If you’re a college basketball fan in the Inland Northwest, it’s more than likely you’ll have a dog in the fight when the NCAA Tournament begins later this week.
A Bulldog, that is. Or maybe a Cougar. Possibly an Eagle.
Three of the four Division I schools in the region will be represented when college basketball’s annual showcase tips off – in the Indianapolis area for the men and the San Antonio area for the women – and four Inland Northwest teams will be competing in this year’s NCAA Tournament.
That’s four of a possible eight, setting a record for most area teams sent to the Big Dance.
The top-ranked Gonzaga men open the tournament on Saturday at 6:20 p.m. against No. 16 Norfolk State or Appalachian State.
Assuming the heavily favored Bulldogs pass that test, Monday could be a hectic day for fans of GU basketball.
The Zags women open their 2021 tournament as a No. 5 seed against No. 12 Belmont at 1 p.m. The men would have a Round of 32 game the same day, against either No. 8 Oklahoma or No. 9 Missouri.
Meanwhile, the Eastern Washington men return to the tournament after cruising to the Big Sky Tournament championship. The No. 14 Eagles open Saturday against No. 3 Kansas at 10:15 a.m.
Finally, returning to March Madness for the first time in 30 years, the No. 9 Washington State women will be targeting the program’s first tournament win when they play No. 8 South Florida at 6:30 p.m. on Sunday.
“There’s a lot of talent. I don’t think you realize how much talent it is around here until you start noticing that,” third-year WSU women’s coach Kamie Ethridge said. “The success of these programs and some of these programs have been doing it a long time, so kudos to them.
“They’ve been proving it and doing it for a long period of time and we’re the new kid on the block.”
Combined, the eight area teams have made 53 NCAA Tournament appearances, with the Gonzaga men (23) accounting for close to half . Although this is the first time four teams have gone dancing in the same year, three teams have qualified for the tournament on four occasions. In 2015, the EWU men joined the GU men and women. In 2013 and 2014, the GU men, GU women and Idaho women all qualified. In 2007, the WSU men joined the GU men and women in the Big Dance.
The Inland Northwest had a chance to sent five teams to the tournament this year, but a shorthanded Idaho women’s squad couldn’t overcome top-seeded Idaho State in the Big Sky Tournament championship game.
Nonetheless, it serves as another crowning achievement for an area that’s never been shy to flaunt its passion for the game of basketball.
When Southwest Airlines passengers arrive at Spokane International, they’re greeted by a black “Hooptown USA” mural that’s draped across one of the walls inside the main rotunda.
“Spokane’s Hooptown for a reason and I think it shows with the programs that are centered around this city,” Gonzaga senior Jill Townsend said. “… It just speaks to the type of pride this city takes in basketball. It shows the world we’re not just the greatest 3-on-3 basketball city but the greatest basketball city, period.”
Fourth-year EWU coach Shantay Legans moved to the area in 2009 to take an assistant coaching position with the Eagles. The Ventura, California, native and former Cal/Fresno State player didn’t know what to expect when he arrived in Cheney, but Legans was enlightened toward the region’s basketball fixation when he was coerced to attend Spokane Hoopfest in 2010.
“I didn’t go to the first Hoopfest when I was here because I was like, ‘I’ve been to places, I’ve been to Hoop it Up 3-on-3 and there’s like 600 people. It’s pretty cool,’ ” Legans said. “No big deal. They were like, ‘No, dude. You’ve got to go.’ … The next year I went, I never missed it again. … It blew my mind how much the Spokane area really loves hoops. It blew my mind.”
In some cases, the college programs battle for regional supremacy or bragging rights, but whenever they reach the postseason, they draw full-fledged support of their neighbors.
“When everyone’s rolling, it’s awesome,” Legans said. “Obviously, it all starts with Gonzaga. If you think differently, you need to get checked. … If you’re intelligent enough, I use them all the time. I use them to get players all the time. It is what it is.”
In the pre-COVID-19 era, Legans occasionally bumped elbows with Mark Few and his staff on the recruiting trail; be it at AAU tournaments or various high school games around the state and region.
“We’re in the back gym, they’re in the main gym most of the time,” Legans laughed. “We’re trying to find guys, they can go pick guys.”
The connections and ties between the programs seem endless.
Legans’ staff recruited many of the players that wound up at Gonzaga – “we recruited Corey Kispert for like a week,” he joked – and the Eagles were the first to offer Gonzaga Prep’s Liam Lloyd, the son of GU assistant Tommy Lloyd, along with Zags freshman Ben Gregg.
Pickup games between the Gonzaga and EWU men take place frequently during the offseason; same as those between WSU and Idaho on the Palouse.
In an alternate world, Townsend, Gonzaga’s hero at the buzzer last week at the West Coast Conference Tournament, may have been wearing a crimson Wazzu uniform at the upcoming NCAA Tournament.
The Okanogan, Washington, native was recruited by Ethridge’s predecessor, June Daugherty, and nearly signed with the Cougars before choosing the Bulldogs.
“WSU is an awesome program,” she said. “I was recruited there, I was super close to going there. So to see the success they’ve had this year, it’s incredible. They’ve had some major upsets and they could beat anyone.”
And go figure: Townsend’s older brother, Tim, was a football player at EWU.
Randy Groves, the father of EWU’s Jacob and Tanner Groves – the latter of whom was recently named Big Sky Player of the Year – spent two seasons at Community Colleges of Spokane playing for coach Mike Roth, now in his 23rd year as Gonzaga’s athletic director.
“Back in the day,” Roth said. “So, the connections run deep.”
Craig Fortier, a GU women’s assistant and the husband of head coach Lisa Fortier, grew close with Legans while both served as assistants for the EWU men from 2011-14. Whenever Legans is at Hoopfest, he makes it a priority to track down the court where the Fortiers’ kids are playing.
Heather Gores, Gonzaga’s Associate Director of Athletics/Programs, was a member of the last WSU women’s team to qualify for the NCAA Tournament, in 1991 – back then as Heather Norman – and had a brief assistant coaching stint with the Cougars.
“The Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon are in existence when it comes to connections in basketball with our local schools,” Roth said.
While the unbeaten Gonzaga men have created a powerhouse program that’s almost self-sufficient at this point, the region’s growing basketball culture has helped many of the other programs heighten their exposure and visibility.
“I think it has to do with how much people love the sport around the area,” Legans said. “Having four teams shows you it really does, because we’re serious about basketball. … One of the focal points of the area is basketball and that’s a great sign if you’re a basketball coach, a basketball player. You want to be here.”
Roth proposes a slight modification to the “Hooptown USA” slogan birthed by Hoopfest Director Matt Santagelo, a former GU guard who was partially responsible for kick-starting the Bulldogs’ dynastic run – something that’s keyed the region’s general passion for the game.
“Guess what? The Inland Northwest is now ‘Hoop Area USA,’ ” Roth said. “It’s pretty special.
“… Just a great opportunity for the whole Inland Northwest to have multiple teams to cheer for, be proud of.”