A Grip on Sports: Playing in the NCAA basketball tournament is special but winning a regular season crown is even tougher
A MASTER OF THE SPORT • It’s a big weekend for college basketball. How do we know? Simple. It’s February.
• Earning a conference title means several things in the modern college hoop. That may mean winning a week-long tournament in March and the ensuing spot in the NCAA Tournament, or it may mean surviving a gauntlet that lasts a few months.
The latter is the most impressive, although not as prestigious (or lucrative) as the former.
In most conferences, the only place in the NCAA is what matters. Not only does it immerse you in March Madness and allow for the risk of an UMBC-style upheaval, but it also brings a certain spotlight on your school that is unmatched in college sports.
Heck, when Eastern came within a possession or two of upsetting Kansas a few years ago, the close call helped Legans coach Shantay land a better-paying job.
This advantage is not our objective today. Instead, we want to focus on what it takes to win that other regular season title. Seems fitting as we come into February, when the major conference games are usually played.
Winning a conference tournament is often a flash event in a bottle. The punches start to fall, the defense clicks and the fourth seed rides through a week of near-perfection to finish a 14th seed in the NCAA.
Winning the regular season crown takes perseverance week after week. This can mean winning when players are sick, injured, or simply overwhelmed with the entirety of life. It means entering an opponent’s gymnasium or arena, assessing the challenge and overcoming it. That means not letting a bad game spill over into too many subsequent games, putting the past in the past and moving on.
In other words, it takes tenacity. Physical strength sometimes, of course, but especially mental strength.
It is not easy. Take what is happening at Gonzaga this season. Not the men, who are locked in a battle with Saint Mary’s for another West Coast Conference championship. No, we are talking about women.
The Zags entered the season without a full roster of scholarship players. The reasons behind this are complicated and unrelated to today’s conversation. What is relevant, however, is how many of those stock players missed an extended time. From point guard Kayleigh Troung to big starter Eliza Hollingsworth and interior reserve key Maud Huijbens, more than a handful of Bulldogs have been absent. There have been points in which GU have fitted seven players. And it keeps winning. Nice compliment to Lisa Fortier, of course, but also to a team that simply did not give in.
The Zags enter tonight’s game in Santa Clara with an overall record of 21-2. More importantly, they are 11-0 in WCC play and one game without Portland. There’s a good chance they could win their 18th conference title.
In Eastern, there aren’t 18 Big Sky regular-season trophies in the deal. But there should be another one added before the end of this month.
The Eagles’ undefeated march through the conference schedule is a little more unexpected. Entering the Big Sky game, Eastern Washington had fought its way through a tough non-conference. Lessons have been learned. Absorbed losses. The Eagles’ 6-7 mark was not indicative of what was to come. It was more of a training camp. And now the rewards are reaped.
David Riley’s team is at Sacramento State tonight, hoping for their 11th conference victory. And to solidify his hold on the top of the rankings.
Winning in February may not guarantee the Eagles anything beyond the first seed in Boise the first week of March. Skipping one tournament to earn a spot in the next is not guaranteed, regardless of the regular season win-loss record.
But it will bring something else. Confirmation that the group came together weekend after weekend, overcame all obstacles and challenges and won a coveted trophy. One that can only be won with tenacity.
WSU: There isn’t a tougher road trip in the Pac-12 this year than the one that won’t have to be done in a few years. UCLA is a top 10 team and USC plays as well as anyone in the conference. That’s where the Cougars are heading, starting tonight at USC’s Galen Center. Colton Clark gets a taste of what the Cougars are up against. … Not only did Washington State complete its football recruiting — with a signer on Wednesday — it also completed a 30-member football coaching staff. Yes, you read that right. There are 30 people dedicated to football on and off the pitch. And that’s not counting the five strength coaches who work with the sport. Colton has more in this story. … The women’s basketball team hosts Stanford on Friday, trying to snap a 40-year (and 71-game) losing streak in the series. … Elsewhere in Pac-12 and college basketball, Washington will try to end a losing streak against UCLA. … Oregon State is making progress. …. Is Oregon destined to be Arizona’s next rival? .. The program for the rest of the way for Colorado is bizarre. … Arizona State will try to get out of its funk. … We can also pass on a power ranking of women’s teams. … In football news, there weren’t many signings yesterday as most of the stars had made their picks in the previous signing period. But Arizona State picked a much-needed quarterback (with a checkered past) and Washington also found another QB. … Oregon added to its class. There were other moves with the Ducks as well. … Colorado has signed one of the most sought-after defensive players in the nation. … Did Utah hit the jackpot? …USC and UCLA may not have made it, but the two Los Angeles schools still did well.
Gonzaga: It’s back to the regular season tonight for the Zags, as they welcome Santa Clara to the kennel. Theo Lawson has the preview for the game, which is the only one airing this season on the CBS Sports Network. … Theo also has the key game. … Jim Meehan spoke with a Bay Area writer who knows the Broncos and Saturday’s opponent, Saint Mary’s. … Jim Allen previews the women’s road contest in Santa Clara. The Broncos are among the best freshmen in the conference. … Elsewhere in the WCC, Saint Mary’s coach Randy Bennett will look to win his 500th game tonight at USF.
EWU: We mentioned the Eagles game tonight above. We link Dan Thompson’s preview here. You are now ready. … The Eagles added nine more players to their 2023 recruiting class yesterday. Dan has that story too. … Elsewhere in the Big Sky, Montana State added five more football signatories. … Cody Hawkins completed his first class at Idaho State as a coach. … Northern Colorado signed 22 players. … Weber State added 12. … Northern Arizona announced its fall schedule.
Preps: The Groovy Shoes were up for grabs at the Arena last night. North Central won both basketball games and the Spirit Trophy. Dave Nichols was there again and has this story. … A few female 2B basketball players have been opponents for a while. Next season they will be teammates in Montana. Dave has this story from signing day.
Seahawks: The Hawks have great tight end depth. It is expensive, however. Tom Brady eventually discovered that the cost of being the best was just too much to pay. He determined that at age 45, much later than most NFL quarterbacks.
Sounders: The club have found out who they will face in their first away game. … MLS and Apple are streaming partners this year.
Mariners: There are bigger goals this season for the M’s. … Dylan Moore is back after signing a new contract. … Luis Castillo not pitching in the World Baseball Classic doesn’t bother Seattle. … Cal Raleigh says his surgically repaired thumb is fine after catching a bullpen. … The emergence of two dominant young starting pitchers has given M fans reason to be hopeful for the future.
Storm: The best player in the WNBA will not be in Seattle next season. Breanna Stewart, a free agent who has played her entire career with the Storm, announced yesterday that she will be signing with the New York Liberty. …Is former Gonzaga star and Seattle native Courtney Vandersloot back home? She announced that she was leaving the Chicago Sky as a free agent. His next destination is yet to be determined.
• You know you live quite far north when you look at the 10 day forecast for early February, see highs in the 40’s and rejoice. Heat wave. We’ll have to rummage through the closet and figure out which shorts to wear. Until later …