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A Grip on Sports: Gonzaga just keeps acing tests, even when they come away from home

Gonzaga's Chet Holmgren, left, and Head Coach Mark Few, center, talks to an ESPN broadcaster after the Zags beat UCLA in the championship game of the Good Sam Empire Classic Tuesday, Nov. 23, 2021 at T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas, Nevada.  (Jesse Tinsley/The Spokesman-Review)
Gonzaga's Chet Holmgren, left, and Head Coach Mark Few, center, talks to an ESPN broadcaster after the Zags beat UCLA in the championship game of the Good Sam Empire Classic Tuesday, Nov. 23, 2021 at T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Jesse Tinsley/The Spokesman-Review)

A GRIP ON SPORTS • Ever get suckered in by one of those Internet “tests” that purport to tell you whether or not you’re going to end up rich or famous or something? An hour and 55 clicks later, you find out the answer is no. An emphatic no. Well, at least Tuesday night, it only took 20 minutes of basketball to answer a whole bunch of questions. And most of them were with an emphatic yes.

•••••••

• Here’s a simple one: If you stuck around for the second half, you are actually a Gonzaga fan. After all, with a 20-point lead, the best roster in the land and a No.-1 ranking in their back pocket, there was no way the Zags were losing to UCLA in this early season Las Vegas “showdown.”

So if you stayed with it instead of, say, turning over to the Seattle Sounders’ lone MLS playoff match of 2021 (though no one suspected that at the time), you proved your Zagdom bona fides.

Other questions answered in those 20-first-half minutes included, in no particular order, concerned the Gonzaga defense (solid to really good), the Bulldogs’ transition game (still among the nation’s best – if not the best), their depth (front court still looking for a fourth big, back court an embarrassment of riches) and whether UCLA was still harboring a grudge from last season’s overtime loss (a pre-halftime flagrant foul and whole bunch of other shoves would seem to indicate that’s a roger, Roger).

One game doesn’t answer every question, of course, not even when it’s a matchup of No. 1 vs. No. 2.

Heck, we still don’t know if UCLA is going to be the second-best team on the West Coast – if you turned to the Zag game early, you got the chance to watch Saint Mary’s complete a beatdown of Oregon – or more like the team that was OK but not great until last season’s NCAA run.

And we don’t know if Drew Timme can adjust when teams double him so often, and from so many different angles, he can’t find much room to operate. He certainly didn’t make the Bruins pay often enough in the second half, despite multiple opportunities in this one. (Our guess? Yes he can – and will.)

We do know, though, ESPN can certainly put on a show when it puts its mind to it. And the network wanted to on this night. It hyped and pushed Dick Vitale’s return to the arena. It hyped and touted – literally – the Vegas location. And it more than likely reaped the benefit of decent ratings. At least for 20 minutes.

• If you don’t know Mitch Haniger’s story, you should. The Mariners’ outfielder seemed like the team’s brightest star-to-be in June of 2019. Then he fouled a pitch off the dirt and back up into his groin. And ruptured a testicle. Goodbye 2019 – and goodbye a decent night’s sleep for a while.

If that had been his only injury, Haniger’s return to the field would have been a success story. But before he could get back to playing he would suffer two more major injuries, undergo two more surgeries and miss the entire 2020 season.

All of which made his 2021 success so remarkable. Thirty-nine home runs. A hundred RBI. A 3.1 WAR. MVP votes.

The best stats, by far, of anyone who did not play in 2020, by choice or otherwise.

And yet there was no chance Haniger was going to be named American League Comeback Player of the Year on Monday. He wasn’t.

As Boston manager Alex Cora said back in April, referring to the Orioles’ Trey Mancini, “He should be the Comeback Player of the Year. He can hit .330 or .180 and he’s the Comeback Player of the Year already. I know there are other guys coming back from injuries, but to come back from [colon cancer] is amazing.”

Yep, the award was pre-ordained. Not because of what Mancini did on the field – he posted fine numbers, with 21 home runs, 71 RBI and a .255 average – but because he was on the field at all.

Returning to play after battling colon cancer is an incredible feat. It’s enough of one, actually, to ensure winning a prestigious baseball award, no questions asked. Especially if you play somewhere on the Interstate-95 corridor.

• You know what this daily feature is? Sure you do. It’s an opinion column. That’s why my name (and, sadly, my picture) is on it. It is filled every day with my opinions. About sports and, occasionally, other stuff, including the best Thanksgiving side dishes (see below).

Which is why I was a bit flummoxed when I received a couple of criticisms concerning my thoughts about Big Sky Conference football and the idiocy of having 13 schools competing for a title, when only eight conference games are played.

It’s not that people disagreed. That’s cool. Encouraged even. It’s that a few folks were angry I didn’t write “a fair and balanced piece.” You know, like reporters are supposed to.

Uh, no. That’s not my role. Everything I write here is my opinion. My thoughts on what’s been reported. Mine and mine alone. There’s no balance – though I always try to see both sides before making up my mind. But once a decision is made, then I wouldn’t be much of advocate if I hemmed and hawed over points of emphasis, would I?

So let’s recap. The Big Sky needs to go to a divisional setup in football or quit saying it picks a champion – on the field.

•••

Gonzaga: If you thought the game was lopsided last night, then comparing coverage of it from the S-R and other places wouldn’t be fair either. With Jim Meehan taking care of the game story, Theo Lawson adding a piece on Andrew Nembhard’s performance, Jesse Tinsley’s photo gallery from Las Vegas, the staff pulling together the difference makers and a recap with highlights, and our contribution, the TV Take, the S-R dominated as well. …There was coverage on most of the major sports sites as well. And coverage from the Los Angeles area. … Before we watched yesterday, we spoke with Larry Weir for the latest Press Box podcast. Uh, our predictions on what would happen weren’t very good. … There is little doubt Gonzaga will hang on to the No. 1 spot in everyone’s power rankings, at least until Friday night’s game with Duke. … Chet Holmgren earned a lot of accolades for his play. … Interested in what college coaches think about some high-profile officials? … Around the WCC, it was another good night. Saint Mary’s blasted Oregon – on ESPN no less, right before the Gonzaga game – and Portland defeated Portland State. … Jeff Judkins, coach of BYU’s women, is out due to COVID-19.

WSU: Before we get to the Apple Cup items, we wanted to pass along this quick notice of Derek Sparks’ death. The former Cougar running back passed on Tuesday. … It’s been a while since Washington State has won the Apple Cup. Nine years in fact. This group wants to end that drought. Colton Clark tells their story. … Of course, Washington wants the streak to continue. Here’s what the Huskies have to do. … Colton also has the news right tackle Abe Lucas will finish his college career at the Senior Bowl. … Jon Wilner has his power rankings in the S-R this morning. … Former WSU star Klay Thompson is back at Warrior practice after his long injury rehab. … Elsewhere in the Pac-12 and college football, Wilner also has his latest bowl projections in the Mercury News. The Cougar one isn’t going to attract a lot of support. … Oregon players have an NIL deal with an Airbnb company. The question is, though, whether its quarterback has a productive deal with his receivers. … Oregon State uses Jack Colletto in so many different ways its hard to keep track. … Third down is the bane of Colorado’s existence. … Utah isn’t struggling anywhere right now, on or off the field. The Utes are the conference’s best team this week. … Jaxson Dart will keep the job as USC’s starting quarterback. The Trojans have other things to worry about. … UCLA’s Quentin Lake would like to join Lucas at the Senior Bowl. … One Bruin was just happy to play. … A rivalry game’s passion some times has to be learned. … Who will Arizona hire as defensive coordinator? … In basketball news, Washington won again. The Huskies are on a streak. … Oregon struggled offensively in a loss to the Gaels. … Colorado is starting to get ready for conference play. … The win over Michigan was big for one Wildcat. … Utah lost a player to a season-ending injury.

EWU: Eric Barriere is going to have to rent a Pod or something. Just to put his awards in. He was named Big Sky Offensive Player of the Year again yesterday. There will be other awards down the road. Dan Thompson has more in this story. … Around the Big Sky, the all-conference teams were released and Montana edged Montana State by one player. … The Bobcats’ Troy Andersen was the defensive player of the year, however, which should count as two. … Northern Colorado has to start looking forward to next season. … Despite a poor record, Weber State still had a lot of all-conference players. … A playoff berth allows UC Davis to start over. … Idaho State will start over next season with a new coach. … In basketball news, Montana is set to host a tournament. … Sacramento State topped UC Davis. … Northern Arizona fell at home to UTRGV.

Chiefs: Leading scorer Luke Toporowski will have to serve a three-game suspension for a hit against Seattle on Friday.

Seahawks: No, bad teams don’t get to play on Sunday nights in December. The Hawks game with San Francisco has been flexed to the afternoon. … Tre Brown had knee surgery.

Kraken: An expansion team always has a lot of players who feel as if their previous team gave up on them too soon. Does it matter?

Sounders: Somehow Seattle’s season ended in a match in which it did not allow a shot attempt. Weird. But the Sounders did not play well and lost 1-0 in penalty kicks to Real Salt Lake. The quest for another MLS Cup is over.

•••       

• Everyone has the one weird Thanksgiving side dish they love, right? Well, maybe not. But we do. It’s a green bean casserole Kim only makes on Thanksgiving but I would appreciate at least 53 times a year. Sure, it’s a vegetable-based dish, which goes against everything we stand for, food-wise, but man it’s good. I think it is the little French-friend-onion crust that takes it over the top. Until later …

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