s third season, the Lions are becoming a tougher out – just not so much against the Bulldogs. So no wonder the 93-55 thumping they took was greeted by the warmup act’s worst nightmare: indifferent silence, or as close as it gets in the Kennel.

But now the prelims are out of the way.

Time for the main event.

Yeah. You know who.

Saturday’s date with Saint Mary’s is a welcome shot of Crown to combat the current cold snap, but it’s more than that. It’s the most anticipated game on the Gonzaga schedule – and has been since they both opened the season in the Top 25.

The entire schedule, not just the after New Year’s part.

When has that ever been the case since this November-through-March madness began at Gonzaga?

“It makes it a lot more fun when you have a league game that’s hyped up this much,” said GU junior guard Silas Melson. “I mean, BYU always is and Saint Mary’s always is, but this is a little something more. That makes it more …”

Like a Tobacco Road shootout or one of those Indiana state intramurals?

“Yeah – those are always more fun,” he said.

This one has been fun for a while, too – whatever it is the Zags and Gaels have going on. If Gonzaga has played on a somewhat different strata in November and December and, yes, mid-March, there rarely seems to be more than a jersey’s width separating them in January and February.

“It’s Saint Mary’s,” said Zags center Przemek Karnowski. “They’re either in front of us or behind us – mostly behind – but the rivalry is there.”

When did it start exactly?

It could have been 2005, when Saint Mary’s finally beat Gonzaga after 17 straight losses. Or maybe two years later when the Gaels’ Omar Samhan began roaming the earth and stirring up hostiles on the road. Or when the clock struck March in 2008 and they met in Spokane as Top 25 teams – a West Coast Conference first, won by the Zags. By the time the Gaels’ Patty Mills came out of the locker room at halftime in 2009 with an ice wrap on his broken hand after a collision with GU’s Jeremy Pargo, it was obvious this thing had legs.

And after a lull – eight straight Gonzaga victories – Saint Mary’s winning at the Kennel a year ago flipped the dynamic again.

“That sticks with you,” Melson said. “It hurts when somebody comes into your house and takes your win away from you.”

Nevertheless, it’s good to have company.

The years when the Zags won the WCC by four and five games were the entertainment equivalent of frying ants with sunlight and a magnifying glass. The action started when the Gaels got good, and Brigham Young got in. Perhaps not so fun for the LMUs and their ilk, but the fact is parity is not always a virtue. You have to look no further than the neighboring Mountain West Conference which sent five teams to the NCAA Tournament a scant few years ago, but has devolved into a one-bid ghost town.

Meanwhile, the Zags and Gaels have climbed to fifth and 21st, respectively, in the polls though somehow SMC slipped two spots after winning twice last week.

OK, so the WCC hasn’t washed off all the old stink.

Throw in Gonzaga’s status as college basketball’s last unbeaten, and it’s quite a cocktail – especially as it looks as if Gaels coach Randy Bennett has his best team.

“I hate it when people try to rank that,” countered Bulldogs coach Mark Few. “That’s his call, not mine. I bristle when people say that about us when they maybe watch a highlight or two.

“But certainly when you think about how good they were last year and return everybody – I’ve never seen a team return every point, every rebound – they’re very experienced. And they play so well together, you can tell they really like each other.”

Funny, people say the same about these Zags. In fact, you might have heard it inside the Kennel on Thursday night.

During the warmup act.

Follow along with the Zags

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