Nearly 12 years to the day from the last time the Gonzaga Bulldogs took the court on the Washington Huskies’ home floor, there was a palpable tension in the air. Having played each other the last two seasons, there was something different about this matchup. The Huskies, coming off a win over #2 Kansas, had a renewed sense of optimism. Fans had suddenly been reminded that yes, their Dawgs had in-fact started the basketball season and yes, Mike Hopkins may have turned this program around much sooner than anticipated. Another key ingredient to this Sunday night game is the large contingent of Zags alumni and fans in Seattle. Having navigated UW’s tricky requirements of purchasing five-game plans just to get in the door, a couple thousand Zag-faithful decked in blue and red showed up, hoping to witness the Zags first win at Hec-Ed Pavilion since 2003. Look down towards the court to see Adam Morrison (Zags radio color commentator) with a headset on, and flashbacks to his 2005 43-point performance spoiled in a 95-93 loss come rushing back to any Zag.
Was the perfect storm brewing in Seattle for the Huskies to top the Zags? A small but faithful UW student section, highlighted by frat-boys with “H-O-P-K-I-N-S” painted on their chests, seemed confident. David Crisp appeared calm, as he mingled with fans five minutes before the game, choosing to dap-up those sitting courtside before clanking a long three off the front iron. Husky students invaded a good chunk of the Zags’ side during warmups, as they prepared for some sort of high-five tunnel that you may see at an 8u soccer game. Gonzaga’s basketballs would bounce over to students, only for the UW faithful take it upon themselves to shoot and miss ugly-looking jumpers.
If the UW season ticket holders sitting near the court looked up, however, they would see a dark cloud looming in their arena. A sleeper-cell among Husky Five-Game Ticket Package holders had been born, and tonight was their coming out party. It would only take an electric play by the Zags before everyone in the arena would know just what they were in for. It only took four minutes, as Zach Norvell Jr. grabbed a steal, went coast-to-coast, and packed a dunk with his left hand that not many knew he was capable of. Norvell proved he was more than just a three-point threat, as he was undercut by a Husky defender, dunked with authority, and went spilling onto the floor for the and-one. The arena went nuts, with Norvell motioning to the crowd as you would expect he would if the game were in Spokane. It was over from there, as the Zags out-rebounded, out-hustled, and out-played the Huskies all night long.
This 97-70 blowout by the Zags made a few things evident:
- Gonzaga is here to stay. It’s a national brand that is now too big to fail under Mark Few. Gone are the days of wondering if this is going to be an up or down season for the Zags. “Who did we lose from last season?” is no longer all that important of a question. Few and co. are attracting players from all over the country and world, have mastered the art of the redshirt season (Olynyk, Wiltjer, Goss, Williams, Norvell), and are unbelievably consistent year-in and year-out. The last three seasons have seen an Elite 8, Sweet 16, and Championship Game despite nearly complete starting-five turnover each season. It’s clear that the Zags are more similar to programs like Duke, Michigan State, and Villanova than they are St. Mary’s or Butler. Their fans travel like an annual Final Four contender and they play like it. UW better not bank on Gonzaga being a little mid-major that may give them some trouble from time to time. The Zags are a barometer that UW will have to try and measure themselves against for a long, long time.
- UW is going to take a couple years to rebuild. Riding high off their upset over Kansas (I mean, who isn’t beating Kansas these days?), Husky fans decided to start paying attention to basketball this week. Their football season is on pause, as a month passes by between games, and the 7-2 basketball team has grabbed their attention. #TougherTogether was splattered all over video boards and social media announcements throughout the game. Ultimately, true colors came through for the fair-weathered fans in attendance, as streams of people poured out of the stadium with eight minutes left in the game. If UW is going to be #TougherTogether at home, more than roughly 1/100th of their students are going to need to show up. The shirtless H-O-P-K-I-N-S crew in the front row does deserve some respect, as they stuck it out the whole game, even if the P, K, and N were on their phones for most of the second half. As for the UW students on the court, UW has a few good pieces. Dickerson is a monster down low and Nowell is a stud freshman that loves to taunt defenders when he makes buckets to close the gap from 20 to 18. UW does not play any senior significant minutes, which could be good or bad, depending on how you look at it. On one hand, Hopkins will have an experienced team next year. On the other, he will have trouble freeing up any scholarships to begin bringing his own recruits in, unless he cuts a few players. The question remains- is Hopkins here to stay, or will he use UW as a springboard for his head coaching career? When Boeheim does retire, will Hopkins be on the first flight to Syracuse? It certainly seems like a possibility, and whether Husky fans totally buy into this program could depend on whether the Hopkins family is buying or renting their house.
- Hec-Ed (Alaska Airlines Arena) needs a face-lift. I hope Mike Hopkins put this into his contract, as this facility is not on-par with those of premier programs. With a listed seating capacity of 10,000, this arena should only be comfortably seating 8,500. This way, they could sell-out without the help of a couple thousand fans from the opponent. The upper bleachers are just that- bleachers with no backs. The lower bowl has bleachers as well. The band is cornered on an awkward second level walkway. Bathrooms saw lines 50 feet out the door, clogging up the concourse during halftime. Access was limited to four lines total, creating a log-jam outside along Montlake Ave. There are some great features to Hec-Ed, such as the classic windows and brick exterior. However, if fans are expected to pack this gym, they deserve an experience more similar to what’s currently available at the football stadium across the parking lot.
As “We Are – G-U” rang out in the rafters following a rim-shattering dunk in the second-half, it almost felt like a home game for the Zags. The sleeper-cell had come alive, unashamed to admit that they weren’t interested in seeing five UW games this season. As these Zags fans anxiously await to see if their tickets to UW vs. various mediocre Pac-12 opponents will sell for a fraction of what they paid, they can rest easy after this 27-point throbbing of UW, the adorable little upstart program across the state.