Gonzaga's evolution — From David to Goliath and back
At first they were quaint, a little program that ravaged 1999 NCAA-tournament brackets, even as Easterners couldn't pronounce the name. They would go away, of course, and leave...
Seattle Times colleges reporter
At first they were quaint, a little program that ravaged 1999 NCAA-tournament brackets, even as Easterners couldn't pronounce the name. They would go away, of course, and leave the heavy work of college basketball to the big boys.
Then they became catchy, winning and winning some more. Then, in a perverse way of thinking, Gonzaga arrived, experiencing what has happened to every big-time program — it lost unexpectedly in the NCAAs, in 2002 and 2004.
When Gonzaga fell hard to Nevada at KeyArena last March, there was a finality to it. Their routine had been to gather on the floor, manage a smile, and clap in tribute to the fans. But on that day the end was so searing, the fall from a No. 2 ranking so jarring, that the choreography was all wrong — strained, through tears, almost as if they felt shame, before the retreat to the locker room.
Leaving the floor that day were Blake Stepp and Cory Violette, not only the team's Nos. 2 and 3 scorers, but also two guys who seemingly had been at Gonzaga as long as the Jesuit priests. Along with them went three other seniors, rounding out something probably unique among 327 NCAA Division I teams — five seniors (two guards, two forwards and a center) whom you could have started and won with.
Now it is a scant nine months later, and coach Mark Few, in a new office richly appointed with cherry-wood paneling, entertains a question:
Can you win a national title at Gonzaga?
He stops, and then says, "I don't know why you can't. It's kind of the premise that's kept us all around."
If the question seems loopy, tell that to Georgia Tech and Oklahoma State. Gonzaga (10-2) begins West Coast Conference play tonight with probably the most glowing nonconference résumé in its history. The Zags brought down both Tech and Oklahoma State, each a 2004 Final Four team, and also handed Washington its only loss.
That should release some pressure on Gonzaga's WCC season, which the Zags negotiated unbeaten last year. Now the WCC is eighth-rated by the RPI computer, highest in league history, with Gonzaga at No. 12.
"Last year's league couldn't hold a candle to this year's," Few says. "It's every bit as good as the Pac-10 this year."
One of the joys of sport is the continual surprises it serves up, and that's the way it is with the 2004-05 Zags. The team that lost a team is still a team.
Derek Raivio, replacing Stepp, may look like he's 15. But against the demanding guards of Washington, Georgia Tech and Oklahoma State, he had 48 points, 21 assists and two turnovers.
Violette's successor is J.P. Batista, a 6-foot-9, 265-pound, junior-college product from Brazil who brings an incongruous game, a polished offensive touch combined with a refusal to be moved off the low block. He was 16 of 22 from the field on the Oklahoma State-Missouri trip.
"He's got that natural-man strength, like you find in those guys that move boulders," Few said. "And he's as good a person as I've been around."
Then there's the 6-8 sophomore scorer, Adam Morrison, who seems hell-bent for some All-America teams, maybe sooner than later. Morrison is a difficult defensive matchup, and his ballhandling helps Raivio break pressure.
This is the surprise of Gonzaga: The Zags could be better than a year ago, when they went 28-3 and rose to an unprecedented No. 2 in the coaches poll. Not better in the polls, but better in March.
Few won't go there, but he does say of his offensive options, "I think we're less predictable this year. Last year, we were very dependent on Blake having a good game, and pretty dependent on Ronny (Turiaf) being in there."
The Nevada postmortem suggested Gonzaga needed to get quicker. Raivio has upgraded that, and on defense, the Zags slowed Tech and Oklahoma State by playing their favored matchup zone, availing themselves of long arms like Morrison's and Erroll Knight's
"It's a really, really 'long' zone," says Few, "kind of like Syracuse's."
In preparation for tonight's game at Santa Clara, Few looked at last year's tape of the Zags' one-point escape in the WCC tournament. What stared back was a tired team. In going undefeated, the Zags may have been victimized by fool's gold, generating a perfect run while they really didn't get better.
Two factors argue against a repeat. First, the Zags are young; only Turiaf is a senior starter. As good as Gonzaga has begun, it figures to have upside.
Second, the WCC promises some potholes. Santa Clara brought down North Carolina, Pepperdine thrashed Wisconsin, Saint Mary's has trumped California and UNLV.
Few puts the gear-shifting like this: "Instead of that four man being this amazing top-of-the-backboard athlete (in their nonconference games), and he's chiseled but can't shoot, the four men in our league are skill guys that can step out and hit threes."
So the marquee games of December melt into the anonymous gyms of the WCC — the Zags' second season.
How they handle it will tell a lot about the third one, the one in March that everybody remembers.
Bud Withers: 206-464-8281 or email@example.com
About Bud Withers
Bud Withers gives his take on college sports, with the latest from the Huskies, Cougs, and the rest of the Pac-10.
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