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Originally published December 13, 2013 at 6:03 PM | Page modified December 13, 2013 at 10:09 PM

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Gonzaga faces South Alabama in Battle in Seattle

Gonzaga’s opponent for its annual Seattle game, South Alabama, doesn’t have the name recognition of other powers that have faced the Zags in KeyArena.


Seattle Times college basketball reporter

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So you got used to a menu of Missouri, Connecticut, Arizona and Kansas State in the Battle in Seattle.

Saturday night at KeyArena, you get Gonzaga against South Alabama, and I’m guessing you won’t be impressed if I remind you that the Jaguars nearly took out Arizona in the first round of the NCAA tournament when the Wildcats won it all.

That was almost 17 years ago, before the Zags program went bracket-busting — and before South Alabama compiled a 3-4 record this season and left some GU fans wondering where the beef is on their 2013-14 schedule.

It probably won’t surprise you that Mark Few, the coach, doesn’t want to hear it.

“I don’t know how they could say that about us this year,” he said, a day after the Zags (9-1) had soldiered through a dicey 80-76 victory at West Virginia.

“We were in Maui, the most prestigious tournament, we go to Memphis ... going to West Virginia is not an easy place to win. Kansas State in Wichita (next Saturday) is not going to be an easy game. People that understand scheduling know these things were set up years ago. You’re locked into a lot of things.”

If Gonzaga’s nonleague road to West Coast Conference play seems less treacherous than usual, it might be because there’s no grabber from the Big Ten, like Michigan State or Illinois in recent years. And the Zags shortchanged themselves in Maui, getting only two quality games, because they lost their opener to Dayton and found themselves against Chaminade.

Still, Friday’s Realtime­RPI.com numbers are thought-provoking, even if they’re early-season raw. They have Gonzaga No. 16, which by itself reflects well.

What’s more intriguing is the suggestion that Gonzaga’s computer number might not fall off the map when WCC play takes hold. Five weeks into the season, the WCC has cracked the code — Brigham Young is No. 9, Saint Mary’s is 10th (despite not having left Moraga in seven games) and pledge brother Pacific is No. 27.

Surely those numbers aren’t sustainable, but they augur challenges for Gonzaga in January and February.

Not that Few is hunting more hurdles. His old friend and former assistant, Drake coach Ray Giacoletti, watched the West Virginia game and said, “You talk about playing some makeshift lineups. That’s about as makeshift as I’ve ever seen.”

Giacoletti was talking about Few’s four-guard attack, necessitated by the lack of depth behind front-line starters Sam Dower Jr. and Przemek Karnowski.

Asked about strange lineups, Few said laconically, “They’re becoming less strange.”

The combination of Kevin Pangos, Gary Bell Jr., David Stockton and either Kyle Dranginis or Gerard Coleman has been effective, joined with whichever “big” is available.

“You just kind of assume our bigs are going to be in foul trouble,” said Few. “We’ve got our big lineup and our small lineup.”

The thin margin for error makes for a season that will test Few’s creative powers. Saturday night, he gets a team with a 6-foot-7, 230-pound forward in Augustine Rubit, who averages a double-double. But the South Alabama resume, including a 50-point win over Spring Hill — heck of a motel chain, not so much a basketball power — doesn’t blow you over.

The Zags danced with sexier partners, seeking a neutral-neutral arrangement, but couldn’t pull it off. So the crowd size for Battle in Seattle No. 11 will depend on whether the Gonzaga name can carry it, or whether it needs a foil, too.

“It’s been an unbelievable environment,” Few said. “It still has appeal to me if it’s something people in that area really want to come out for and are excited about.

“If not, that’s fine. It’s basically taking something out of our gym. But it’s been a great event for us over the years.”

Still is, if enough Zag zealots agree.

Bud Withers: 206-464-8281 or bwithers@seattletimes.com




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