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Grip on Sports: Any top 25 matchup is big but Gonzaga and Saint Mary’s is especially so

Kennel Club member Taylor Woods roars for Gonzaga before playing San Diego State, Nov. 14, 2016, in the McCarthey Athletic Center. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)
Kennel Club member Taylor Woods roars for Gonzaga before playing San Diego State, Nov. 14, 2016, in the McCarthey Athletic Center. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)

A GRIP ON SPORTS • There is a matchup in Spokane tonight pitting two of college basketball’s top 25 teams and, no matter who is participating, such an occurrence will never get old. When it happens to be Saint Mary’s visiting Gonzaga, two schools who don’t like each other much, it’s even better. Read on.

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• There have been some great hoop teams in the Inland Northwest the past 50 years, from George Raveling’s NCAA groups in Pullman, through the Idaho squad Don Monson put together and including Tony Bennett’s Sweet-16 team at WSU.

But when it comes to the gold standard of highly ranked teams, it has to be Gonzaga. The Bulldogs have even reached the regular-season pinnacle, the No. 1 spot. This year, despite being the last remaining undefeated team, they are ranked fifth. Great but not their best.

(Before we go any further, I want to acknowledge rankings mean nothing – and everything. Nothing in the grand scheme of basketball championships, sure, but everything to fans who love to brag about their school. It is especially evident when a rarely ranked school earns a spot in the polls. Its fans go nuts with pride.)

And yet, despite all the top 10 rankings over the years, Gonzaga vs. another top 25 school here hasn’t happened all that much. So tonight’s contest with 21st-ranked Saint Mary’s is something special.

Maybe not win-and-go-to-the-Final-Four special, maybe not even win-and-go-to-the-NCAAs special, but special nonetheless.

After all, the eyes of America will be on Spokane. Well, those still open, of course. The curse of Pacific time and all that. But those who do stay up will see a high quality college game that’s for sure.

The WCC has a reputation in college hoop circles as a conference in which the teams execute well offensively. Mainly because the top schools, Gonzaga, Saint Mary’s and BYU do just that. And the Gaels may be the best at it – though you’ll get an argument at the school over off Hamilton.

Saint Mary’s slices you apart with hard cuts. The Gaels knock you around with multiple ball screens. They make you work defensively for 30 seconds on every possession. Lose focus and give up three points. Or a putback. Have a weakness and Randy Bennett’s crew will exploit it.

The Zags are built better this year to deal with the Gaels. They don’t have to worry about Saint Mary’s making Kyle Wiltjer guard three or four ball screens every possession. But having the players to give Saint Mary’s fits and actually doing it are two different things.

We’ll see if the Bulldogs step up on the defensive end tonight.

Playing Saint Mary’s takes mental discipline. If you do the same thing too often defensively, Bennett’s teams take advantage. Always have. The Zags will change how they deal with Saint Mary’s screens throughout the game. Which means everyone has to be on the same page.

Do that and one team will emerge tonight with its ranking intact. The undefeated one.

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Gonzaga: Many of the students will be back in the Kennel tonight – Rob Curley has a story on how that was able to occur – when the Zags host Saint Mary’s. The matchup between Przemek Karnowski and Jock Landale (pictured) in the middle should be crucial. Jim Meehan previews that battle as well as the game as a whole. … The NCAA may change metrics used in determining tournament seeding, which, as Jim's story shows, could help Gonzaga. … The Saint Mary’s rivalry has an interesting history. … BYU travels to San Diego where the Toreros and their “glue guy” should be fired up.

WSU: We’re going to start with football, as losing Joe Salave’a became a reality yesterday. He’s agreed to a deal with Oregon that gives him a 37.5 percent raise. Jacob Thorpe has the story. … There is a new face on the coaching staff, Derrick Sage (pictured in his office), and Jacob has a feature on the new inside receivers coach. …  Jacob is in the Bay Area and will be at California as the Cougars try to get a split on the weekend. … The Cougar women suffered two significant injuries in their 68-49 loss at Arizona State yesterday. … Klay Thompson’s number was retired by his Southern California high school. … Around the Pac-12 in hoops, there are some interesting matchups today, with Oregon vowing not to look past Oregon State and a hot UCLA team heading into a tough place to win, Utah. … Arizona State’s guard apologized for his gesture. … On the football front, it’s Saturday, so we can pass along ESPN.com’s mailbag, courtesy of Ted Miller, and the blog’s look at WSU’s position of need. … California has hired Justin Wilcox to be their next head coach according to multiple reports. … Oregon enticed an Arizona quarterback commit to switch. … Washington enticed one of their key defensive players to stay one more year.

Whitworth: The eighth-ranked Pirates had to rally late to get past Puget Sound, 77-65. Jim Allen has the story from the Fieldhouse. … The women lost to 18th-ranked Puget Sound.

Preps: The rivalry game of Friday night occurred in Coeur d’Alene, where Lake City won the city showdowns. Greg Lee covered both games. … Gonzaga Prep handled Shadle Park for the second time this season, winning 65-48 at home. Kevin Dudley has the story. … We also can pass along roundups from GSL boys and girls basketball action as well as girls and boys from around the area.

Chiefs: Spokane fell behind early, then rallied like crazy late. Still, the Chiefs dropped a 5-4 decision in Portland.

Seahawks: It’s back to the playoff grind today in Atlanta. This game seems to be some sort of crossroads for the Hawks. Lose and it might be time to make major changes. Win and there is still a chance for glory. … Russell Wilson announced his presence with authority in the last Atlanta playoff game. … The offensive line is always a focal point. … So will be the injury list, with C.J. Prosise’s name the one to look for today.

Mariners: The M’s don’t seem to want anything to do with arbitration, signing eight players who were eligible.

Sounders: Seattle traded its first pick in the draft yesterday, but took another Stanford man at the end of the first round.

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• This isn't just another Saturday. Not with the Seahawks playing. And the basketball that is available. Have fun. Until later …

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