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Gonzaga Basketball

Tough opening act: Ivy League favorite Yale visits No. 11 Gonzaga on Friday

Scan Gonzaga’s season-opening games back to the 1999 team’s breakthrough run to the Elite Eight and there are only a few instances when the Bulldogs tangled with a top-notch foe.

That changes, thanks to scheduling adjustments necessary to accommodate the first game of the Gonzaga-Kentucky series, when Ivy League favorite Yale visits the McCarthey Athletic Center for Friday’s lid-lifter.

A global pandemic, which basically required scheduling revisions on the fly, prompted Gonzaga to open the 2020-21 season (all wins) against No. 6 Kansas, Auburn, No. 11 West Virginia and No. 3 Iowa.

Prior to that memorable season, it was a steady stream of visits by Alabama State, Idaho State, Texas Southern, Utah Valley, Northern Arizona, Sacramento State, Bryant and Southern Utah since the Zags downed Eastern Washington by eight points in the 2011-12 opener.

It’s been nearly two decades since Gonzaga lost an opener, when the 10th-ranked Zags fell to No. 17 Saint Joseph’s at Madison Square Garden. GU lost at No. 3 Illinois in the 2001-02 opener and tipped off 1998-99 season at No. 8 Kansas (loss), at Memphis (win) and at No. 15 Purdue (loss).

The Zags were scheduled to face Yale last season, but that was before Gonzaga coach Mark Few and Kentucky counterpart John Calipari started discussing a possible series last summer.

“When ‘Cal’ and I scheduled that (first Gonzaga-Kentucky) game so late last summer, we were scheduled to play Yale on that day,” Few said. “So we had to move them to the next year (Friday’s season opener). And then also, Cal was generous enough to play (Yale) down in Kentucky last year.”

Last August, Gonzaga and Kentucky announced a two-game series, beginning with the showdown in the Spokane Arena last November and a return date this February at Rupp Arena. Two months later, they agreed to extend it to a six-game series stretching into the 2027-28 season.

It turned out to be a split decision for Kentucky, which dropped an 88-72 decision to the Zags last November and defeated Yale 69-59 at Rupp Arena in December.

So why is No. 11 Gonzaga facing Yale in the season opener? That wasn’t necessarily by design. The college basketball season opened Monday and the Zags’ preference would have been to entertain a lower-level foe to ease into the season.

“We tried, we tried, we tried,” Few said. “It just didn’t happen.”

Meanwhile, Yale, which returned four of its top five scorers, cruised past Vassar 102-53 on Monday night. Sixteen players saw time for the Bulldogs, winners of five of the past eight regular-season Ivy League titles.

Gonzaga has a short ramp-up – Yale and NAIA Eastern Oregon on Tuesday – before the Maui Invitational, which will be held in Honolulu due to devastating August wildfires in Lahaina. The Zags usually play in a Thanksgiving holiday tournament every season and tailor their schedule accordingly before departing for Hawaii or Orlando, Florida, or the Bahamas or Portland.

Before topping Illinois, Arizona and No. 1 Duke to win the 2018 Maui Invitational, GU opened with home routs over Idaho State, Texas Southern and Texas A&M.

Gonzaga posted double-digit wins over Bryant, Colorado State, Oakland and Washington State before going 2-1 in the 2013 Maui Invitational. The Zags faced Mississippi Valley State (win), visited Michigan State (loss) and Purdue Fort Wayne (win) before winning the 2009 Maui title.

Gonzaga had just one game, a 69-60 home victory over Idaho, prior to wins over ranked Maryland and Michigan State and a 65-63 loss to UConn in the 2005 Maui championship game. It was similar in 2002 when GU opened with a 69-61 win over Hofstra before finishing 1-2 in Maui.

Gonzaga’s Maui opener is against No. 3 Purdue on Nov. 20. The Zags could potentially run into No. 9 Tennessee in the second round and No. 1 Kansas or No. 5 Marquette in their third game.