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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

A Grip on Sports: In case you were wondering, yes, this may be the most impressive college hoop season the Inland Northwest has ever experienced

A GRIP ON SPORTS • What were you doing in 2008? Were you in school, maybe in an elementary classroom somewhere, dreaming of the day you would be golfing with Tiger Woods weekly on the revered PGA Tour? Or were you this close to retirement, hoping to spend at least half the year in someplace warm? Some place in the wide in-between?


• No matter what your circumstances were this time 16 years ago, we suppose – an educated guess, actually – you didn’t take notice of something that wouldn’t happen again until after the world had undergone massive trauma and changes. We’re talking about Washington State and Gonzaga being ranked at the same time in men’s college basketball.

That extended trauma for Inland Northwest college hoop followers ended this week, thanks to changes is Pullman. And Gonzaga’s usual late-season success.

You know, we’re pretty lucky in this area right now. Of the four Division I men’s basketball programs within an easy drive (and the lone Division III program), none are having awful seasons.

Oh, sure, the Zags’ are held to an impossibly high standard and that bar hasn’t been met. That’s forced us, on further review, to change “disappointing” to “awful” in the preceding paragraph. But despite such overwrought expectations, this 22-6 group is starting to play at a higher level than some of us – read: your’s truly – thought it would meet before February left the stage.

As for the others, it is pretty amazing in some spots and heartening in others.

The amazing moniker would fit the Cougars, wouldn’t it? They are 21-7. Second in the Pac-12 (and held the top spot for about 45 hours over the weekend). Ranked 19th in the Associated Press poll after their big win at Arizona on Thursday and the let-down loss in Tempe on Saturday.

Eastern Washington is 18-10 and headed, seemingly, for another Big Sky regular season title. Idaho, though mired in Big Sky mediocrity, is still playing much better than last season. Heck the last few seasons. And Whitworth once again won a Northwest Conference title, with the Pirates headed to California for another NCAA appearance.

Sixteen years ago this week, Washington State was ranked 22nd. The Cougs were in the process of finishing third in the Pac-10, earning an NCAA at-large berth – sound familiar? – and headed to the tournament’s Sweet Sixteen. The Zags, who lost at home to WSU earlier in the season, had just returned to the rankings – sound familiar? – at No. 24. They would also play in the tournament – of course.

Think that year was the best in the area’s history? Well, no. Eastern Washington struggled, finishing the season 11-19. Idaho was even worse, finishing 8-21 and well down the WAC standings. Only Whitworth, with current EWU coach David Riley its 3-point-shooting standout, had a typically exceptional season, finishing 21-7 and winning two NCAA tourney games.

Folks, this is the best men’s season around these parts in a long, long time. The best ever? Presentism forces us to answer yes, even without delving into too much research.

The best in more than 16 years, certainly.

• One last thought before we head off to enjoy the mundane tasks of a mundane Tuesday. It’s funny how college basketball works, isn’t it?

As special as Washington State’s season has been, it’s got a dark lining, what with the demise of its conference about to rain down on Pullman. And Gonzaga, having survived a season filled with potholes, faces an even-bumpier path this week, one that will decide its postseason fate. Two tough road games. Opportunity and danger.

With all that being said, enjoy the moment. Future success is not guaranteed to anyone, something Coug fans of any age know well and something Gonzaga fans of a certain age may learn either this week, next month or, heaven help us, over the next 16 years.


WSU: The Cougars moved up in the A.P. poll released yesterday, rising to No. 19. Greg Woods has more in this story. They are also 35th in the NCAA’s NET rankings. … Elsewhere in the Pac-12 and the nation, Jon Wilner has some thoughts on the upcoming conference season awards in the S-R. And we can pass along the rest of his weekly power rankings from the Mercury News. There is also another from the Register-Guard. … John Canzano posts a mailbag each Monday. … Caleb Love is becoming more efficient offensively for sixth-ranked Arizona. … On the women’s side, No. 11 Oregon State slid some in the polls. Where the Beavers will be seeded in the Pac-12 tourney is still to be determined. … No. 13 Colorado did too and then the Buffs took another loss, this one at No. 8 UCLA. … Fourth-ranked Stanford may rely too much on Cameron Brink. … Arizona’s leading scorer is no longer on the roster. … In football news, Wilner takes a look at the Pac-12 and the NFL Combine. … Christian Caple had a chance to talk with Washington’s Rome Odunze. … Utah picked up a few transfers that will help next season. … We really enjoyed this story in The Athletic on how successful coaches from lower levels are passed over though, when given the chance, usually succeed.

Gonzaga: As successful as the men have been lately, the women have been even more so all season. A big reason is post Yvonne Eijim, who announced last week she will return for one more season. Greg Lee spoke with her and has this in-depth story as a runup to Wednesday’s Senior Night in the Kennel. … The Zags stayed at 16th in the women’s A.P. poll (and 12th in the NCAA’s NET rankings). … The men re-entered the A.P. poll at 23rd this week. Theo Lawson passes along that news. … Jim Meehan and Richard Fox return with their Zags’ Basketball Insiders Podcast, which you can listen to here. … The Zags have a big part of this Bubble Watch column in The Athletic.

Whitworth: The Pirates learned their NCAA Division III Tournament assignment yesterday morning. They are headed to California to face host Cal Lutheran. Ethan Myers has more.

Preps: There is a movement afoot to improve the safety of basketball officials in Washington. Part of that effort includes a pilot program using body cams. Sam Taylor and Cole Quinn have the story. … The News Tribune has a look at the 4A boys and girls, the 3A boys and girls and other levels we are passing along, just in case you have a subscription.

Seahawks: Is Russell Wilson on the cusp of some sort of rebound? … What are the Hawks going to do with Jamal Adams?

Mariners: In the not-so-good news department, Julio Rodriguez has been sidelined with a hand issue. … In the better news file, we offer Peter Gammons talking about the M’s, a shutout of the Reds and this Athletic piece on Ichiro’s fascination with baseball’s Hall of Fame.

Kraken: Seattle needed to win last night against the Bruins. And continue to win. It earned the first one, 4-3 in a shootout. Can the Kraken string together a few more?


• In 2008 we were way too busy covering the Cougars’ basketball renaissance to really appreciate it. Partly because the football season had been so awful we were letting the special moments wash over us. That and we were living alone five or six days a week in Pullman and filled our time by just grinding. Until later …