Gonzaga University's Kennel Club may have to get creative this time around.
Tonight at the McCarthey Athletic Center — aka The Kennel — the Zags student section will welcome its favorite player to hate — Saint Mary's College center Omar Samhan. But Gonzaga fans may have trouble finding many chinks in Samhan's armor in what will be his last visit to Spokane, Wash., with the Gaels.
Samhan, who has had a contentious relationship with Gonzaga's fans throughout his college career, enters the game leading the West Coast Conference in scoring (21.7 ppg) and rebounding (11.1 rpg). But he's slightly tempered his demonstrative, trash-talking on-court antics that always have riled up the Kennel Club.
There's no word if the Kennel Club will pass out anti-Samhan T-shirts or hold up less-than-flattering life-size cutouts of him, as they have in the past. But whatever they decide, it probably won't be pointing out many flaws in his on-court performance.
"He's playing so well, there's really not much to criticize him about," said Zach Bell, the co-founder of The Slipper Still Fits, a Web site for Gonzaga fans. "I don't think it's that bad anymore. He's toned it down the past couple of years and blossomed into one hell of a player."
Samhan got on the Kennel Club's bad side immediately after joining Saint Mary's. In his first game against Gonzaga as a freshman, Samhan scored 20 points to help the Gaels upset the Zags in Moraga. At one point, an emotionally charged Samhan directed an expletive toward Gonzaga coach Mark Few, a product of some bitterness during Samhan's recruiting process. He also got into the Zags huddle during a timeout to inform Gonzaga's players that they weren't in for an easy night.
Samhan has been the No. 1 villain in Spokane ever since. He has engaged in give and take with the Kennel Club during games, and Gonzaga fans send him messages on Facebook. Samhan was responding to those messages but stopped this season under the advisement of coach Randy Bennett and athletic director Mark Orr.
Last year, Samhan replied to one especially inciteful message with a laundry list of all that is wrong with Gonzaga and Spokane. When the Gaels came to town, the Kennel Club responded with chants of "Spo-kane-hates-you."
When he visited The Kennel as a sophomore, the Kennel Club passed out free T-shirts with a picture of a bulldog swallowing Samhan. Gonzaga's other nickname is the Bulldogs.
"They always get on me," Samhan said. "I expect them to be how they always are, getting on me and everything else. They always have something special. I love playing in that kind of environment."
Samhan is more focused on the magnitude of tonight's game than his sideshow with the Kennel Club. The Gaels (21-3, 8-1 WCC) hold a half-game lead over the No. 16 Zags (19-4, 7-1) for first place. A victory would put Saint Mary's in a strong position to win its first outright regular-season conference title since 1989.
"It's an exciting environment when there's nothing riding on the game, but even more exciting when there is something riding on the game," Samhan said. "This year, there's definitely a lot riding on it. It's hard to sleep knowing what's riding on it. I'll lay in bed for a few hours watching ESPN or something."