From Zags to Riches: Sky's the Limit for Battle-Tested Gonzaga

Benjamin TurnerContributor IJanuary 20, 2010

If Gonzaga’s “Decade of Excellence” video has taught us anything about our beloved Zags, it’s that we don’t rebuild, we just reload.

Case in point—last March, after a (bitter) Sweet 16 defeat against eventual champion North Carolina, we said sayonara to perhaps the most balanced and athletic team in the program’s history up to that time. 

Gone was the exuberant, infectious personality of Jeremy Pargo, who proudly carried on the Bulldogs’ tradition of exceptional point guard play.  Gone was Josh Heytvelt, a skilled big man both on the post and the perimeter who matured admirably in front of our eyes. 

Gone were Micah Downs and Ira Brown, two combo players who had highlight reel potential every time they touched the rock. Plus, sophomore Austin Daye, an often labeled prima donna, bolted for the Association and the Benjamins even though his frail frame wasn’t ready for NBA wear-and-tear.

Now this wasn’t a time for panic, rather a time for re-examination.

No matter what the team, if you lose 80 percent of your starting lineup and the conference’s best spark plug off the bench, questions will undoubtedly arise.  However, through this, solutions for renovating previous team blueprints are easier to fix.

Soft, underachieving, no sense of urgency, lack of defense, playing down to their competition, and facing a weak schedule have been descriptions of Gonzaga basketball at times, especially since we were knighted as the official mid-major powerhouse about five years ago.

(Note: These words were never associated with the teams of Matt Santangelo, Richie Frahm, Casey Calvary, Dan Dickau, Corey Voilette, Ronny Turiaf, and Blake Stepp.)

Though coach Mark Few has a remarkable overall coaching record, a lot of the burden of past failures fall on his shoulders as he’s the face of Zag basketball. But this was his opportunity to assemble a team and a recruiting class that possesses the skill sets (both concrete and abstract) that brought our small, private Jesuit school into the national spotlight over a decade ago.  And boy, did he ever deliver!

With the 2009-10 squad featuring eight freshman (six true freshman) and only three upperclassmen, Few needed to be more of a teacher than a coach at the beginning of the season. 

Obviously, I wasn’t personally present at his practice sessions, but it’s amazing how much more polished the returning players are and how far ahead of schedule the majority of the underclassmen are. Few deserves all the credit in the world, and that statement is coming from one of his harshest critics during previous campaigns.

Matt Bouldin and Steve Gray were the best all-around players returning this season, but each seems to have refined their game and added skills they didn’t show with consistency last year.  Bouldin has been a great facilitator so far, whether it’s setting up the offense, tossin’ dimes, or straight taking over against the likes of Cincinnati and Washington State. 

Meanwhile, Gray has often defended the opponent’s best and has had some monstrous rebounding performances.

Rob Sacre has been a pleasant surprise in the offensive paint.  During his first couple years, he was primarily a raw defender and any offensive production was icing on the cake; now he’s a threat that opposing coaches have a nightmare matching up against at times.  Even his backup, Will Foster, has given meaningful minutes while clogging the middle, making it almost impossible for point guards to drive to the hoop.

Props to the entire coaching staff for accumulating the best recruiting class in the program’s history.

Elias Harris (aka “The Chancellor of the Boards”) has brought his international experience from the German national team and ignited a team that desperately needed an impact scorer and he hasn’t disappointed while dictating both in scoring and rebounding. 

Bol Kong has become a fan favorite and has effortlessly slipped into Ira Brown’s former role as the team’s spark plug off the bench, draining threes from wherever he pleases. 

Also, Kelly Olynyk and Manny Arop’s have skill sets that compare favorably to former Zag players like David Pendergraph, Sean Mallon, and Anthony Reason.

When you combine it all, Gonzaga has suddenly transformed themselves from soft to physical, laid-back to urgent, offensive-minded to well-rounded, under-achieving to reaching their full potential, and from playing weak opponents to being one of the most battle-tested teams in the country.

In less than a full calendar year, Gonzaga basketball has gone from Zags to riches. 

So move over Gatorade, because now that is G.