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Gonzaga Basketball

John Blanchette: Near-empty slate on first WCC weekend proves teams must be more flexible than ever

By John Blanchette For The Spokesman-Review

One of the ubiquitous explainers for the civic mania that attended the nascent stages of Gonzaga’s basketball rise was the only-game-in-town factor.

The Bulldogs aren’t really that, of course.

But without a major league concern and with the Pac-12 representative 75 miles away, Spokane’s appetite for something big-time right here was telling, no matter how many other tipoffs and faceoffs are out there for the local sports consumer.

Then came Saturday night, when the Zags were very much the only game in town in a different context.

As in the only game the West Coast Conference could muster.

No matter how hard college athletics pushes against COVID-19, the pandemic pushes back every bit as hard – and then some. While the top-ranked Zags were running away from San Francisco in the second half to an 85-62 victory and a 10-0 record, a peek at the out-of-town scoreboard revealed … four cancellations.

Or postponements. Or playings to be named later.

One hit in five at-bats. Baseball’s Mendoza line.

Loyola Marymount and Pacific put their programs on pause last month – the Tigers for the second time this season – which wiped out scheduled games with Santa Clara and Portland, respectively. Positive tests or contact tracing hiccups at Pepperdine and San Diego took out their meetings with Saint Mary’s and BYU.

Adding the BYU-Pepperdine game that was postponed on Thursday, the WCC lost 70 percent of its opening weekend of conference play.

But, hey, good riddance 2020, welcome 2021! When everything will be made better by the magic of turning a calendar page.

Or not.

“We talked about it all the way back in September and October,” Gonzaga coach Mark Few said. “This is going to be a different year. It was going to be disjointed, it was going to be hard. We all need to stay flexible. We all need to stay nimble. Heck, we switched the time of this thing last night. I got a call from (deputy director of athletics) Chris Standiford and I’m like, ‘Yeah, OK, what the heck? Let’s do it.’ ”

That’s why you may have had to change dinner plans.

ESPN2 had a programming hole when Duke and Florida State pulled out of the 8 p.m. EST time slot in deference to COVID protocols. The Zags and Dons were happy enough to move tipoff up a couple of hours, and getting its marquee program some prime-time exposure on the East Coast was a win for the conference, too.

Even if it was the only one it had Saturday.

“We were hoping for a better start,” Gonzaga athletic director Mike Roth said. “But if you look around the country, you’re seeing a spike (in cases) in college athletics.”

College basketball’s make-good rate on games is hovering around 75% , but there was indeed a significant dip here at the end of the holidays. That’s one thing in the nonconference part of the schedule, and something quite different when conference games must be postponed and made up – or not.

And why WCC athletic directors will be huddling by phone on Tuesday to “try and get our arms around this a little bit better,” Roth said.

“We have a schedule and we want to keep it, but we don’t want to go two weeks with a healthy team that’s not able to play,” he said. “The healthy teams that can play need that opportunity, which means we have to be flexible – and I think we will be.

“In fact, USF and Portland have already scheduled a game for next week. That wasn’t part of their original schedule, but they both have opponents who are on pause, so they put a game together and that makes all the sense in the world.”

The WCC’s leadership chewed on a lot of options before the season – bubble sites, flexible schedules and hard-and-fast contingency plans. Instead, they took a page from the rest of us: Just roll with it.

“We played back-to-back games in each of the past two weeks – maybe we’ll have to do that again at some point,” Roth said. “Maybe the scenarios the Big Sky and Mountain West are dealing with – the same opponent twice in the same weekend.

“But I think tonight is telling us we need to dig a little deeper on how to make that work rather than just hope it will come together, because it didn’t come together for eight schools tonight.”

You might still play them one at a time – but not necessarily the one you expected to play.

“We can’t play these guys? OK, let’s play those guys,” Few said. “That how you have to do it. My guys are ready and willing at the drop of a hat to play somebody different than we were supposed to play if we have to, at a different time and a different venue. They’re fine with that.”

They just can’t be what they and the Dons were Saturday night – the only game in every town.