Coach Mark Few took a look at last year's nonconference schedule and claimed it to be the toughest schedule in Gonzaga basketball history. Arguably, it was, rivaling the 1999-2000 schedule that included UCLA, Temple and Cincinnati. But when the 4-year head coach at GU glanced at the 2002-2003 schedule, he must have thought last year's itinerary was soft in comparison. Gonzaga has stepped it up a notch and the Zags' slogan of playing "Anyone, Anywhere, Anytime" will be put to the test from the start. Here is a rundown of the 2002-2003 nonconference schedule and, briefly, what to expect from each opponent.
On Friday, November 22, Hofstra University visits The Kennel. Hofstra U. is located near New York City and is a member of the Colonial Conference. Last year, Hofstra had a tough time and finished with only 10 wins, placing last in their conference. However, upon closer examination, Hofstra defeated Elite Eight Kent State early in the season and had no seniors on its entire roster. If Hofstra is a team that gets out the chute fast, they'll be solid test for Zags' home opener.
Just three days later, beginning November 25, Gonzaga will travel to the island of Maui where the team will join the likes of SEC power Kentucky, Big-10 and 2002 National Championship runner-up Indiana, ACC title-contender Virginia, along with UMass, Arizona State, Utah and the host school, Division II Chaminade. The Maui Invitational has long been a premier tournament, with Duke winning it last year. Needless to say, if Gonzaga can return home with a couple of wins, it would go a long way in helping the RPI, recognition and respect, and even Selection Sunday in March, not to mention some major momentum for the next games. Kentucky returns Keith Bogans, Gerald Fitch and some outstanding post players, but lost Tayshaun Prince and will be with starting point Cliff Hawkins. Indiana returns Tom Coverdale and several other 3-point specialists, but lost a good one in Jared Jeffries to the NBA. Virginia has, perhaps, the strongest group of returning and redshirted athletes in the ACC, despite losing Roger Mason, Jr. Arizona State is projected to be one of the most improved teams in the Pac-10. Utah will have to battle the effects of a major exodus of players after last season but Rick Majerus will have his Utes ready. UMass is looking to return to the top under new coach Lappas after a down year in 2001-2002, being swept handily by A-10 rival St. Joseph's.
On December 2, new UW head coach Lorenzo Romar bring his Huskies into The Kennel. This will be a tough test as Washington returns such key players as Doug Wrenn, Curtis Allen, Josh Barnard and CJ Massingale. The team from Montlake is very athletic and Romar will be trying to harness that ability into a cohesive unit. Last year, UW showed signs of hope towards the end of the year, edging out Oregon State for 8th in the Pac-10 and playing the conference champion Oregon Ducks straight-up for the first half. If Romar can build on that momentum, the Huskies and Zags should put on quite a show before a sellout rocking Kennel and regional TV.
No rest for Gonzaga as they visit Montana in Missoula on December 5. Last year, in a sloppy affair, the Zags beat the Griz by 20. But Montana came on strong toward March and won the Big Sky Tournament, earning a berth in the NCAA Tournament. However, a new head coach has been hired, former DePaul head man Pat Kennedy, and the program is expected to be on the rise. Missoula has always been a tough, raucous place to try to win a game, and if Gonzaga has an emotional letdown from the UW game or is caught looking ahead to the WSU game, this game could be trouble.
December 7. Head WSU basketball coach guaranteed a Cougar victory over Gonzaga while at a fundraiser in the Tri-Cities last spring. Expect a caravan of Zag students, fans and alums to line Highway 195 as Gonzaga takes on the Cougs in Beasley Coliseum. 6'5" junior point guard Marcus Moore headlines Wazzu with returning jucos Justin Lyman and Jerry McNair. J. Locklier, WSU's best big man, is gone. This game will be hotly-contested with area bragging rights up for grabs. With Graham's guarantee, the Zags will have more than enough motivation for the team that won one Pac-10 game last year.
Then it's on the road for the toughest set of games on the nonconference schedule. On December 15, Gonzaga will travel to the deep South to do battle with Georgia in Atlanta as the marquee matchup of the Peach Bowl Classic. Technically, this is a neutral court since the University of Georgia is located in Athens, GA, not Atlanta, but it's obvious the environment will be hostile. Head coach Jim Harrick has built a juggernaut that has knocked off such heavyweights as Kentucky and Florida with regularity. UGA is picked to win the SEC this season and it'll take a superb effort by the Zags to escape with a "W".
From the deep South up the Eastern Seaboard to the Meadowlands… Gonzaga will face off against North Carolina State in the Jimmy V Classic on December 17. Head coach Herb Sendek has the Wolfpack program turning around and now rising fast in the ACC. NCSU has incredible athletes and Sendek has taken a page from the "Princeton Offense," modified it to fit his athletic squad and plays one of the toughest defenses in the country. With Julius Hodge leading the way, the Wolfpack will be sky high for this game, their first appearance in the nationally-televised Classic that bears the name of NCSU's greatest coach, the late Jimmy Valvano, who led the school to one of the most memorable National Championships in NCAA history. Again, Gonzaga will have its hands full and a win would be huge.
Returning home, Gonzaga will host Long Beach State just three days later on December 20. Long Beach State has not fielded a strong team in quite some time and The Kennel and home-cooking should be enough to put the Zags in the win column here.
To complete a bang-bang-bang stretch in the schedule, Gonzaga will take their game to the Spokane Arena for a date with Eastern Washington University on December 22. How tough can the Eagles from Cheney be? All the GU Bulldogs have to is look at last year's game in The Kennel where EWU led by 16 at the half and almost held off the Zags for an upset win before eventually falling to GU in overtime. Head coach Ray Giacoletti has added more good talent and will use last year's near-miss as a confidence-builder and motivation. Expect a spirited contest.
The Pete Newell Challenge in Oakland on December 28 is always an interesting doubleheader. This season Gonzaga will take on the Cardinal of Stanford in hopes of making it three straight wins over the Pac-10 school. Last year Head Cardinal coach Mike Montgomery's team vied for first in the Pac-10 for most of the season before losing some disappointing games. Big man Curtis Borchardt and wing Casey Jacobsen opted for the NBA, but this promises to be a good game. The Palo Alto team will be reminded of past losses to the Zags and Montgomery would love nothing more than to finally knock off Gonzaga.
New Year's Eve in The Kennel. Basketball just doesn't get better than this. St. Joseph's of the Atlantic-10 Conference will be invading Martin Centre and Head coach Phil Martelli will be looking for some payback for last year's game-wining shot with 3 seconds remaining by Dan Dickau. Gone are star Marvin O'Connor and versatile big man Bill Phillips, but Jameer Nelson remains one of the best pure point guards and Delonte West looked sharp last year at guard. The Hawks from Philadelphia will give Gonzaga yet another high quality home game. What better way to end 2002 and ring in the new year 2003 than to sweep this two-year series? But it won't be easy.
The final preconference nonconference game is in Memorial Coliseum in Portland, Oregon, on January 3. Portland State will play host to Gonzaga in the 14,000 seat coliseum. With a new coach and a couple of defections after last year, the Vikings are a question mark in the Big Sky Conference. The Zags spanked PSU last year by 35 in The Kennel. With plenty of Zag fans in the Portland-Eugene-Vancouver area, and with players Zach Gourde (Vancouver), Blake Stepp (Eugene) and Brian Michaelson (Portland) from the area, Gonzaga should have its way in this game.
In a change of pace for Gonzaga, the Zags will play Tulsa on February 22 which is near the end of the WCC schedule. ESPN has put together a series of games pitting top so-called "mid-majors" and the GU-Tulsa game is the marquee game of what is called Bracket Busters. Tulsa won the NIT two years ago, defeated Alabama, but has made a lot of noise in the NCAA Tournament over the years. The Golden Hurricanes are not a big or tall team, instead utilizing speed, quickness and sharp outside shooting to give teams like Kansas fits and contend yearly for the WAC title. This game could be the toughest nonconference game of the season in The Kennel and it will be televised nationally.