The distinctions are growing for Hooptown, USA.
The Spokane area, widely known for its prized basketball programs at Gonzaga and the largest 3-on-3 tournament in the world, can add another bullet point to its resume.
Its two local Division I men’s basketball programs – top-ranked Gonzaga (26-0) and annual Big Sky Conference contender Eastern Washington (13-7) – are the only programs in America to produce four different conference most valuable players in the past five seasons.
Not Duke or Kansas, which both have three during that span.
Not Villanova or NCAA Tournament regulars Virginia Commonwealth or Belmont, either.
With 32 conferences and more than 350 teams, Gonzaga and EWU – separated by 18 miles – are among just four schools to pump out their respective conference’s best player at this clip.
South Dakota State (Summit League) and Vermont (America East) have taken home at least four league MVPs in that span, but the selections haven’t been as diverse.
Mike Daum won three of South Dakota State’s past four MVPs and Vermont’s Trae Bell-Haynes and Anthony Lamb also each won the award multiple times.
Gonzaga, which has long been a West Coast Conference MVP factory, earning the award 15 times since 2000, recently saw senior mainstay guard Corey Kispert (19.2 points per game) earn the distinction. Kispert joins former Bulldogs Filip Petrusev (2019), Rui Hachimura (2018) and Nigel Williams-Goss (2017) to win the WCC’s top honor since 2017.
EWU, which opens the Big Sky Tournament on Thursday as the No. 2 seed against No. 10 seed Northern Arizona in the quarterfinals, saw Shadle Park graduate Tanner Groves (17.9 ppg, 7.4 rpg) win Big MVP earlier this week.
Groves joins former Eagles Mason Peatling (2020), Bogdan Bliznyuk (2018) and Jake Wiley (2017) to win the Big Sky’s top honor.
Hoopfest director and former Gonzaga star Matt Santangelo, who witnessed teammate Casey Calvary win WCC MVP in 2000, has enjoyed watching the player development from both schools.
“There’s something in the water out here,” said Santangelo, whose son plays on a youth basketball team with Groves’ youngest brother. “(EWU coach Shantay) Legans has done a fantastic job out there.
“Basketball has always been important to this area, and we’ve seen what Gonzaga has done over the years, but the culture of basketball is still elevating in our area.”
Santangelo, who helped Gonzaga reach the 1999 Elite Eight and 2000 Sweet 16, played during the infancy of the Bulldogs’ run. GU has qualified for 23 consecutive NCAA tournaments.
But before the Bulldogs began to sign the blue-chip recruits they do today, they developed under-the-radar talents like Santangelo and Calvary, helping to springboard the success Gonzaga enjoys today.
Legans, EWU’s fourth-year coach who led the Eagles to Big Sky Tournament title game appearances in 2018 and 2019, and won a Big Sky regular-season title in 2020, has been trying to do something similar.
Groves, Peatling and Bliznyuk had no other Division I scholarship offers out of high school. Wiley, a former Newport High star who played one season at Montana before transferring to Lewis-Clark State, came to Cheney as a senior by way of the NAIA.
EWU came close to having five Big Sky MVPs in a row. Former Northern Colorado guard Jordan Davis – the 2019 Big Sky MVP – initially committed to EWU in 2015 before changing his mind.
MVP talk in recent years for EWU started in 2015 when the nation’s leader scorer, Tyler Harvey (22 ppg), led the Eagles to NCAA Tournament and was drafted in the second round by the Orlando Magic. MVP honors, however, went to Sacramento State guard Mikh McKinney.
Soon after Harvey’s departure, EWU four-year starter and three-time All-Big Sky forward Venky Jois was the 2015-2016 preseason Big Sky MVP, an award eventually given to Weber State’s Joel Bolomboy.
It’s been quite the run in Cheney.
“There’s not much else to do in this area besides play basketball, so that helps our teams in a way,” said Legans, who was EWU’s primary recruiter before getting the head coaching job in 2017. “It gets cold. It gets dark.”
“If you’re living in Malibu and going to Pepperdine, you’re probably going to want to be at the beach even more than working on your game in the gym,” Santangelo said. “It’s different here.
“There’s a type of athlete where Cheney makes sense. There’s a type of athlete where Gonzaga and Spokane makes sense. So you really have to credit the coaching staffs in identifying that and developing the players the way both teams have.”
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