SEATTLE – Never mind the morning flight they took a few hours after Thursday night’s win over Washington State.
Forget the 300-mile separation, the east-west difference or the fact that not a single player who will suit up for them today hails anywhere within a two-hour drive of Seattle.
Still, when the Gonzaga Bulldogs arrived at KeyArena for a shootaround Friday afternoon, they felt the comforts of home all around them.
“I think everybody feels like it’s a little bit of home-away-from-home because we’ve been over here so many times in the last four years – with this, the (2004) NCAAs and two times playing the (Washington) Huskies,” Gonzaga coach Mark Few said Friday as his team prepared for a third annual event known as The Battle in Seattle. “We’re all right with that.”
The Gonzaga men’s basketball team returned to Seattle on Friday, five days after they played a road game here against UW. The ninth-ranked Bulldogs (6-2) play so-called “host” to Oklahoma State today at the Key in front of a rapidly-growing fan base that lives on the west side of the state.
“Our style of play is up-tempo, and it’s fun to watch, so if you’re a basketball fan, Gonzaga is the type of team that’s fun to watch no matter where you’re from,” said junior Adam Morrison, an All-America candidate and among the nation’s leading scorers at 29.0 points per game. “We’ve got a good fan base going here, and hopefully we can keep that.”
Morrison is one of two starters who played high school basketball in Spokane, while the Bulldogs have only one player – injured swing man Erroll Knight – who grew up in Seattle. But Gonzaga has become Seattle’s team, as evidenced by the more than 12,000 tickets that already have been sold for today’s game.
“The Seattle fans really give us a good environment,” sophomore guard David Pendergraft said. “We’ve played here the last couple years, so it’s always fun to come back. Playing here, in this arena and on an NBA court, is fun.”
Not that it totally feels like home. The Bulldogs arrived Friday looking tired, which could be understood when considering their Seattle-to-Spokane-and-back-to-Seattle trip during the past week. After last Sunday’s loss to UW, and Thursday night’s hard-fought win over WSU, Gonzaga gets rewarded with a perennial powerhouse.
“They create a lot of problems,” said Few, whose teams are 5-2 in Seattle since 1999. “But the biggest problem is their coach (Eddie Sutton) and how his teams play. They climb right up into your shorts, and every possession is a war. I can’t think of another team out there that does that.”
One of the most experienced coaches in college basketball – he has won 787 games during a 35-year career – Sutton already was playing the mental game Friday when asked about the matchup.
“I wish I had our team from last year, then it might be a good game,” Sutton said, referring to a Cowboys team that behind six seniors went 26-7 in 2004-05. “This game might be a blowout. We’re so young.”
Sutton isn’t totally blowing hot air. His team starts a freshman, two sophomores and two juniors. If OSU does have a slight advantage, it’s that the Spokane-based Bulldogs aren’t playing a true home game.
“You lose some of your home court advantage,” Sutton said. “You still have the fans, but you lose a little bit. I’d certainly rather play them here than I would over in Spokane.”
Despite its success this season, Gonzaga has been struggling with health problems, beginning with the status of junior point guard Derek Raivio. The Vancouver, Wash., native strained his back in the first half of Sunday’s loss to Washington, missed the WSU game and was not expected to join his teammates until late Friday night. As of Friday afternoon, Few was still uncertain whether Raivio would be available for today’s game.
If Raivio can’t play, freshman Jeremy Pargo would start for the second game in a row.
The Bulldogs, who already have beaten two ranked teams in Michigan State and Maryland but lost to 18th-ranked Washington and No. 3 Connecticut, also are missing Knight and 6-foot-11 freshman sharpshooter Josh Heytveldt due to injury.
But Gonzaga shouldn’t be too concerned. The Bulldogs still have Morrison, they still have bruising big man J.P. Batista and they still have their long-distance home-court advantage.
“U-Dub kind of has Seattle locked up, but we have a lot of fans over here – especially when we’re playing any other school besides Washington,” Pendergraft said. “It’s nice when they come out here and support us.”
Note: While today’s game will be televised nationally on CBS, that network will not be showing the game locally in favor of the Washington-New Mexico tilt. Channel 11 is scheduled to televise the Gonzaga-OSU game. … The Bulldogs beat OSU 78-75 last December.