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Originally published Friday, October 27, 2006 at 12:00 AM

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End of UW-Gonzaga hoops rivalry? Huskies looking at other options

Last Dec. 4 in a geeked-up Edmundson Pavilion, Adam Morrison scored 43 points in a wondrous offensive performance for Gonzaga. But Washington had more...

Times college sports reporter

Last Dec. 4 in a geeked-up Edmundson Pavilion, Adam Morrison scored 43 points in a wondrous offensive performance for Gonzaga. But Washington had more balance, led by Jamaal Williams' 22 points, and beat the Zags, 99-95, on a remarkable night for college basketball.

We interrupt this reverie to tell you the Huskies would like to end the series. Or at least take a pass on it next year.

At mid-week, UW athletic director Todd Turner called his counterpart at Gonzaga, Mike Roth, and said the Huskies were leaning against a game with the Zags in 2007-08 because of a heavy load of quality opponents.

"It's not about Gonzaga," Turner said Thursday. "It's more about what we think we need to do to give our program the kind of visibility it's started to earn."

Two words: Bad idea.

Way back when, the Huskies regularly beat Gonzaga. Then the Zags got the Huskies' attention by winning seven straight from 1999 to 2005. So the rivalry finally acquires some sizzle, and now Washington wants to end it?

"He didn't put it in stone," Roth said Thursday, "but it's pretty clear it wasn't going to work. I think most likely we won't be playing next year."

Roth added: "I just can't be critical of it by any stretch."

Fine, we'll be critical for him.

The background: The Huskies are very likely to be in the preseason NIT next year, an "exempt" event that could give them as many as four games but counts only as one. They also have nonleague games against Pittsburgh and Louisiana State, and there's the possibility (it's only that right now) of a Pac-10/Big 12 Challenge that would add another game.

Throw in 18 Pac-10 games — a bone of contention among the league's upper crust because a double round-robin restricts nonleague scheduling — and you've got the chance of too many heavyweight fights if you throw in Gonzaga as well. Understandably, nobody wants to play ranked teams every night.

The salient point is, if the Huskies wanted to play Gonzaga, they would. Instead, they've chosen to take the program national, believing that a home-and-home series with Pitt gives them more juice across the country and perhaps with recruits.

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Which is possible, except the NCAA selection committee doesn't care, and if recruits don't know by now who Gonzaga is, they might be in danger of not qualifying for UW, anyway.

"It's really not about us not wanting to play them," Turner says. "I'm not anticipating we're not going to play them anymore. We may very well end up playing them next year. Suffice to say, we want to be scheduling nationally. That's what Arizona has done, and UCLA. And Seattle is an attractive place to bring a team."

Although you won't get anybody to admit it, this has something to do with four years ago, when Gonzaga was one of a handful of schools that turned Washington in to the NCAA for recruiting violations by assistant coach Cameron Dollar. Privately, Washington felt unless the Zags were without sin, they shouldn't be casting stones.

Coincidentally, the two schools had just signed a four-year deal only weeks before that tiff, or the series might not have gotten this far. The last of the four is Dec. 9 in Spokane.

Roth was asked if dropping the series for a year makes it more likely it's dropped beyond that.

"Sure," he said. "Dropping it for a year means you're not keeping it, for sure."

It should be noted that it's easier for Gonzaga to accommodate Washington than vice versa; the Zags play a more manageable league schedule of 14 games. Still, the Huskies risk the perception that they're the ones ducking the series.

"If people perceive it that way, they have to perceive it that way," said Turner. "We've got to do the best thing for our basketball program. It's been a great game, but the nature of our program is changing."

Ironically, Gonzaga may be facing a similar decision in its series with Eastern Washington. That game annually puts a capacity crowd of 11,000 into Spokane Arena, but it's also in the final year of a contract, and the Zags have murmured about possibly ending it.

That shouldn't happen, nor should an end to the Gonzaga-Washington series. If it does, the shame of it is that in two or three years, both schools are going to be very good, Final Four-caliber good. Lorenzo Romar's program at Washington is on an ascendant arc that hasn't yet peaked; Gonzaga has its most decorated recruiting class on the way next fall.

No more do Gonzaga and Washington need each other. But everyone who appreciates great college basketball does.

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

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