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Steve Christilaw: Imagine Gonzaga versus Villanova again

Gonzaga forward Rui Hachimura (21) drives against Villanova guard Donte DiVincenzo (10) during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game, Tuesday, Dec. 5, 2017, in New York. (Julie Jacobson / Associated Press)
Gonzaga forward Rui Hachimura (21) drives against Villanova guard Donte DiVincenzo (10) during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game, Tuesday, Dec. 5, 2017, in New York. (Julie Jacobson / Associated Press)

I found myself walking across the Gonzaga University campus the other day, and as always, I was struck by how much the school’s architecture has changed over the years.

You know you’re a GU old-timer when you remember what used to be where now stand landmark buildings on campus.

When I got to campus, the baseball team played in a nice, new park named Pecarovich Field. I used to hang out there to watch a young infielder from Honolulu named Lenn Sakata. Watched him play later when he made the major leagues with the Baltimore Orioles.

Of course, that spot is no long there. It’s now home to the McCarthey Athletic Center. I understand attendance is up for that plot of real estate since the upgrade.

My favorite spot to park my champagne gold Barracuda back in my student days is now gone, too. It’s now the John J. Hemmingson Center, and among other things, it’s now home to the Bulldog – one more change from the good-old days.

In those days, we, the loyal, faithful inhabitants of The Kennel 1.0, always looked forward to the basketball games when Seattle University came to town.

It was a big deal. Two Jesuit schools facing off over a round ball.

Seattle U. was the school that had produced the great Elgin Baylor and brought in the first 7-foot center most of us would ever see up close: Jawann Oldham, who had graduated from Seattle’s Cleveland High after making quite a few heads turn as a prep player.

And Gonzaga had produced, well, Bing!

Yeah, it was quite a rivalry.

One of my favorite things about the evolved program of GU basketball is how the Bulldogs love to schedule other Jesuit schools. A lot of them smaller programs looking for a payday by playing in the Kennel.

My favorite was a series with Saint Joseph’s when the Hawks were regular entries in the AP Top 25. After interviewing him in the Kennel, Phil Martelli became one of my all-time favorite college coaches. He’s still on the bench back in Philly.

What you come to understand when you start looking more deeply at college basketball is that Catholic colleges and universities are part of a primary artery for the sport. It’s what the West Coast Conference is all about, after all.

State schools, I know, are legendary. They are storied. North Carolina. Kentucky, Indiana, UCLA.

You can make a list of Jesuit schools: Gonzaga, Creighton, Marquette, Loyola Marymount, Loyola-Chicago, Loyola-Maryland, Loyola New Orleans, Xavier, Fordham, Boston College, Saint Peter’s, Saint Joseph’s, Saint Louis, Holy Cross, Santa Clara, San Francisco.

Or from a list of Catholic schools not run by the Jesuits: Notre Dame, Villanova, DePaul, Duquesne, Seton Hall, Providence, LaSalle, Portland, San Diego, Saint Mary’s, St. John’s.

Neither of those is a complete list, by the way.

And, I may note, the two defending national champions come from these lists. Villanova won the men’s title in March; Notre Dame captured the women’s tournament. That has never happened before – of course, the women’s Big Dance has only been around since 1982. And, well, Connecticut and Tennessee have kind of stood in the way.

There is a nagging thought roaming around as 2018 winds down and I start to prepare my brain for the day next week when I will have to begin using 2019 on anything that requires today’s date: Gonzaga is going to have to play Villanova again, and it’s probably going to be the biggest Catholic school battle anyone from this side of the country has ever seen.

’Nova has won two of the past three national titles and Sports Illustrated postulated that it may well be the “perfect program.”

Gonzaga got lots of press as the game’s Cinderella. Villanova skipped all that.

In the 1985 NCAA championship, unranked, No. 8-seeded Villanova upset Georgetown, 66-64, in the title game. In 2016 the Wildcats beat North Carolina and this spring they beat Michigan for their third national title.

’Nova has played in the Big Dance 37 times. Been to the Elite Eight 13 times and the Final Four five times.

But the thought of a fully healthy Gonzaga facing off with the Wildcats in the Big Dance is an intriguing one. You have to believe that a national title runs through these two programs at some point, so why not a head-on battle.

If that happens, I can only imagine how popular local drinking establishments with big TV screens will be.

That may just set a whole new kind of a record.

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