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A Grip on Sports: Are we about to enter the most recent Golden Age of Inland Northwest college basketball?

Robbie Cowgill, facing, goes to hug teammate Kyle Weaver as time expires on only the second loss of the Gonzaga Bulldogs in their home gym after the Washington State/Gonzaga game Wednesday night Dec. 5, 2007 at the McCarthy Athletic Center at Gonzaga University.  WSU won 51-47.  JESSE TINSLEY THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)
Robbie Cowgill, facing, goes to hug teammate Kyle Weaver as time expires on only the second loss of the Gonzaga Bulldogs in their home gym after the Washington State/Gonzaga game Wednesday night Dec. 5, 2007 at the McCarthy Athletic Center at Gonzaga University. WSU won 51-47. JESSE TINSLEY THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)

A GRIP ON SPORTS • Truth be told, Mr. Peabody was one of my favorite Saturday morning friends. Maybe it was because he was a nerd. A nerd with a time machine. So let’s jump in the WayBac Machine and head, well, a little ways back.

•••••••

• June of 2006 doesn’t seem all that long ago. Sure, a lot has happened in the local college basketball scene in the ensuing 14 years, but June of 2020 and that June have a lot in common.

Besides the, you know, worldwide pandemic and all.

But back then, the four-year colleges in the Inland Northwest were all on the cusp of something special. Well, 80 percent of them. Like now.

Remember those good old days? Gonzaga was coming off a seventh consecutive trip to the NCAA Tournament and most of us were wondering just when the bubble would burst. Such success couldn’t continue, right? Neither could it at Whitworth, which had won 20 games again. Washington State hadn’t won anywhere near that but the Cougars had dropped a bunch of close games with a young roster. And were turning over the reins to the younger Bennett, Coach McDreamy to a certain segment of the faithful. Heck, Eastern was a .500 team, but the Eagles featured Rodney Stuckey, quite possibly the most exciting player to hit the region this century.

Oh, and Idaho was not very good. Still, what was about to occur was the best stretch of local college hoops this region had seen.

For the next few years Gonzaga stayed Gonzaga, of course. Meanwhile, Washington State became a top 20 team and, under Tony Bennett, produced its best run since maybe forever. Whitworth remained a NCAA Division III power, Eastern entertained while winning about half its games and Idaho? The Vandals continued to struggle.

For those of us in the region who like to call ourselves fans of college basketball, it was a golden time. There was success everywhere and, beyond that, the brand of basketball being played everywhere north of Moscow fun to watch.

Which brings us to today. Let’s pretend there are no coronavirus worries. That everything connected with college hoops will be up and running in October, just as it has been for the past few decades. We could be on the verge of a season as impressive as the 2006-07 one. Maybe even more so.

How can I say that? Simple. It’s true.

Let’s start from the bottom and work our way up. No, that’s not right. Let’s start from the south and work our way north. OK, it’s the same starting point. Idaho is struggling. That’s hard to deny. The Vandals won only four games last season (the same number they won in 2006-07) and they were hit this spring with NCAA sanctions. It’s going to be a rocky road back to respectability for Zac Claus’ program.

Down the highway in Pullman, however, things have smoothed out. And then some. Kyle Smith’s team was better last season than most thought it would be. And his staff has built on the momentum, putting together the highest-rated recruiting class in, well, forever. The Cougars seem to be on the cusp of their best run of sustained success since Bennett, Tony, left. If CJ Elleby decides to return instead of moving on to the professional ranks, then this year might be akin to WSU’s 2006-07 season. It might be anyway.

Eastern is losing a lot, but the Eagles have dealt with that before. Shantay Legans has built on Jim Hayford’s foundation, turning the Big Sky into a Big Three, joining Montana and Weber State as the dominant programs in the conference. Expect Eastern to be a contender for the conference's NCAA berth once more.

Gonzaga is, as we mentioned before, Gonzaga. Thirty wins. A high NCAA seed. Pros. Five-star recruits. A college basketball blue blood that is going to win an NCAA title some day. Heck, the Zags had just as good a shot to take home the title last season as anyone, had not the coronavirus intervened.

Whitworth has nearly matched the Bulldogs in sustained success despite changing coaches a few times since the Pirates’ most-recent run really started in 2006-07, with a 24-4 season. Damion Jablonski showed in his first year, one that ended with a weekend NCAA sweep in Texas, his ascension to the head coaching position fit a mold established by Hayford and Matt Logie.

Look, if the 2020-21 season goes off as scheduled, four of the five four-year men’s programs in the area have a shot at winning at least 20 games. A good shot.

Eastern has reached that mark four of the past five years. Gonzaga and Whitworth all five. WSU should hit that magic number with the talent coming in. And all four may be part of an NCAA Tournament next spring. That’s never happened before. Three, yes. But four? Nope. Wouldn’t that be something? 

• We wrote about college basketball today. Larry Weir talked about it yesterday on his latest Press Box podcast.

•••

Gonzaga: Mark Few has it going so well, the addition of a two-year starter from a successful Florida program doesn’t seem to move the needle like it once would have. And there is no need for Andrew Nembhard's immediate eligibility. The 6-foot-5 point guard can go the Nigel Williams-Goss or Brandon Clarke road, acclimating a season, practicing against incoming freshman Jalen Suggs and be ready to go in the fall of 2021. Jim Meehan has all this and more in his story.

WSU: The Cougars’ schedule isn’t complete yet, but we do know they will be playing at Hawaii in early November. That news came courtesy of the Warriors yesterday. Theo Lawson has all the interconnected aspects of the nonconference matchup in this story. … Around the Pac-12 and college sports, the pandemic should serve as cover for Larry Scott and the conference to make financially related changes to the league offices. … It’s time to start looking at Oregon State’s position groups, starting with receiver. … A new Colorado coach is actually an old Colorado coach. … USC's athletes can return to campus today. … Transfers abound once again. … In basketball news, it’s a long wait until the NBA draft. … Arizona has added some new language to nonconference contracts. … Finally, why aren’t all colleges releasing overall COVID-19 numbers? Aggregated statistics don’t violate any privacy laws, which are meant to protect the individual.

Preps: We wrote about the WIAA’s recently released guidelines for returning to play in the fall and we did it with our usual emotional bent. Dave Nichols was a little more professional in his column this morning, but the bottom line is the same: Unless it’s safe for kids to go to school, it’s not going to be safe to play sports. So let’s do all we can to ensure both those happen.

Indians: A group of minor league teams, including two Northwest League franchises, are suing insurance companies. The teams are trying to get payments denied after the season was interrupted and probably canceled due to the pandemic. … Being an owner of a minor league team isn’t always about money, though a little more would help. It’s about the love of the game.

Mariners: On the other end of the spectrum, major league baseball will begin play next month. The teams, including the Mariners, will report for another training camp starting July 1.

Seahawks: Russell Wilson is all about the grind, right?

•••       

• Wouldn't it be exciting to follow five or six local teams in an NCAA Tournament next spring? It's possible. Four men's programs are in the mix and almost every season a couple women's programs reach that level as well. At some point we are going to have to give U.S. 195 some cool nickname like The Wheat Highway or something. After all, it's becoming a rival of Tobacco Road. Until later …

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