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A Grip on Sports: The evolution of Gonzaga basketball reaches another milestone with Holmgren’s and Suggs’ announcements

Chet Holmgren, ranked as the top basketball recruit in the U.S., gestures during a news conference Monday in Minneapolis at which he announced he will attend Gonzaga University. He is flanked by his father, David Holmgren and mother, Sarah Harris.  (David Joles)
Chet Holmgren, ranked as the top basketball recruit in the U.S., gestures during a news conference Monday in Minneapolis at which he announced he will attend Gonzaga University. He is flanked by his father, David Holmgren and mother, Sarah Harris. (David Joles)

A GRIP ON SPORTS • Ho hum. Just another Monday, right? Just another one-and-done Gonzaga player leaves and, more than likely, another one signs ups. The way it’s always been. Ya, right.

•••••••

• Every time the Gonzaga basketball program takes another step on its road to blue blood status, I think back to nights in the old Kennel. If you’ve been around Spokane long enough, you know what I mean.

Back when Dan Fitzgerald was coaching and the place was never the No. 1 sports destination in town. Back when you could decide you had to get the kids out of the house, pack up their Matchbox cars and crayons and head for the Martin Centre on a whim. Back when you could buy general admission tickets at the box office, sit up in the south-side bleachers and let the kids spread out, all the while watching college hoop.

Call them the “good old days” if you will. All I will call them is “the past.” And they’re never coming back.

Not when someone like Chet Holmgren goes on ESPN on a Monday morning, spends 10 minutes chit-chatting with someone in Bristol, Conn., and then stands up to display a size XXXL T-shirt with himself displayed in a Gonzaga uniform – three times.

It was the type of circus that is all the rage among the best of the best in college recruiting, something the 7-foot-1 Holmgren represents to the nth-degree. And he will spend the next year entertaining those folks who are lucky enough to get into McCarthey.

He’s also expected to help the Zags win 30 games again. And maybe go undefeated – all the way through the last game of the season this time.

The latter is something that barely eluded his good buddy Jalen Suggs, who also made an announcement yesterday. The point guard extraordinaire is taking his talent to the NBA and his marketing talent to the Interweb, something the NCAA doesn’t let its athletes do today – though tomorrow is another story.

If someone had sat down next to me 30 years ago while I was watching the Zags play Idaho or Portland in the Martin Centre and tried to convince me what the future held for GU, I would have listened in rapt attention. Sort of the way I used to listen to the bearded guy with a “Christ Is Coming” sign yelling every afternoon in front of the Federal Courthouse on Riverside.

Though I would have afforded the Gonzaga prophet even less credence. Looking back on it now, who could have known such an imaginary fortune-teller would actually be right?

Look, I get it. Top-ranked recruits aren’t deities. They are more like Moses, normal folks with abnormal talents. And they are charged with one assignment: lead the Zags to the promised land. That’s the expectations Holmgren brings with him from Minnesota, the same hopes Suggs carried into town a year ago. It almost came to pass, falling that lousy one game short.

Can Holmgren get the Bulldogs over the hump they’ve tripped over twice in the past five years? One thing is for certain, he won’t have to do it alone.

If Drew Timme and Andrew Nembhard each return for another season, the roster will be loaded with proven talent. Heck, guard Hunter Sallis is also headed to Spokane, arriving with a top-10 recruiting ranking as well. Throw him in with Timme, Nembhard, Anton Watson, Julian Strawther, Dominick Harris, Ben Gregg and Kaden Perry, another incoming freshman with a big upside, and Mark Few has more than enough players to meld into a formidable squad – even if guard Aaron Cook doesn’t decide to use his extra season of eligibility.

And, with West Coast Conference schools dipping heavily into the transfer market, the Zags should receive more challenges throughout the conference season, helping prepare them better for the March (and April) challenges.

Thirty years ago those were the months we took the boys to Pecarovich Field to watch Steve Hertz’s baseball teams play WSU and Eastern Washington.

Now we turn on ESPN and wait for the Zags to hit their latest home run. 

•••

WSU: When the Cougars finish up spring practice Saturday with their annual Crimson and Gray Game, there will be a few folks in attendance. Very few. Theo Lawson passes along the sad news that due to COVID-19 restrictions, attendance will be limited to friends and family. … Things change quickly in the world of college athletics. Pat Chun is no longer a candidate for the Northwestern athletic director position. Theo has that story as well. … Elsewhere in the Pac-12 and college sports, this Athletic piece on the conference and football is excellent. … Washington is eight practices into its spring. … Colorado is hoping to get its entire team vaccinated. … Utah is done with the spring portion of its year-round season. … USC has lost a backup quarterback to an ACL injury. … In basketball news, Colorado may hold on to a scholarship for a while. … A Utah player is headed for the professional ranks. … Arizona alum Gilbert Arenas just won’t shut up about Tommy Lloyd. Consider the source, though. Arenas reportedly once brought four guns into an NBA locker room and also pooped in a teammate’s shoes. … Finally, the new transfer rules will allow the rich to get richer.

Gonzaga: We took a quick trip in the Wayback Machine this morning. You know who has an even deeper memory of those days? John Blanchette. And he taps those recollections in this morning’s column. … Jim Meehan covers the news, with a story on Holmgren’s signing of his letter of intent and Suggs’ departure announcement. … Jim talked with Larry Weir about all of this on the latest Press Box podcast. … We can also pass along this story along concerning Suggs’ non-fungible asset sale. … Jim has one more story. Former GU center Oumar Ballo is following Tommy Lloyd to Arizona.  … Gonzaga attracting the nation’s top basketball recruit is no big deal. Really. … Around the WCC, first-year Loyola Marymount coach Stan Johnson spoke with The Athletic about his experiences.

EWU: Tanner and Jake Groves are leaving Spokane for Norman, Okla. They spoke with Ryan Collingwood concerning their decision.

Idaho: A grad transfer basketball player will be joining the Vandal men’s team in the fall.

Preps: Though it was cold and windy Monday, the games and matches went on. Dave Nichols has this roundup of the GSL action.

Mariners: It got a little dicey in the ninth, but Seattle held on for a 4-3 series-opening win over the Dodgers last night at T-Mobile Park. … Hey, not only are the M’s playing well, Kyle Lewis is about ready to return from the IL.

Seahawks: The Hawks sometimes seem to be trouble magnets. It’s happened again, this time with free-agent signee Aldon Smith. … Once again, can the draft get here quickly please? Here’s another mock draft.

•••       

• It’s not often these days eight hours of sleep are a thing. But that happened last night. It was – how should I describe it? – glorious. Not even the cat’s it’s-time-to-feed-me antics interrupted the slumber. Now that’s a night I will remember. Until later …

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