A Grip on Sports: Playing in the NCAA basketball tournament is special but winning a regular season crown is even tougher

SPORTS TIP • It’s a big weekend for college basketball. How do we know? Simple. It is February.


• Winning a conference title it means a few things in modern college circles. It can either mean winning a week-long tournament in March, and the resulting NCAA Tournament berth, or it means surviving a gauntlet that lasts a few months.

The latter is an impressive one, although not as prestigious (or lucrative) as the former.

In most conferences, the NCAA’s one berth is what counts. Not only does it get you into March Madness and allow for a chance for a UMBC-type upset, it also brings a certain spotlight on your school that is unmatched in college sports.

Heck, when Eastern got within a possession or two of upsetting Kansas a few years ago, the close call helped coach Shantay Legans land a higher paying job.

That perk is not our focus today though. Instead we have to focus on what is needed to win that other title, that of the regular season. It seems fitting as we head into February, when the major conference games are usually played.

Winning a conference championship is often a lightning-in-a-bottle occurrence. The shots start to fall, the defense clicks and the fourth seed goes through a week of near perfection to finish seed 14 in the NCAAs.

Winning the regular season crown takes perseverance week in and week out. It can mean winning when players are sick, injured or simply overwhelmed by all life. It means entering the opponent’s gym or arena, taking on the challenge and overcoming it. It means not letting one bad game spill over into the next one, putting the past in the past and moving on.

In other words, it requires toughness. Physical toughness at times, sure, but mostly mental toughness.

It’s not easy. Take what’s happening at Gonzaga this season. Not the men, who are locked in a battle with Santa Maria for another West Coast Conference championship. No, we are talking about women.

The Zags entered the season without a full complement of stud players. The reasons behind this are complicated and irrelevant to today’s conversation. What is relevant, however, is how many of those scholarship players missed extended time. From point guard Kayleigh Troung to senior starter Eliza Hollingsworth and key inside reserve Maud Huijbens, more than a handful of Bulldogs have come out. There were points in which GU suited up seven players. And he keeps winning. A nice compliment to Lisa Fortier, sure, but also to a roster that just didn’t give up.

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The Zags enter tonight’s game in Santa Clara with an overall record of 21-2. More importantly they are 11-0 in WCC games and a game without Portland. There is a good chance they can win their 18th conference title.

In the East, there are no 18 Big Sky regular season trophies in the case. But there should be another added before this month is over.

The Eagles’ undefeated march through the conference schedule is a little more unexpected. Coming into the Big Sky games, Eastern Washington had battled its way through a non-conference challenge. They learned lessons. Absorbed loss. The Eagles’ 6-7 mark was not indicative of what was to come. It was more of a boot camp. And now the rewards are being reaped.

David Riley’s squad is at Sacramento State tonight, hoping to get its 11th conference win. And to solidify its hold on the top of the ranking.

Winning in February may not guarantee anything for the Eagles beyond the top seed in Boise come the first week of March. Getting through one tournament to earn a spot in the next is not guaranteed, regardless of regular season win-loss record.

But it will bring something else. Confirmation that the group got together weekend after weekend, overcame all the obstacles and challenges and got a coveted trophy. One that can only be won by stubbornness.


WSU: There is no tougher road trip in the Pac-12 this year than the one that won’t have to happen in a few years. UCLA is a top 10 team and USC is playing as well as anyone in the conference. That’s when the Cougars are in action, starting tonight at USC’s Galen Center. Colton Clark has a preview of what the Cougars face. … Not only has Washington State finished its football recruiting — with one signing Wednesday — it also has a 30-member football coaching staff ready. Yes, you read that right. There are 30 folks dedicated to football on and off the field. And this does not count the five health coaches who work with the sport. Colton has more to this story. … The women’s basketball team hosts Stanford on Friday, trying to snap a 40-year (and 71-game) losing streak. … Elsewhere in the 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 schedule the rest of the way to Colorado is quirky. … Arizona State will try to break out of its funk. … We can also go through a power ranking of the women’s teams. … In football news, there were not many signings yesterday as most of the stars had made their choice during the previous signing period. But Arizona State picked up a highly sought-after quarterback (with a checkered past) and Washington found another QB as well. … Oregon added to its class. There were other moves with the Ducks as well. … Colorado signed one of the nation’s most sought-after defensive players. … Did Utah hit the jackpot? … USC and UCLA may not have, but the two Los Angeles schools still did well.

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Gonzaga: Tonight it’s back to the grind of the regular season for the Zag, as they welcome Santa Clara at the Kennel. Theo Lawson has the preview of the game, which is the only one to be broadcast this season on the CBS Sports Network. … Theo also has the key matchup. … Jim Meehan spoke with a Bay Area writer with knowledge of the Broncos and Saturday’s opponent, Saint Mary’s. … Jim Allen has a preview of the women’s road contest in Santa Clara. The Broncos boast one of the best freshmen in the conference. … Elsewhere in the WCC, Saint Mary’s coach Randy Bennett will try to win his 500th game tonight at USF.

EWU: We mentioned the Eagles game tonight above. We link Dan Thompson’s preview here. Now you are done. … The Eagles added nine more players to their 2023 recruiting class yesterday. This has that history too. … Elsewhere in the Big Sky, Montana State added five more football signees. … Cody Hawkins has completed his first Idaho State coaching class. … Northern Colorado signed 22 players. … Weber State added 12. … Northern Arizona announced its fall schedule.

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Preparations: The Groovy Shoes were up for grabs at the Arena last night. North Central won both the basketball games and the spirit trophy. Dave Nichols was back and has this story. … A couple of 2B girls basketball players have been opponents for a while. Next season, they will be teammates in Montana. Dave has that signing day story.

Seahawks: The Hawks have great tight end depth. It is expensive, though. Tom Brady finally found that the cost of being the best was too much to pay. He determined that at 45, much later than most NFL quarterbacks.

Sounds: The club has found out who it will play in its first match abroad. … MLS and Apple are streaming partners this year.

Sailors: This season there are bigger goals 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 pitching in a bullpen. … The emergence of two dominant young starting pitchers has given M’s fans reasons to be hopeful for the future.

Storm: The WNBA’s best player won’t be in Seattle next season. Breanna Stewart, a free agent who had played her entire career with the Storm, announced yesterday that she will sign with the New York Liberty. … Former Gonzaga star and Seattle native Courtney Vandersloot heading back home? She announced that she will be leaving the Chicago Sky as a free agent. Her next destination has yet to be determined.


• You know you live quite north when you look at the 10-day forecast for early February, see highs in the 40s and celebrate. A heat wave. We will have to dig out of the closet and figure out what shorts to wear. See you later…


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