Before GU quits WSU, intriguing bigs matchup

BEFORE MARK FEW takes his ball and goes home, thus bringing a screeching halt to a 150-game WSU-GU series that stretches back to 1907, there’s an intriguing storyline in Wednesday’s final chapter (8 p.m., Fox Sports 1). As much as Ernie Kent has undersold it this week, it will be downright fascinating to see how Washington State’s bigs match up with Gonzaga’s mid-major tree-toppers.

Technically, Kent on Tuesday said Gonzaga’s Few told him he "probably" won't continue the series and that Few hasn’t definitively cancelled.  Okay, but anyone reading between the lines the last two months can see that it’s done.  You can put a fork in it.  But we’ll get back to that. First, there’s a game to play.
ON PAPER, IT'S all Gonzaga when it comes to the front lines: senior Przemek Karnowski (7-1) is second on the team in shooting percentage, Kyle Wiltjer (6-10) leads the team in scoring and Domantas Sabonis (6-11)  is second in scoring and first in field goal percentage. Kent's big three features Josh Hawkinson (6-10) as the only one with experience at the Pac-12 level in this, his third season.  Conor Clifford (7-0) transferred to WSU from junior college this year and Valentine Izundu (6-11) spent last season redshirting after transferring from Houston.

But WSU does have the size to match up, and that's what makes this WSU-Gonzaga swan song must-see TV.  Will WSU's promising but mostly inexperienced frontcourt players hold their own? Or is WSU not ready for prime time in the paint?

Izundu is 6-10 but plays like he's 7-6, such are his hops and athleticism down low and in his ability to alter/block shots. Clifford is 7-0 and although Kent has stressed this week he's more like 263-pounds as opposed to his listed 293-pounds, Clifford has the size and physical game to get things done against No. 12/13 Gonzaga. And then there's the 6-10 Hawkinson, who continues to rack up the double-doubles.

The question that will be answered Wednesday is how far along the trio is individually, and collectively, in Game Five of their first season playing together. 

And if WSU's bigs get into foul trouble, Junior Longrus (6-7) and true freshman Robert Franks (6-7) are going to have even more asked of them than already planned. So there is lots and lots to look for in Wednesday's tilt when it comes to the big men.

And it would be even more fascinating to see how this WSU-Zags frontcourt battle would play out next year once the Cougs had a little more experience under their collective belts, but that's not going to happen.

FEW AND GU insisted last time upon a three-game series featuring a 2-1 GU home advantage: one game at Gonzaga and one game at Spokane Arena, with the third in Pullman.  If WSU didn't like the offer, tough, GU would end the series. Bill Moos reluctantly agreed to it then because of the series' tradition, the guess here is he wouldn't have agreed to something similar this time around, again.

Gonzaga has won four in a row and 13 of the past 16 meetings. But make no mistake, they've been the ugly stepchild of this rivalry for the better part of the first 80 years: WSU leads the all-time series 98-51.

WSU had spiraled down since Klay Thompson left for the NBA but the early indicators from Kent's second season: the Cougs are on the way back.  More importantly, WSU vs. Gonzaga is good for both schools and the region. The Cougs and Zags played each other eight times before Duke and North Carolina first met.

Gonzaga's rise to prominence is a recent phenomenon, taking place over the last 15 years or so.  Prior to that, Gonzaga benefitted from WSU support in a number of ways and Moos has continued to have WSU serve as host for the NCAA regionals in Spokane whenever the tournament is played there. Moos says it's about WSU being a good neighbor.

That Few and Gonzaga went for the power play last time around with their '2-for-1 take it or leave it' was repugnant enough. That Few will now end the series after Wednesday's game is another decidedly low-class move. 

Meanwhile, the reason Few hasn't definitively said it's over is almost certainly because he doesn't gain anything from that, best to do it this offseason when the clamor won't be as loud.  That's another bush league move but given the source, hardly unexpected.

--Gonzaga has advanced beyond the second round of the NCAA tournament on three occasions in 14 tries since 2002. 

--Kent is 5-11 all-time against Gonzaga as head coach at Saint Mary’s, Oregon and WSU.

--Longrus, a two-time men’s basketball team captain at WSU, has been nominated for the NABC Good Works Team.   The award recognizes players at all levels of college basketball who have made outstanding contributions in the areas of volunteerism and civic involvement.

Cougfan Top Stories