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Sports >  Gonzaga basketball

Why 2021 was the right time for Gonzaga to bring back the Battle in Seattle

UPDATED: Thu., Dec. 2, 2021

Gonzaga head coach Mark Few calls to his team during the Bulldogs’ last Battle in Seattle against Tennessee on Dec. 19, 2015, in Seattle. Gonzaga won 86-79.  (Associated Press)
Gonzaga head coach Mark Few calls to his team during the Bulldogs’ last Battle in Seattle against Tennessee on Dec. 19, 2015, in Seattle. Gonzaga won 86-79. (Associated Press)

In the five years since Gonzaga decided to table the Battle in Seattle, one blockade after another prevented the Bulldogs from holding legitimate discussions about renewing the annual series.

Even then, there was always mutual interest in bringing the game back. Seattle’s large alumni base savored the annual opportunity to see the Bulldogs in person without the hassle of a road trip over the snowy Cascades, and the Puget Sound had always been a key hub for Gonzaga in terms of recruiting and corporate sponsorships.

So, why did the game spend five years on the back burner?

Initially, it was a matter of lining up the right opponent. For all the success Gonzaga had luring quality teams to the Battle in Seattle – No. 3 Missouri came for the inaugural game in 2003 and No. 2 UConn made the trip five years later – the game didn’t seem as enticing from an opponent’s standpoint in the latter years as the Bulldogs brought in five consecutive unranked teams, including South Alabama and Cal Poly in 2013 and ’14, to play neutral-site games at KeyArena.

Another obstacle: The West Coast Conference’s expansion from a 16- to 18-game schedule in 2014 meant the Bulldogs had to be more selective when crafting their nonconference schedule.

Even if Gonzaga had interest in bringing the game back after a two- or three-year pause, facility issues would’ve added another obstacle. A billion-dollar renovation of KeyArena began in 2019, but COVID-19 delays and inflated shipping costs prolonged the project’s completion until earlier this year.

While the Battle in Seattle went on a five-year hiatus, the appetite to see high-level college basketball in the Puget Sound area – and the Zags, specifically – only escalated.

That was apparent when CBS Sports’ Jon Rothstein reported in late May the Bulldogs were nearing an agreement to resume the Battle in Seattle, generating more than 100 retweets on Twitter, then again on July 16 when general admission tickets went on sale for Saturday’s 5 p.m. game with No. 16 Alabama at Climate Pledge Arena.

“It sold out in something like 15 minutes,” first-year Gonzaga Athletic Director Chris Standiford said. “It went really, really fast.”

As for how the newest installment of the Battle in Seattle actually came together? Multiple things needed to happen, but chief among those was the completion of Climate Pledge Arena, the home of Seattle’s new NHL franchise, the Kraken.

Last Friday’s top-five matchup between Gonzaga and Duke at T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas drew the largest basketball crowd in Nevada history. The Bulldogs will be part of another landmark moment on Saturday when they take on the Crimson Tide in the first basketball game played at Climate Pledge.

“The owners of the Kraken reached out to me, they’ve been wonderful setting this game up,” GU coach Mark Few said. “They really wanted us to be the first basketball game in there, so we’re excited to do that. We’ve always had some great events and great atmospheres and great games with the Battle in Seattle and even with our NCAA Tournament runs over there. So, looking forward to it.”

The game’s origins date back to the early 2000s, a period when Gonzaga struggled to get high-major opponents to Spokane. The neutral-site environment of KeyArena was more palatable, even if it still drew a pro-Gonzaga crowd, and even when quality foes came around to playing the Bulldogs at McCarthey Athletic Center, the Battle in Seattle had become an important piece of the program’s fabric.

“It essentially gives up a home-and-home, but when we first started doing this we couldn’t get teams to come and play in our physical (arena), here in McCarthey,” Standiford said, “so it’s kind of started out of necessity, but it built to become such an important tradition an opportunity for us that we just kind of want to go back over there.”

Alabama agreed to play Gonzaga in Seattle this year, but the Bulldogs will return the favor next season when they meet the Crimson Tide in Birmingham.

It’s also common for GU to sign a four-game contract with a quality nonconference opponent, each team getting a home game and neutral-site game near their campus.

“There’s a group of really, really good teams that are either looking to do neutral-neutrals or home-neutral-home-neutral, stuff like that,” Few said. “Just kind of the same stuff we do as always.”

The WCC’s decision to trim an 18-game conference schedule to 16 games four years ago received high approval ratings from almost everyone in the conference and especially Gonzaga, which uses November and December to build its resume and boost its chances of grabbing a high NCAA Tournament seed.

Standiford can’t guarantee the Battle in Seattle will happen annually, but said, “I really hope we can do it with some regularity.

“That’s one of the big benefits of the West Coast Conference’s 16-game schedule, so it affords us a few more of these opportunities.”

Even if it happens on a biennial basis, the Battle in Seattle will be a priority moving forward. The game itself has been a rich part of the program’s history the past two decades, and one can’t take a trip through memory lane at Gonzaga without a few key pit stops at the venue now known as Climate Pledge.

“Well, Adam Morrison banking in a 3 to beat Oklahoma State. That was probably the biggest one I remember,” Standiford said, recalling his favorite Battle in Seattle moment. “But it’s also the genesis of, that building is where we started our run in ’99. Our first two NCAA wins happened in KeyArena, so a lot of great memories over there.”

And starting Saturday, many more to make.

COMING UP Saturday: Gonzaga vs. Alabama in Seattle, 5 p.m. TV: ESPN2

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