SPOKANE — As Gonzaga’s program has evolved over the past 20 years, so have the Bulldogs’ scheduling opportunities and strategies.
It’s been conducive to playing most of the country’s top programs on national platforms, but not as much to preserving the regional flavor that came with many of Gonzaga’s schedules during the 1950s, ’60s, ’70s, ’80s and ’90s.
Considering Gonzaga’s track record at the highest level of the sport, particularly over the past decade, it’s hard to debate the Bulldogs’ methods.
During Gonzaga’s inaugural season as a Division I basketball member, in 1958-59, the Bulldogs played 10 of their 26 games against Washington State, Eastern Washington, Whitman, Seattle U and Whitworth. For 62 consecutive years, from 1958-59 to 2019-20, Gonzaga played at least one game — and often as man as four or five — against an opponent from Washington state.
Then came a two-year pause.
When No. 18 Gonzaga (6-2) meets Washington (7-2) on Friday at 6 p.m. at the McCarthey Athletic Center, it will be the program’s first game against an in-state opponent since the Bulldogs hosted Eastern Washington on Dec. 12, 2019. They have played 93 games against teams outside state lines since their 112-77 win over the Eagles.
“It really has been awhile,” Gonzaga coach Mark Few said, speaking of the rivalry series with the Huskies, which will be renewed after a three-year hiatus. “With these (current) guys … we don’t have a whole lot of guys (from Washington). We’ll have to explain to them that this is a high emotional game. These guys have played in about 10 high emotional games already this year, so we’ll have to sit them down.”
Mike Hopkins has been Washington’s coach for six seasons, but he’s preparing for just his third rivalry game against Gonzaga, and second in Spokane. The last time the teams met in the Kennel, on Dec. 5, 2018, Rui Hachimura, now in his fourth NBA season with the Washington Wizards, knocked down a winning jumper to secure an 81-79 Gonzaga victory.
“Coming here, I realized (the importance of) Washington State, the Oregons, Gonzaga game. It’s in-state,” Hopkins said. “There’s a lot of in-state pride. It always is. There’s a lot of great in-state players at all the programs. We hope to represent ourselves to the best ability and fans love it. It’s always exciting.”
Gonzaga and Washington haven’t seen much of each other over the past 15 years, putting their series on pause in 2007-14, playing five times in 2015-19 and renewing the rivalry in 2021-22 only to see last year’s game called off because of positive COVID-19 tests within UW’s program.
The teams should develop plenty of familiarity over the next four seasons. On Wednesday, Gonzaga athletic director Chris Standiford confirmed to The Spokesman-Review the current contract between the schools includes two games at the Kennel, Friday’s and an undetermined date in 2024-25, along with two games at Seattle’s Alaska Airlines Arena, in 2023-24 and 2025-26.
Gonzaga’s narrow win over Kent State on Monday extended the country’s longest home win streak.
The Bulldogs will be aiming for No. 70 on Friday with the Pac-12 Huskies in town.
“Well, they’ve had success, so what happens is the student body really backs it,” Hopkins said. “Our place is one of the toughest places to play in America and it’s all based on your students. When your students are rocking, it becomes a party, per se. An extension. … They have those fun things, posters and different things about players. They do their homework, they take pride in it and it’s always fun for the players.
“Home court, not home court, those experiences you’ll always remember. I know the last time we played there it was a really, really cool place to play and I’m sure it’ll be packed and rocking on Friday, which will be a lot of fun.”
In 2009, Few rejected UW’s proposal of playing the game on an annual basis at Seattle’s KeyArena, now Climate Pledge Arena, telling Sports Illustrated’s Seth Davis, “The chances of that happening are about the same as bigfoot having my baby.”
When that topic surfaced during a news conference at UW earlier this week, Hopkins agreed the rivalry series is best suited to be held at both campus venues.
“It’s a great game because you have this big environment, but it’s so fun when you play in intimate home courts. There’s something to be said for that,” he said. “I love Climate Pledge, I think it’s an unbelievable venue. Boy, I went there, I didn’t wait in one line. It was awesome. It was one of the greatest experiences. But I think those home games, being in (Hec Edmundson Pavilion) with the history and then going to the Kennel, those are just great and cool opportunities.”