A Grip on Sports: Playing in the NCAA basketball tournament is special but winning a regular season crown is even tougher
Thu., Feb. 2, 2023
A GRIP ON SPORTS • It’s a big weekend for college basketball. How do we know? Simple. It’s February.
• Winning a conference title means a couple things in modern college hoop. It can either mean winning a week-long tournament in March, and the ensuing NCAA Tournament berth, or it means surviving a gantlet that lasts a couple months.
The latter is the impressive one, though it isn’t nearly as prestigious (or lucrative) as the former.
In most conferences, the one NCAA berth is what matters. Not only does it get you into March Madness and allows for the chance of a UMBC-type upset, it also brings a certain spotlight on your school that is unmatched in college sports.
Heck, when Eastern came within a possession or two of upsetting Kansas a couple years ago, the close call helped coach Shantay Legans land a higher-paying job.
That perk isn’t our focus today though. Instead we want to focus on what it takes to win that other title, the regular-season one. It seems appropriate as we reach February, when the key conference games are usually played.
Winning a conference tournament is often a lightning-in-a-bottle occurrence. The shots start to fall, the defense clicks and the fourth seed rolls through a week of near perfection to end up a 14th seed in the NCAAs.
Winning the regular season crown takes week-in and week-out perseverance. It can mean winning when players are sick, injured or just overpowered by the entirety of life. It means walking into an opponent’s gym or arena, sizing up the challenge and overcoming it. It means not letting a bad game spill over into too many of the next, of putting the past into the past and moving on.
In other words, it takes toughness. Physical toughness at times, sure, but most all mental toughness.
It’s not easy. Take what’s happening over at Gonzaga this season. Not the men, who are locked into a battle with Saint Mary’s for another West Coast Conference championship. No, we’re talking about the women.
The Zags entered the season without a full complement of scholarship players. The reasons behind that are complicated and irrelevant to today’s conversation. What is relevant, however, is how many of those scholarship players have missed extended time. From point guard Kayleigh Troung to starting big Eliza Hollingsworth and key inside reserve Maud Huijbens, more than a handful of Bulldogs have been out. There have been points in which GU has suited up seven players. And it keeps winning. Nice compliment to Lisa Fortier, sure, but also to a roster that just hasn’t given in.
They Zags enter tonight’s game at Santa Clara with a 21-2 overall record. More importantly they are 11-0 in WCC play and a game clear of Portland. There is a good chance they can win their 18th conference title.
At Eastern, there isn’t 18 Big Sky regular season trophies in the case. But there should be another added before this month is through.
The Eagles undefeated march through the conference schedule is a little more unexpected. Entering Big Sky play, Eastern Washington had battled its way through a challenging non-conference. Lessons were learned. Losses absorbed. The Eagles’ 6-7 mark wasn’t indicative of what was to come. It was more of a boot camp. And now the rewards are being reaped.
David Riley’s squad is at Sacramento State tonight, hoping to earn its 11th conference win. And to solidify its hold on the top of the standings.
Winning in February may not guarantee anything for the Eagles beyond the top seed in Boise come the first week of March. Getting through one tournament to earn a spot in the next is not guaranteed, no matter the regular season won-loss record.
But it will bring something else. Confirmation that the group pulled together weekend after weekend, overcame all obstacles and challenges and earned a coveted trophy. One that only can be won with toughness.
WSU: There is no tougher road trip in the Pac-12 this year than the one that won’t have to be made in a couple years. UCLA is a top 10 team and USC is playing as well as anyone in the conference. That’s where the Cougars are headed, starting tonight in USC’s Galen Center. Colton Clark has a preview of what the Cougars face. … Not only did Washington State finish its football recruiting – with one signee Wednesday – it also finished out a 30-member football coaching staff. Yes, you read that right. There are 30 folks dedicated to football on and off the field. And that doesn’t count the five strength coaches that work with the sport. Colton has more in this story. … The women’s basketball team hosts Stanford on Friday, trying to break a 40-year (and 71-game) losing streak in the series. … Elsewhere in the Pac-12 and college basketball, Washington will try to end a losing streak to UCLA. … Oregon State is making progress. …. Is Oregon destined to be Arizona’s next rival? .. The schedule the rest of the way for Colorado is quirky. … Arizona State will try to get out of its funk. … We can also pass along a power ranking of the women’s teams. … In football news, there weren’t a lot of signings yesterday as most stars had made their choice during the earlier signing period. But Arizona State picked up a highly sought-after quarterback (with a checkered past) and Washington found another QB as well. … Oregon added to its class. There were other moves with the Ducks as well. … Colorado signed one of the nation’s most sought-after defensive players. … Did Utah hit the jackpot? … USC and UCLA may not have, but the two Los Angeles schools still did well.
Gonzaga: It’s back to the regular season grind tonight for the Zags, as they welcome Santa Clara to the Kennel. Theo Lawson has the game preview, which is the lone one this season broadcast on the CBS Sports Network. … Theo also has the key matchup. … Jim Meehan talked with a Bay Area writer who has knowledge of the Broncos and Saturday’s opponent, Saint Mary’s. … Jim Allen has a preview of the women’s road contest at Santa Clara. The Broncos boast one of the conference’s best freshmen. … Elsewhere in the WCC, Saint Mary’s coach Randy Bennett will try to win his 500th game tonight at USF.
EWU: We mentioned the Eagles’ game tonight above. We link Dan Thompson’s preview here. You are now ready. … The Eagles added nine more players to their 2023 recruiting class yesterday. Dan has that story as well. … Elsewhere in the Big Sky, Montana State added five more football signees. … Cody Hawkins finished his first Idaho State class as coach. … Northern Colorado signed 22 players. … Weber State added 12. … Northern Arizona announced its fall schedule.
Preps: The Groovy Shoes were up for grabs at the Arena last night. North Central won both basketball games and the spirit trophy. Dave Nichols was again in attendance and has this story. … A couple 2B girls basketball players have been opponents for a while. Next season, they will be teammates in Montana. Dave has that signing-day story.
Seahawks: The Hawks have great tight end depth. It is costly, though. Tom Brady finally found the cost of being the best was just too much to pay. He determined that at 45, a lot later than most NFL quarterbacks.
Sounders: The club has found out who it will play in its first match overseas. … The MLS and Apple are streaming partners this year.
Mariners: There are bigger goals this season for the M’s. … Dylan Moore is back after signing a new contract. … Luis Castillo not pitching in the World Baseball Classic doesn’t upset Seattle. … Cal Raleigh says his surgically repaired thumb is fine after catching a bullpen. … The emergence of two young dominating starting pitchers have given M’s fans reasons to hope for the future.
Storm: The WNBA’s best player won’t be in Seattle next season. Breanna Stewart, a free agent who had played her entire career with the Storm, announced yesterday she would sign with the New York Liberty. … Is former Gonzaga star and Seattle native Courtney Vandersloot headed back home? She announced she’s leaving the Chicago Sky as a free agent. Her next destination is still to be determined.
• You know you live pretty far north when you look at the 10-day forecast for early February, see highs in the 40s and rejoice. Heat wave. We will have to dig through the closet and figure out which shorts to wear. Until later …
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