Conroy on Zags Game: 'It's Not Like They're Enemies'

Dan Raley

Washington and Gonzaga basketball coaching staffs were once overly friendly. Bob Bender, Dan Monson and their assistants could sit and have a beer together. Their teams weren't in the national spotlight, in fact they weren't very good. They decided to play each other on a regular basis.

Things changed when Lorenzo Romar and Mark Few took over the respective programs. The Huskies and Zags recruited the same players, with the UW getting a little too aggressive in the pursuit of a particular big man, drawing an NCAA rebuke and the Zags' ire. Gonzaga took some key players away from the UW as transfers. The two teams were successful and didn't like each other. The cross-state rivalry ended abruptly in 2006.

Heading into Sunday's game at Alaska Airlines Arena, it's Mike Hopkins going head to head against Few, a totally different dynamic. They both have ranked teams. They recruit some of the same players. They seem to get along, well enough that there's no outside squabble surrounding this 48th game. Things are tame along the sideline. 

"Coach Hop and coach Few are good buddies," said Will Conroy, a UW assistant for both Hopkins and Romar. "It's more like coach Few and the Gonzaga staff have embraced coach Hop to the Northwest. It was welcome to Washington."

Of course, Gonzaga has kept its streak of sheer dominance going against the Huskies, beating them in the two games involving Hopkins. 

The Zags have won 12 of the past 13 games held over 22 years. They throttled the Huskies 97-70 in Hopkins' debut game against them -- in Seattle. They beat them at the buzzer in Spokane last year. Yep, welcome to Washington. 

The Huskies used to call the shots in this series, which they lead 29-18. Gonzaga does that now. Success has a way of influencing decisions and changing stature.

Where we once saw Romar and Few try to hash things out in the corner of the gym following an overtime game in Spokane, Hopkins and his Gonzaga counterpart will likely greet each other like old friends. Then they'll get down to business in front of ESPN2 cameras and likely a full house and try to beat each other. 

"I know those guys talk so it's not like they're enemies," said Conroy, who scored a career-high 32 points for the Huskies in that OT matchup in 2003.

Since arriving at the UW, Hopkins has checked a lot of boxes--returning the Huskies to the NCAA tournament,  winning a league championship, restoring the home-court advantage--but beating Gonzaga eludes him.

"I'm learning about it," Hopkins said of the series. "I knew coach Few when he coached way back. To be able to compete against them is an honor."

Maybe he's got a sly approach to this storied rivalry: Kill them with kindness.