It wasn't that long ago that the Washington Huskies and the Gonzaga Bulldogs were the runts of the West Coast basketball litter. A dozen years ago the only tournaments for the two schools were of the pre-conference variety, not the Big Dance. How times have changed.
With seven consecutive trips to the NCAA Tournament under their studded collar, the No. 6 Bulldogs travel cross-state this weekend to scrap with a Husky program that has stolen some of its Northwest thunder. With a path to success that parallels Gonzaga's rise in the late-Nineties, Lorenzo Romar crafted a core of unheralded local players into a tenacious team that knocked off the big dogs of the Pac-10. Catapulting from a ninth-place conference finish to a No. 1 NCAA Tourney seed in just three seasons, Washington's senior class has set its sights on the school's first three-year NCAA run in 30 years.
But there's one thing they have to do first. Beat Gonzaga. The Bulldogs haven't advanced to the Sweet Sixteen since 2001, but they have defeated their big-city challengers seven consecutive years, adding some bitterness to the rivalry. The Zags' recent dominance, tying the longest winning streak against Washington by a non-conference opponent, has done little to diminish the competitive fires.
"It's the U-Dub," said Adam Morrison, Gonzaga's All-American candidate. "They hate us. We hate them. It's plain and simple."
Bobby Jones, the Huskies' senior forward, was a bit more diplomatic. "It's a nice Northwest rivalry and there's a lot of stuff at stake. I know I want to at least get a win before I leave."
"You can tell the Washington fans, everybody wants to beat Gonzaga really badly," said sophomore Ryan Appleby, who had a career-high 18 points last week. "Especially when it's one of your in-state rivals and they beat you that many times in a row. It would be same thing if the Cougars beat us seven times straight. We need to get a win."
The two schools have been about as welcoming to visiting teams as a junkyard dog. With an 89-80 victory over Portland State Wednesday—lackluster by Gonzaga standards—the Bulldogs have the second longest home winning streak in the nation, 27 games. If they want the longest streak, they'll have to take it from the Huskies Sunday. Washington has defeated 28 consecutive teams at the Hec Ed home court, a streak that spans 24 months, including victories over then-No. 1 Stanford and Arizona, who visited twice with a No. 9 ranking.
The No. 18 Huskies, undefeated since their Sweet Sixteen loss to Louisville, are coming off their second 100-point game of the season leading the nation in scoring with 98.5 points per game. Off to their best start (6-0) in 15 seasons, the Dawgs' defense has created a truckload of transition points. In last week's 112-65 drubbing of Loyola Marymount, the Huskies forced 22 first-half turnovers and had 13 steals and 44 rebounds for the game. The end result was 64 points in transition.
The solidifying UW defense, which has limited opponents to 65.5 points a game, is arguably the best Gonzaga has faced this season. The Zags were flying high after their strong showing in the Maui Invitational, falling just two points shy of knocking off No. 3 Connecticut in the championship game. But Portland State's second half surge, cutting the Zags' 22-point lead down to seven, triggered some alarms.
"If we play like this against the U-Dub, we're going to get beat by 30," said Morrison, who dropped 43 points on Michigan State in the triple-overtime semifinal in Maui.
"I'd appreciate it if you'd quit praising them so much," Few told the press following the game. "People tell us how good we are and we just drop off."
Portland State, under the guidance of former Husky assistant coach Ken Bone, provided a blueprint for the Dawgs. The defending Big Sky champs from Division I-AA hit 13 of 23 from behind the arc to stay close, many on kick-outs following penetration. Against Gonzaga's solid frontline, the undersized Vikings won the rebounding battle 39-32 and, even more surprisingly, got the upper-hand in the backcourt as their starting guards combined for 34 points.
Forwards J.P. Batista (21 points, 9 rebounds) and Sean Mallon (10 and 10) helped carry the Zags. Batista, the bulky Brazilian, scored seven straight points as the Bulldogs pulled away temporarily at the start of the second half. "Batista is a phenomenal low-post scorer," Romar said.
But Morrison will be the Huskies' biggest challenge as they tackle the most polished offense of their young season. The 6-foot-8 junior is second in the nation in scoring, with a 27-point average. There have been some sloppy comparisons to Larry Bird, his idol, but it's the outward appearance of the mop-topped, mustachioed Morrison that most closely mirrors Larry Legend. Equating him with one of the game's greatest is a bit premature, but there's no denying Morrison's significant talent.
While at Spokane's Mead High School, Morrison scored 37 points in the 2003 State 4A championship game versus Franklin. "I watched that game and I thought, after John Stockton, he'll be next best player to put on a Gonzaga uniform," said Romar. "He's as good an offensive player as there is in the country. Maybe Carmelo Anthony is the last time I've seen a guy that good offensively."
His ability to score in variety of ways gives the Dawgs some match-up issues. "I don't think you guard Adam Morrison with one guy," Romar stated. "As a team we've got to always know where Morrison is. He's just a great player. Obviously, Bobby (Jones), Brandon (Roy), guys like that will be on him. With the way we substitute and pick up defensively, I'm sure different people will be on him."
Derek Raivio, Gonzaga's point guard, struggled versus Portland State, shaken by the death of a friend earlier in the week. The junior from Vancouver fouled out with six minutes remaining after just 5 points and 4 assists. Last year at the new Kennel, Raivio was a major thorn in the Huskies' side, contributing 21 points and 8 assists to the Bulldogs' 99-87 victory.
"It seems like when he's shooting good, their whole team is playing pretty good when he gets on a roll," said Appleby, who will be a key component if the Huskies can exploit GU's perimeter defense and demonstrate better backcourt depth. Freshman guard Jeremy Pargo has emerged for the Zags off the bench, while frosh Justin Dentmon is handling much of the point guard duties for the Dawgs.
"With the addition of Pargo, their backcourt is really good," Romar opined. "Now they've got a couple of guys out there that can pass it, score it and handle it. So that makes them, I think, even more efficient offensively. Gonzaga has always had a fifth guy that was a chemistry guy. (Pierre Marie Altidor-) Cespedes last year was kind of that guy. Pargo and Ravio are a lethal combination."
The development of lesser-known players has been an integral part of Gonzaga's dominance of the West Coast Conference. "You can compare them to the way UNLV was when they were in the Big West. UNLV was very dominant in there," Romar recalled. "They'd lose one or two games the entire year and be ranked No. 1. They won a championship, but the conference wasn't looked upon as one of the elite conferences. Gonzaga has done it the right way. They've done a fantastic job of evaluating guys that not only were better than most thought, but that fit their system. It didn't happen overnight. They've built this up over a period of time and now they have a great foundation."
While the Zags' have controlled the series of late—Washington leads all-time 28-13—the Huskies have had some off-court success. The UW's bulldog Jon Brockman, as well as Roy and Appleby, turned downed offers from Gonzaga. Small forward Phil Nelson, considered one of the best shooters in the country, recently chose Washington over GU and Georgia Tech.
There is a return trip to Spokane scheduled next year, but Romar was vague about the future of the series, which became a yearly tradition in 1997 under the coaching predecessors, Bob Bender and Dan Monson. Adding the game to future schedules is possibility, but not a certainty Romar said, which was perhaps a motivational tactic aimed at his squad.
"One thing that certainly helps is if we can be successful. If one side is successful and the other isn't, it's not much of a rivalry. When you talk about the Apple Cup, when you talk about the greatest rivalries, those are conference rivalries that I see. Xavier-Cincinnati, that's a fun (non-conference) rivalry. Louisville-Kentucky, there's a good one. We've to do our part—those are two programs that have won national championships."
The fourth-year coach understands the importance of the game, especially in the eyes of the fans, but also stressed the bottom-line for the season. "Bragging rights is more of a fun thing. We've beaten Arizona the last five out of six times, but Arizona was the one that was almost in the Final Four last year. Arizona has been the one that has been to 22 straight (NCAA) Tournaments."
"I think Washington has tremendous weapons and Gonzaga is going to have more of a problem matching up with them," Bone said Wednesday night. A veteran of the Huskies' staff in his first year at the helm of the Vikings' ship, Bone was quick to point out the addition of Brockman, who played for his brother, Len, at Snohomish. "(Gonzaga) had Ronny Turiaf for a few years and he was hard to deal with. Now the Huskies have Brockman. He just adds a dimension they haven't had. In a game like that, it could be the difference."
The battle on the blocks will be one to watch. Morrison had 26 points and 8 rebounds in the last meeting, with Mallon adding 16 and 5. Batista played second fiddle to Turiaf's 23-point, 13-rebound effort. For the Huskies, Jamaal Williams supplied a scrappy performance off the bench with 18 points and 6 boards, while Jones added 12 points. Brockman, in his first major test, will fill in for the injured Mike Jensen, who had 13 points and 4 rebounds in last year's dogfight.
"I think it's going to be a great game between two great teams from the state," offered guard Joel Smith. "There's going to be a nice buzz in (Bank of American Arena). Everybody, the team, the crowd, is going to be fired up."
The Huskies will be defending their pride and their home court record. "I think the winning streak itself is a big deal," said Romar. "If you're a competitor, anything like that is a serious competition. It's awesome when the stakes are high and it's a packed house. Not only a packed house, but an enthusiastic house—it's a great feeling."
After a run of overmatched opponents, the green Huskies will get the first true calibration of their improvement. Ten thousand will be on hand to help send the Bulldogs home with their tails between their legs.