Could GU-USF become a heated rivalry?

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University of San Francisco Athletic Department photo Former Dons standout Bill Russell is pictured in this undated file photo.


Josh Perkins took a lot of heat for a “baby dunk” two weeks ago after never throwing one down in his entire Gonzaga career.

So the senior leader promised his teammates they wouldn’t have to wait long for the real thing.

Unfortunately, Perkins’ legit two-handed jam against Santa Clara got lost in some other headlines.

Gonzaga fans no doubt enjoyed Perkins’ flush at the end of a fast break, but they surely were more excited with some first-half action at the scorer’s table.

With 13:26 remaining until halftime and the Zags already well on their way to pounding Santa Clara 91-48, Killian Tillie and Geno Crandall were introduced as subs — and The Kennel got to serious woofing.

Tillie (ankle surgery) had missed the entire season so far, and Crandall (broken hand) was out for nine games.

During that stretch, the Zags were not just short of the talent that Tillie and Crandall offer, they were just plain short of bodies — and it finally showed up when the exhausted starters finally ran out of gas in losses to Tennessee and North Carolina.

No offense to the Vols and Tar Heels, but Gonzaga might still be undefeated if they’d been able to play at full strength.

Tillie was predictably rusty in his debut against Santa Clara, managing to foul out in just nine minutes of playing time — but he also canned a nice 3-pointer from the corner when the Broncos’ bigs had to collapse on Rui Hachimura (25 points).

THAT ONE play offered a glimpse of what Gonzaga has to offer with Tillie in the rotation.

Suddenly you have a situation where Hachimura and Brandon Clarke can get a little rest, and when all the big guys are on the court together, the Zags should be almost unstoppable on offense.

At the other end of the floor, Tillie’s presence means the Zags can comfortably switch at all five positions — which is the Gonzaga calling card on ball screens, and the key to what historically has been great defense.

In addition, with the all-action Crandall and athletic Jeremy Jones available, Coach Mark Few has broken out a three-quarter court press with the idea of matching up all his athletes against your ball handlers.

Santa Clara, which came to town with a six-game winning streak, couldn’t cope with any of it.

The Broncos turned the ball over, got murdered on the boards — and basically found out how tough things can get against a team that fully intends to reach the Final Four.

Santa Clara’s young star Tahj Eaddy took the ball to the rack twice early in the game.

Clarke smashed Eaddy’s first shot away, and pinned the second to the backboard.

The game was just a lot of fun in the The Kennel, especially now that Gonzaga has all hands on deck.


It’s time for a legitimate conference test, and that’s not likely to come on Thursday night when Pacific visits Spokane.

Expect another blowout in that one — which Few would truly relish because he’d like to get his starters out as early as possible.

Immediately after the Pacific game, the Zags fly down to the Bay Area for a game that might tell us a lot about whether or not the WCC will be as competitive as predicted.

On Saturday night, Gonzaga gets a look at the fully rebuilt San Francisco Dons (14-2).

USF has opened the conference season with wins over St. Mary’s at home and Pepperdine on the road — the latter when San Francisco star guard Frankie Ferrari tossed in a well-guarded 3-pointer with 15 seconds remaining to win it.

Maybe the Dons aren’t quite Duke or Carolina — they were upset by UC-Santa Barbara just before conference play opened — but you can be sure they’ve been thinking passionately about Gonzaga’s visit this weekend.

Unlike the Zags with their workout against Pacific and the flight south, San Francisco will have had the entire week off to gear up for their biggest game since ...

The days of Bill Russell?

OK, THAT’S an exaggeration, sort of, but with the WCC likely still not on any committee’s radar, the Dons may need a win over Gonzaga to squeeze out an NCAA bid.

That’s not a joke.

San Francisco owns back-to-back 20-win seasons, and nobody knows it outside of the Haight-Ashbury district.

The Dons aren’t just the Frankie Ferrari show, either, although he’s the easiest to notice since he plays with his hair on fire. Think of Geno Crandall with a dozen cups of coffee during every timeout.

That 3-ball that Ferrari canned to beat Pepperdine?

He shot it square in the face of the Waves’ Jade Smith, who was a prep star at St. Joseph-Notre Dame in the Bay Area — a team whose signature playoff victory was a 23-point comeback to beat Burlingame High and its all-everything guard ...

Frankie Ferrari.

In fact, in the Pepperdine game, Ferrari missed a go-ahead jumper with 45 seconds remaining as Smith had him smothered.

Was Frankie down?

Not so much.

“I told the guys in the timeout before those last couple of plays that if we got that one stop, I promised them I would knock down a shot,” Ferrari said.

It’s pretty obvious that Gonzaga will have to keep Ferrari from running the San Francisco offense too smoothly.

“He’s a guy you have to take out of his game,” Perkins said, “or everyone else feeds off of him.”

And the Dons really do have some other playmakers.

To give you an idea, USF hadn’t opened WCC play 2-0 like this in 11 years.

Swingman Charles Minlend is the Dons’ most consistent scorer (15.4 per game), but the spotlight against the Zags surely will be on 7-footer Jimbo Lull and fellow bigs 6-10 Matt McCarthy and 6-8 leaper Nate Renfro.

CAN THEY deal with the Zags’ Hachimura, Clarke and Tillie (assuming he’s healthy enough to offer some minutes)?

There’s some good and bad with that San Francisco front line. They’re certainly experienced — Jull is a junior, while McCarthy, Renfro and Ferrari are all seniors.

The bad news is that in a close game, the Dons need the ball in the hands of Ferarri or Minlend down the stretch, because they can’t count on anyone else to make a free throw.

As a team, the Dons shoot 67 percent from the stripe, but that’s truly misleading because if you take out Ferrari (86 percent) and Minlend (73), this is a team of bricklayers.

San Francisco’s big guys are not ferocious rebounders, either.

They got beat up on the boards by Pepperdine, but fired up by a huge game in their own building, against a national power like Gonzaga — another small Jesuit school that is showing off what was the Dons’ own calling card back in the day — you probably should expect a mighty effort on the glass and everywhere else.

It’s not like Saturday night’s winner is a cinch for the WCC regular-season title, though.

The Zags are the team to beat, no matter what happens this weekend, and they’ve been through these emotional games at St. Mary’s over and over — but make no mistake about San Francisco wanting to win this game more than any in years.

It will be fascinating to see to what level the Dons, playing at home, can take their game with lots of chips on the table.


Most of the importance involved in this Gonzaga-San Francisco matchup is right there to see — except that unlike with all those big games against St. Mary’s, this budding rivalry has some teeth in it.

The short version is that the Dons used to be sitting where the Zags are now.

San Francisco went to three straight Final Fours in the 1950s, and won two national titles as Russell and a string of stars like K.C. Jones reeled off 60 straight wins.

The Dons were a national contender pretty regularly throughout the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s.

In fact, only UCLA’s unbelievable streak of titles likely kept the Dons from adding another trophy or two.

In back-to-back national title years, UCLA coach John Wooden hoisted the hardware and said, “I believe we actually won the championship when we hung on to beat USF in the Western Regional. They were the best team we played.”

All the Dons’ excitement stopped when a long string of scandals — including two stints on NCAA probation — finally crashed with the Quintin Dailey affair.

Dailey, a sensational guard who played 10 years in the NBA, was convicted of assault on a USF co-ed (who later received a large settlement in a civil suit), and then what most people suspected about the program became public.

USF HAD become a serial cheater.

Dailey admitted he and other players had routinely been paid for “invisible jobs” by a Dons donor, and in 1983, Fr. John LoSchiavo, the USF president, stunned everyone by shutting down men’s basketball entirely.

The sport was resumed two years later, but with plenty of restrictions — including a halt to recruiting outside the Bay Area and a few regional areas inside California.

The party was over.

San Francisco has qualified for just one NCAA tournament since the program was reinstated in 1985, but ...

That hasn’t stopped the Dons and their true believers from assuming that this remains THE major program in the western United States.

San Francisco’s Wikipedia blurb states that the school is the “winningest program in WCC history,” which is wrong on every level.

Even if you count the Russell era in the 1950s — before the WCC even existed — San Francisco has 16 won conference regular-season titles.

USF won WCC titles in the first four years Gonzaga was in the conference (1979-82) but have been blanked for the past 36 years.

Meanwhile, the Zags have won the WCC regular-season title 21 times and appeared in 20 consecutive NCAA tournaments.

San Francisco’s haul in that period includes one conference tournament championship.

Nevertheless, Dons loyalists basically refuse to believe that Gonzaga even plays basketball, they insist that Russell and Co., along with big names like Bill Cartwright, still cast the largest shadow over West Coast basketball, and that now with USF allowed to toss out a wider recruiting net (Minlend is from North Carolina and Renfro from Tucson), order soon will restored.


A nice little town, but it ain’t San Francisco.

If USF and Coach Kyle Smith can keep up the recruiting formula (get 2-3 stars like Ferrari from talent-rich Northern California and grab a couple of special players from the national pool), this business of putting Gonzaga back in its place could become a full-blooded Jesuit battle.

And for San Francisco, the start back to its rightful throne begins on Saturday night.

• • •

Steve Cameron is a columnist for The Press. He’s a former sports writer with the Denver Post and Kansas City Star and the author of 13 sports books. He’s hosted radio programs specifically on college basketball. Email:

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