Thirteen months ago, Gonzaga beat Butler in Spokane. Now the Bulldogs will travel to Indianapolis to face Butler in a battle of top-13 teams that will be televised by ESPN.
A generation ago, a midseason basketball game between Gonzaga and Butler wouldn’t have elicited more than a line in newspapers’ tiny agate type under “scores.”
This weekend, it’s one of the centerpiece games of a brisk Saturday of prime-time hoops and the site of ESPN’s first 2013 edition of “College Basketball GameDay.” ESPN jumped at the chance to feature the program that patented the small-school rise to prominence against the one that perfected it.
It could hardly have worked out better for “GameDay,” which catches the eighth-ranked Zags at 17-1, the best start in GU history, and No. 13 Butler at 15-2 and riding a 12-game winning streak.
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The only disclaimer is a neck sprain to Butler leading scorer Rotnei Clarke, a 44 percent three-point shooter, that will sideline him.
It’s the return of a home-and-home series that began with Gonzaga’s win in Spokane 13 months ago, and one that, in the tangled realm of scheduling, Zags coach Mark Few appreciates.
Referring to Butler coach Brad Stevens, Few said this week, “We just talked: ‘We should play sometime.’ Him being like he is, and me like I am — well, it’s done.”
Not far beyond the obvious story line of the two programs’ success — Gonzaga’s streak of 14 straight NCAA tournaments and Butler’s back-to-back title-game appearances in 2010 and 2011 — is the angle of the two coaches who have stayed put to make that happen. Combined, their chances to move to BCS-conference programs would number in double digits.
Stevens told USA Today recently, “You have an administration, athletic director, president, staff, students and coaching staff all with the same goals and ideas of what makes this experience unique and special. We have that here. Don’t know that that’s everywhere.”
Stevens, 36, in his sixth season as head coach, might have taken a bit of Few’s counsel during courtships by bigger schools during Butler’s amazing 2010-11 run.
“We talk every once in a while,” says Few. “We talked a little bit when he had some decisions (to make). He’s a great guy, an even better person than he is a coach.”
Both coaches were courted by Few’s alma mater, Oregon, in 2010, but that’s not their only tie. Butler’s athletic director, Barry Collier, is a former assistant to Don Monson, a Zags season-ticket holder and the father of Dan Monson, who coached Gonzaga’s Elite Eight team in 1999.
The cuddly-underdog theme doesn’t apply to the teams’ front lines. Gonzaga sometimes plays two 7-footers at once, and Few calls Butler “probably the most physical team you can play. It really comes down to your guys not getting frustrated.
“They probably do a better job than anybody of frustrating teams. And they’re absolutely terrific at executing what they want to execute, and then you start defending a certain way, and there’s a counter.”
Stevens told The Indianapolis Star the “GameDay” appearance is a “bucket list” event. It’s the first Butler game at Hinkle Fieldhouse — opened in 1928 and site of the filming of “Hoosiers” — featuring top-15 teams.
Butler won’t be overawed. Under Stevens, the Bulldogs have beaten five top-10 teams, including then-No. 1 Indiana last month.
Gonzaga chartered to Indianapolis on Friday after a comfortable 71-49 win at Portland on Thursday night in which Few seemed to be mindful of keeping players fresh. Zags starters played 115 minutes, reserves 85.
Bud Withers: 206-464-8281 or email@example.com