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Wednesday, September 18, 2019  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Grip on Sports: What’s in a number anyway?

Gonzaga senior forward Johnathan Williams leaves the floor after defeating Pepperdine, Saturday, Feb. 17, 2018, in the McCarthey Athletic Center. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)
Gonzaga senior forward Johnathan Williams leaves the floor after defeating Pepperdine, Saturday, Feb. 17, 2018, in the McCarthey Athletic Center. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)

A GRIP ON SPORTS • If you are a fan of obscure 1970s movies (and really, everyone should be), then you will recognize the name Johnson, Navin R. And how excited he got about regular season college basketball polls. No, that’s not it. It was something to do with the phone book. Read on.

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Nothing? Are you kidding? Page 73 – Johnson, Navin R.! I’m somebody now! Millions of people look at this book every day! This is the kind of spontaneous publicity – your name in print – that makes people. I’m in print! Things are going to start happening to me now.”

• They did, too, but not in the way Steve Martin’s character in “The Jerk” wanted them to.

Having your name in the phone book those days carried about as much weight as having your name in the Top 25 basketball polls does these days.

Of all the polls done, maybe only the presidential one in Wisconsin two years ago or the Twitter one yesterday about “real chili, without or without beans,” were less important than each week’s Associated Press or coaches’ poll, but maybe not.

When March comes around, whether your team was ranked in the top five or 10 or 25 really doesn’t matter anymore than having your name in the phone book, does it?

OK, I’m exaggerating for effect here. After all, everyone knows real chili has beans. And everyone knows the teams ranked in the final Top 25 before Selection Sunday will make the NCAA tournament, but there is no correlation.

Being ranked isn’t the goal of most college basketball teams, players or coaches. It’s making the dance.

Do you think former Idaho coach Kermit Davis opened practice this season by telling his players at Middle Tennessee State their goal was to be in the Top 25 this season? I’m pretty sure, without having been there, he emphasized making the tournament again – and this time winning more than one game.

Yet yesterday the Blue Raiders – is a Blue Raider a guy who goes down to the Trustworthy Hardware store and takes all the blue paint or something? – were ranked by the Associated Press for the first time in school history. I bet there was a parade in Murfreesboro.

No, no there wasn’t. But if they win the NCAA tournament, I’m sure there will be one.

So what brings the polls to our attention this week? Maybe it is Gonzaga being ranked sixth in the nation. You know, the Bulldog team that a couple weeks ago people were worried it wouldn’t even catch Saint Mary’s in the West Coast Conference?

Yep, that one.

Is this year’s team that good? Maybe not. But that doesn’t really matter with the rankings. The Zags have won against good teams, they have won against bad teams and they have continued to win. Twenty-five times in fact. And in a season in which there are no dominant teams, other than maybe Virginia on the defensive end, that’s enough to give you a top 10 ranking.

And, surprisingly, a chance at making a long run in the NCAA tournament. Again. The NCAA’s RPI may hate the Zags – they keep winning and keep dropping, all the way to 43 today – but the poll voters love them, the analytics guys love them and all those folks bundled up in their Gonzaga sweatshirts around here love them.

So sixth is just fine with them. Even if it doesn’t matter much more than that name tucked between Johnson, Michael P., and Johnson, Nelson T.

• Speaking of the RPI, Saint Mary’s still sits at 32, despite having the same record as GU. Take a look at Saint Mary’s nonconference schedule. Then look at Gonzaga’s. Yes, both played some really poor competition. And, yes, both played some good teams, though Gonzaga played a few more. But there is one thing that really stands out. Saint Mary’s did not play a nonconference game outside of the state of California. Not one.

How they heck are the Gaels higher in the RPI than GU?

•••

WSU: Our Theo Lawson takes the time each week to vote in the AP poll. And he takes even more time to explain why he voted the way he did. … There is a report out there Kansas and WSU have reached agreement on a home-and-home football series. … Elsewhere in the Pac-12, there was a basketball game last night pitting two top 10 teams. It was on the women’s side, with No. 8 Oregon holding off 10th-ranked UCLA in overtime. … Arizona’s Dusan Ristic will be the winningest Wildcat ever. … Oregon and Colorado seem headed to the NIT unless either wins the postseason tournament. … Let’s see, we have another poll story and a look around the conference to pass along.

Gonzaga: Here’s another RPI fact for you: In nonconference, Gonzaga played six teams in the RPI’s top 63 (as of today). Only one was in the Kennel. The Zags were 4-2. Saint Mary’s played, and won, one, New Mexico State. It was at home. … Jim Meehan has a story on the Zags’ poll ranking. … The baseball team picked up a win in Arizona. … Around the West Coast Conference, BYU has little depth and it shows. … Saint Mary’s depth may take a hit this week.

EWU: Bogdan Bliznyuk is the Big Sky player of the week again.

Chiefs: Spokane will host Everett tonight in the Arena. … Portland has three games this week.

Preps: Our friend Dave Trimmer checked in with a couple legends in area prep hoops: Emily Westerberg and Aubree Johnson. The names have changed, but the relationship has stayed the same: close. … Hey, more polls. Gonzaga Prep, ranked first in Washington’s state RPI rankings, is now the 25th best team in the nation according to the USA Today poll. … I wonder if other sports may someday follow soccer’s lead.

Mariners: Baseball wants games to be shorter. So there are new rules. And new ways already being devised to get around them. … The M’s have a couple injuries to deal with even before spring training really gets going. One of them is to top prospect – maybe the M’s only top prospect – Kyle Lewis. His knee is bad again.

Seahawks: Could Seattle put the franchise tag on Sheldon Richardson and keep him for next year?

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• And I thought it was cold before. It was so cold last night – how cold was it? – walking on the back deck, pieces of ice would just break off and form icebergs on the back lawn. The ice was that brittle. And those of us in Spokane were lucky, because our cloud cover last night kept the temperature around 10 degrees. It was well below zero in Coeur d’Alene and elsewhere in the area. Until later …

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