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Scheduling concessions to Gonzaga leave Washington State fans disgusted

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Gonzaga defeated Washington State 90-74 in Spokane this past season.

Buried in the middle of a lengthy story in the Gonzaga student newspaper earlier this week was a tidbit that had Washington State fans snarling with anger.

The annual matchup between the Zags and Cougars will take place at Spokane Arena next season even though Gonzaga hosted last year's game and the schools have traditionally alternated home games since the series restarted in the mid-90s.

What further reporting from the Spokesman Review uncovered is that Gonzaga balked at extending the series as a home and home. To prevent the rivalry from going on hiatus, Washington State athletic director Bill Moos agreed to a three-year contract in which the first game was at Gonzaga last November, the second will be at Spokane Arena next season and the third will be in Pullman the year after that.

It's easy to understand the frustration of Washington State fans at that arrangement. Though both teams play occasional home games at Spokane Arena, the venue is a 90-minute drive from Washington State yet is within walking distance of the Gonzaga campus, essentially making a matchup there an extra home game for the Zags.  

What Washington State fans aren't taking into account, however, is that Gonzaga has earned the right to make such a demand. Though the Zags may play in a lesser conference, they are clearly the superior program at the moment. 

Gonzaga has evolved from mid-major darling to national power under Mark Few, reaching 16 consecutive NCAA tournaments, earning its first-ever No. 1 seed in 2013 and returning enough talent to likely begin next year in the preseason top 20. Washington State meanwhile has fallen off the national radar since Tony Bennett left for Virginia in 2009, going 80-86 overall and 29-61 in Pac-12 games in five seasons under Ken Bone before replacing him with former Oregon coach Ernie Kent last month.

Since the improving but still second-tier WCC is a drag on Gonzaga's RPI numbers each year, the Zags have to counteract that by playing as challenging a non-conference schedule as possible. Washington State's average RPI in five seasons under Bone was 167.4, which means Gonzaga got little credit for beating the Cougs yet put itself in jeopardy of a damaging loss every time it visited Pullman.

If Washington State wants to avoid an inequitable scheduling arrangement with Gonzaga in the future, the Cougs have two options.

Either they can balk at Gonzaga's demands and risk torpedoing the series altogether, or they have to build a strong enough program under Kent to again have the leverage to make a home-and-home series attractive for the Zags.

In 2007, a wildly entertaining annual series between Gonzaga and Washington died abruptly when the two sides could not agree where the games should be played. Lorenzo Romar no longer wanted to alternate home games after losing eight of nine to the Zags, but Mark Few had no interest in accepting the Huskies' offer of three straight "neutral" games a short drive from the Washington campus at Seattle's Key Arena. 

Washington State fans have been quick to note the hypocrisy of Gonzaga's stance the past few days, but in reality the situations aren't identical.

Gonzaga and Washington were at similar levels then, which made the Zags feel comfortable standing their ground and ultimately ending a great rivalry rather than continuing it on inequitable terms. Washington State isn't in Gonzaga's stratosphere at the moment, which means the Cougars don't have a whole lot of leverage and may have to make concessions for the rivalry to continue.

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Jeff Eisenberg is the editor of The Dagger on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at daggerblog@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter!

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