Granted, it will take a few upsets to pull it off, but men’s basketball teams from Gonzaga and Eastern Washington could meet in the NCAA tournament’s South Regional finals in Houston by the end of the month.
That would be a long and wild way to go for a date between a pair of teams that don’t meet in the regular season anymore, despite being about 16 miles apart.
Needing to upgrade their nonconference schedule to help their RPI (Ratings Percentage Index) come tournament time, the Zags dropped EWU from the docket after their last meeting in November 2011.
Before the madness begins Thursday, it’s timely to examine how Spokane County became the basketball center of the Northwest this season, with Gonzaga at a No. 2 seed and EWU a No. 13.
Never miss a local story.
It doesn’t make Spokane County exactly Tobacco Road, but something along the order of “Wheatfield Highway” might be appropriate this year. It is fair to point out that while tournament teams Duke, North Carolina and North Carolina State form a tight cluster of basketball blue bloods, each is located in a different county.
Eastern opens in Portland on Thursday against No. 4 seed Georgetown, with the Zags starting Friday night at KeyArena against 15th seed North Dakota State.
The Zags heading off to the NCAAs is an accepted rite of spring, as this is their 17th consecutive berth. And with a No. 2 seed, it seems they have a reasonable path toward the regional finals, although they’ve learned that such things can be misleading and never taken for granted.
The Eagles, though, have had the NCAA tournament experience just once, in 2004, when coach Ray Giacoletti’s Eagles lost their first game to Oklahoma State — which advanced to the Final Four.
If this year’s teams have much in common beyond their area code, it could be the importance of international recruiting to the construction of their rosters.
EWU has six internationals on their roster: three Australians, a German, a Serbian and a Ukrainian freshman (Bogdan Bliznyuk) by way of Federal Way’s Todd Beamer High.
The Eagles rank third in the country in scoring (80.8) in large part due to the efforts of Tyler Harvey, a sophomore who leads the nation in scoring at 22.9 points a game and blitzed Idaho in the Big Sky tournament with a 42-point outburst fueled by 8 for 12 shooting from 3-point range.
But the power and scoring on the inside comes from Venky Jois, one of the three Aussies. The roster reports that Jois hails from Ferntree Cully, which is a suburb of Melbourne, not an animated Disney village as you suspected.
Three of the Zags’ top five scorers are internationals: Kevin Pangos (Canada), Przemek Karnowski (Poland) and Domantas Sabonis (Lithuania).
And their top scorer, Kyle Wiltjer, is a transfer from Kentucky, which is more like coming from another galaxy in the college basketball world.
As a No. 2 seed, nothing the Zags do short of making it to the regional finals will be considered an upset. They have the inside-outside versatility, depth and size on the front court, and the senior-guard leadership that adds up to a good NCAA recipe.
But the Eagles are one of those lower-seeded teams that can get hot and shock teams with their offense. At Indiana in November, EWU burned the Hoosiers with 56 second-half points to score an 88-86 win that broke a 43-game home winning streak.
And in the Big Sky tournament title game, EWU outscored Montana, 21-6, in the final six minutes to earn the NCAA berth.
Georgetown plays a more deliberate style. And for comparative scores, the Hoyas also beat Indiana, by four in overtime in December.
Georgetown has won a national title (1984) and been to five Final Fours. This is a team that might get caught looking past the Eagles. And it’s likely the crowd in Portland will be of a pro-EWU attitude.
EWU coach Jim Hayford, in fact, said he only wished the Eagles could have been at the same site as Gonzaga, so the eastside fans could join forces. Oh, coach, fans from both schools could end in the same place, but it’s going to take a lot of work for both teams to get there.
Still, it would be fun to see the regional final in Houston serving as the unofficial Spokane County Championship.