No feet stomping rhythmically on the bleachers to “Zombie Nation” minutes before tipoff. No Kennel Club members forming a tunnel for players to run through during pregame introductions.
No ear-piercing crescendo of noise from 6,000 jammed inside the McCarthey Athletic Center after a highlight-reel dunk or clutch shot in the closing seconds.
Gonzaga basketball won’t look the same at home games, with fans expected to be benched by COVID-19 safety protocols. It sure as heck won’t sound the same.
The Zags are grudgingly coming to grips with the likelihood they’ll be playing inside a muted Kennel, an eerie backdrop to one of the most anticipated seasons ever for the men’s and women’s programs.
“It was definitely different,” senior guard Jill Townsend said after FanFest last week. “That was the first time it hit me that we weren’t going to have fans.”
The empty building for Kraziness in the Kennel reminded men’s coach Mark Few of preseason scrimmages in recent years against Michigan State, Baylor and Texas. (Scrimmages and exhibition games weren’t allowed this season due to coronavirus concerns.)
“Somehow a lot of random people were sneaking into those things over the years, whether it was (in) Minneapolis or Salt Lake or Denver or Oklahoma City,” Few said. “As is the case with those, once they get out there and guys start playing, they’re all competitive by nature, the moment ends up being big enough and creating enough of a competitive challenge that guys usually step up.”
True enough, but Few was quick to add: “It’s just a shame, though, just a shame. Especially at a place like Gonzaga, with just such a tremendous home environment and such loyal and boisterous fans that love our guys unconditionally. It’s tough.”
It’s yet another challenge facing the Zags entering a season that figures to be bumpy, with COVID-19 cases rising across the country. Senior wing Corey Kispert estimated Gonzaga’s home-court advantage was worth 5 to 7 points per game.
“We’ve seen in the NBA, and we’re going to see it with college basketball. The team that has the biggest advantage has to motivate themselves and create their own energy,” he said. “It’s something we’re going to have to be good at if we want to win those big games.”
The men have won 39 straight at home, the longest active streak in the nation, and sold out every game since the McCarthey Athletic Center opened in 2004. The women have won 16 in a row at home and averaged 5,692 fans last season. They led the nation in attendance percentage of capacity at 94.9.
The players obviously had the biggest influence on that home-court dominance, but passionate crowds played a role, too.
“It’s not as much fun (without fans),” senior forward LeeAnne Wirth said, “but we’ve got to bring the energy when it’s needed.”
It could be a similar scenario on the road. BYU upset the top-ranked Zags last February in front of nearly 19,000 at the Marriott Center. Gonzaga regularly plays in front of packed houses around the WCC, boosting the game-day atmosphere and attendance against teams in the bottom half of the conference that averaged 1,200-2,000 fans last season.
“It will be different on the road, too,” junior guard Joel Ayayi said. “We’ll have to motivate ourselves and be sure we’re there to pick each other up.”
Few suggested that games witnessed by maybe 50 players, coaches, staff and media could have an impact on outcomes.
“I kind of think everybody is shrinking to the mean. The separation will be smaller,” he said. “Some of us, at least recent traditional powers have phenomenal home courts. Without that, you’re going to have to have a really disciplined and focused team that understands being ready to go and creating their own energy.
“Opponents sure aren’t going to feel intimidated coming into any of these environments, that’s for certain.”
Senior seasons certainly appear promising in most respects for in-state products Townsend, from Omak, and Kispert, from Edmonds. They found creative ways to work out and sharpen their on-court skills despite COVID-19 restrictions.
Townsend, the 2020 WCC Player of the Year, is the first player in program history to be named to the Naismith Trophy preseason watch list. She fashioned her own workout equipment out of bottles and anything else on the family ranch.
Kispert was voted preseason AP All-America, and he’s a favorite for WCC Player of the Year. He toted around backpacks filled with rocks, went on runs with weighted vests and worked on his game at the family’s backyard hoop.
Kispert has been able to look up and see family members at nearly every game, home or away, in the stands.
“We do know if people are allowed, family are going to be the first ones let in, so that’s really exciting on our part,” he said. “My family does come to a lot of games, especially here in Spokane. Having them here would be huge for me.”
The GU women have just one nonconference home game, but twins Kayleigh and Kaylynne Truong are optimistic their parents will attend the Bad Boy Mowers Crossover Classic from Nov. 28-30 in South Dakota.
“It’s been hard,” Kayleigh said. “They don’t get to go to very many games. And our grandma lives with us (in Houston), so my parents have to be really careful with traveling. But I think we will see them in South Dakota.”
Townsend’s parents Nathan and Janell have made the 2½-hour drive to Spokane for every one of her home games.
“This is for sure killing them,” Townsend said, “especially with this being my senior year.”
Jim Allen contributed to this story.
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