Freshman guards making an impression at Gonzaga
Gonzaga freshman guards Gary Bell Jr. and Kevin Pangos are playing key roles in Bulldogs' battle to return to the NCAA tournament.
Seattle Times staff reporter
SPOKANE — In the TV room of the Holland, Ontario, home of Bill and Patty Pangos, they began to hear the evidence that their only son planned to take basketball seriously.
"I could tell you stories," Bill Pangos said the other day. "He'd be down in the basement on the tile floor and literally handle the ball for an hour, two hours in the wintertime."
Two thousand miles to the west, Gary Bell Sr. and his wife Vivian know all about the boy-and-his-ball thing. At 5, Gary Jr. would cast up a Nerf ball in their kitchen and wail in frustration when it didn't find the basket.
Years later, the sons have come together at Gonzaga, Kevin Pangos and Gary Bell Jr., and their common freshman season has played mostly to rave reviews. A pair of freshman starting guards isn't usually a recipe for an NCAA-tournament team, but that's where it appears Gonzaga is headed again.
"I'm beyond pleased," Gonzaga coach Mark Few said recently. "They've just done a phenomenal job for two freshmen in every aspect of their life here, whether as students, socially, the chemistry they've formed off the floor — and on the floor with their teammates, because they're such good guys."
All they've been asked to do is know the offense, regulate tempo, be fearless, shoot the ball, drive it without hesitation, guard the opposition's best perimeter player and find that balance between freshman deference and requisite assertiveness. In the shared effort, they've become close friends.
Of course, it's in the name of keeping Gonzaga's tradition going, and though there have been bumps, like double-digit losses to Saint Mary's and BYU, the Zags are 18-4 entering Thursday night's home headliner against the Gaels.
"I'm absolutely impressed," said former Zags guard Matt Santangelo, now a Spokane businessman who does radio analysis. "They're both humble-pie gym rats who just want to win, get along with their teammates and have great relationships already."
A mid-January assessment of the nation's top 25 freshmen by ESPN.com named Pangos No. 4, behind Anthony Davis and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist of Kentucky and Cody Zeller of Indiana. Few contends Bell, the Associated Press player of the year last season at Kentridge, should have been on it, too.
Their first season might be the one in which Saint Mary's breaks the Zags' 11-year run of conference titles, but that's more about the Gaels than any shortfall from Pangos and Bell, who have combined to hit .389 on three-point shots and .805 from the foul line. Pangos has a healthy 1.76-to-1 assist-turnover ratio and Bell draws the opponent's best scorer, which means players like Xavier's Tu Holloway.
Lately, they're learning about the season being a marathon. Bell is creaking after a practice collision last week — "He's a little beat up right now," his dad said early this week — while Pangos just went through a five-game stretch playing 36 minutes a night with more turnovers than assists and shooting only .333.
"I've talked about that (on the radio) a few times," Santangelo said. "I think the coaches are aware of it, and the one thing this team has is a lot of depth.
"His (Pango's) game is so predicated on his ability to knock down jump shots, but you take his legs away from him and all of a sudden, it becomes really hard to knock down jump shots."
Each came from an athletic family. Pangos' father is women's basketball coach at York University in Toronto, and his mother just retired as a high-school physical-education teacher.
Kevin played a variety of sports as a kid — hockey, volleyball, soccer, badminton — and his father believes that his game is the collective reflection of all of them.
"In hockey, he was a defenseman," said Bill Pangos. "You've got to scan ahead, see the head man on the puck and recognize time-and-space issues. In soccer, there's footwork. Volleyball helps in jumping and timing."
Pangos coached his son in club basketball, the Canadian equivalent of AAU.
"In grade 5, he developed a passion for handling the ball," Bill Pangos said. "He'd go to the parking lot, to the store. Everywhere he went, the ball was bouncing."
Kevin gave up soccer and hockey after eighth grade and, his last couple of years of high school, was concentrating on basketball. By then, he had an affinity for fellow Canadian Steve Nash, but he was also studying guys like J.J. Barea and Chris Paul.
He got considerable experience with the Canadian junior and senior national teams, and word filtered south of the border. Cincinnati, Michigan and Gonzaga recruited him hardest, and on a Friday in 2010, he was to take an official visit to Michigan. Two days before, Michigan got a commitment from Trey Burke, now a standout freshman there, and that was that.
"Kevin didn't want to commit until he had his official visit," said his father. "Having said all that, I think Gonzaga would have been his first choice."
The distance to Gonzaga gave Pangos some pause, but he said recently on campus he has adapted.
"I kind of made this my new home," Pangos said. "I love the area I'm from, but I was ready to move on. I have everything I want here."
Bell also had some hereditary help. His grandfather played a year at Alcorn State and his dad, 6-4, was on the team at Navarro (Texas) Junior College. Then Gary Sr., a product of Baton Rouge, La., did a Navy tour before his ship went into dry dock in Bremerton in 1990.
Early, he coached his son's team at the Tukwila Community Center. Gary Jr. was so proficient at stealing the ball, his dad would urge him to pull up and shoot jumpers to sharpen that skill rather than make the pedestrian layup. Today, Bell shoots .414 on threes.
Soon, Bell would be playing for the AAU Rotary Select team and developing a close relationship with future Washington guard Tony Wroten. He played football through ninth grade — quarterback and running back — and his dad thought he might be better at that.
"I always knew I was going to play basketball," insisted Bell.
Late in his junior year of a standout career at Kentridge, Bell chose the Zags over California and Washington. His dad says it was "basically a no-brainer."
To hear Gary Jr. tell it, his instincts have been rewarded. "I love it," he said. "Everybody on campus loves us. The guys on the team, we all get along well. I'm having a blast here."
With Pangos and Bell, you don't get bravado, no strutting or preening. It's just old-school grinding.
"I always told him, 'Keep working, stay humble,' " Gary Sr. said. "If you're playing well, everybody sees it. You don't need to pump your chest. Let your basketball speak."
Few appreciates that, even as he worried when the season approached if either player would have that will to kill on the floor — an attitude, Few says, that "I'm as good as you, and I'm going to show it to you, and I ain't backing down from you."
Pangos and Bell showed that quickly through the Zags' rugged nonconference schedule.
"They're the best kind," said Few. "They've got it, and they don't feel the need to have to show it to everybody."
It's a quiet thing, and it seems to ensure noisy gyms at Gonzaga for a long time.
Bud Withers: 206-464-8281 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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