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John Blanchette: PK80 Invitational gives basketball fans an early-season glance at college hoops royalty

UPDATED: Fri., Nov. 24, 2017

PORTLAND – Somewhere between the first forkful of Aunt Alice’s anchovy stuffing and the third Zantac on Thursday afternoon, a glance at the TV revealed a college basketball first:

A player fouling out while sitting on the floor, waiting to check into the game.

Proof enough that the PK80 Invitational is not just another holiday basketball tournament.

But that’s the Nike way, no? If you’re going to just do it, you’re going to just do it big. So America’s shoemakers brought in 16 teams instead of eight, five Top 25 teams instead of a couple, three Naismith Hall of Famers, 13 of the last 19 NCAA champions, plus some almost champions, like Gonzaga.

“My question is,” said Bill Walton, “where is Georgetown? Where’s Kentucky? Where’s Syracuse?”

Oh, yes. They brought in Bill Walton, too.

Still, he had a point. Bill always has a point, even if it doesn’t necessarily relate to the basketball game you’re both watching.

If this is the ultimate birthday gift to Phil Knight, who didn’t invent the game but certainly created the commerce that helps make coaches rich, then you’d think any of those fellows in the Nike cabal would have dropped everything to be here this Thanksgiving. Knight even zinged Kentucky coach John Calipari in a phone call this week for RSVPing his regrets.

But Calipari used his team’s youth to alibi out – because, you know, he never has a bunch of new guys on his roster after his many ones are done. Likewise, Georgetown bailed so that new coach Patrick Ewing wouldn’t have to take any more lumps as he starts that program’s rebuild. And Syracuse isn’t here because, well, Jim Boeheim.

“Privilege demands responsibility, duty, obligation,” Walton scolded. “For what Nike and Phil Knight have done for everybody, one would hope people would have the courtesy of being here.”

Well, Nike and Phil have done all right for themselves, too, so they’ll get over it.

But duty and obligation can be painful. Four teams will come out of this with three losses, another four with two.

“There are going to be wins and losses from this tournament that we’ll be talking about on Selection Sunday,” said ESPN analyst Sean Farnham.

Scores only, of course.

No one will recall that to stagger past humble Portland State on Thursday afternoon, Duke had to abandon its feckless man-to-man defense and resort to – horrors – zone. Oh, the humanity.

“No reluctance,” said Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski. “I’ve got no hidden tattoo – ‘Man to man defense forever’ inside a heart. I’m not saying I’ve never been stubborn – stubborn is good in trying to turn something bad into good. But with this team, you shouldn’t be stupid. That’s the other S word.”

It was that word – stupid – or one a couple letters shorter that may have bailed out the Blue Devils when Portland State – which led Duke the entire first half – made its last run. As the Vikings’ Bryce Canda appeared to get fouled on a jump shot that closed Duke’s lead to five, teammate Deontae North hollered a protest while seated in front of the scorer’s table ready to check in. The referee with the biggest ears, stationed all the way on the far side of the court, charged in to assess a technical foul – North’s second, and his fifth personal. And the Vikings were suddenly without their leading scorer.

Another detail that won’t be discussed on Selection Sunday.

For Gonzaga to be in the discussion on Selection Sunday, the Zags need to accumulate some resume wins, and the PK80 seems like the perfect place to start – though naturally there’s always the traditional entrée, winning the West Coast Conference tournament and the league’s automatic berth. But WCC coaches have already installed Saint Mary’s as their favorite.

“Everybody’s quick to jump on the Saint Mary’s train – and I understand why,” Farnham said.

“But I think there’s a value in Gonzaga going to the Final Four and playing in the championship game. Guys learned from that experience, even if their roles weren’t as large as they have to be this season. Until somebody knocks off Gonzaga – until Saint Mary’s can do it consistently – I’m a believer that Mark Few’s team is going to find a way to win the championship in that conference.”

Building momentum – and confidence – with some victories in a particularly nasty non-conference schedule wouldn’t hurt. If nothing else, Gonzaga’s past successes – 31-10 in these three-game holiday affairs since 1998 – have been a litmus test. In the last nine years, they’ve won five of them – and in those years finished 1, 2, 7, 10 and 13 in the final Associated Press poll.

But last year’s April success has only increased their stature as November targets.

“That’s good,” Walton insisted. “Great coaches and leaders love the pressure, and they teach their players, to love pressure, too.

“If you’re afraid, this is not the place to be.”

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