Bulldogs Don't Rebuild, They Reload

March 21, 2001

Associated Press Writer

SPOKANE, Wash. - Three years in a row the Gonzaga Bulldogs have advanced to the NCAA tournament's round of 16, and they've done it with three largely different casts.

Unlike other so-called unheralded teams that benefit from good players for a year or two before fading, the Bulldogs are showing surprising staying power.

Is Gonzaga becoming a program that reloads instead of rebuilds?

"You look at this team and see what they lost last year," said Jud Heathcote, the retired Michigan State coach who lives in Spokane and has Gonzaga season tickets. "That they're back is a miracle.

Heathcote will be rooting for Michigan State when the teams play Friday, but he admires the Bulldogs.

He remembered going to a Gonzaga game during the mid-1990s and being disappointed by the modest crowd and modest gym.

"Then they came out to play and there were three kids that could have started for me at Michigan State - Scott Snider, Paul Rogers and Kyle Dixon," Heathcote said, naming three players from the 1995 team that was the first Gonzaga squad to make the NCAA tournament.

"The basketball was very good, and it's been good ever since."

Between 1979-2000, Gonzaga was the second-winningest Division 1 basketball program in the West, after UCLA. The Bruins had a .716 winning percentage during that time, Gonzaga was .615.

The Bulldogs went to the NIT in 1994, 1996 and 1998. They went to the NCAA tournament in 1995, 1999, 2000 and this year.

A look at the past three final 16 teams shows that the Bulldogs were able to plug holes with players and a coach as talented as those who left.

The 1999 team that went to the final eight was sparked by guard Quentin Hall, a junior college transfer who helped the Bulldogs to NCAA victories over Minnesota, Stanford and Florida before losing to eventual champion Connecticut.

Hall graduated, and coach Dan Monson was hired after the season by Minnesota.

Assistant Mark Few took over for the 2000 season. He recalled receiving a phone call in September 1999 from the late Marquette coach Al McGuire. McGuire warned Few not to let the expectations of fans get too high.

"You guys will never get back to the Sweet 16," McGuire told Few. "You know how hard that is."

But Few led a senior-dominated team back to the final 16, beating Louisville and St. John's before losing to Purdue. That team was led by seniors Matt Santangelo, Mike Nilson, Richie Frahm and Axel Dench.

The loss of those four starters left the Bulldogs so depleted that they never appeared in any Top 25 polls this season. West Coast Conference coaches picked them to finish third.

Senior forward Casey Calvary was the only starter back, while senior Mark Spink and sophomore Zach Gourde moved into starting roles.

But Few had a few surprises.

Guard Dan Dickau, a transfer from Washington, became eligible to play this season.

Few also signed junior college transfers Alex Hernandez and Anthony Reason, who both made an immediate impact. Oregon Class 4A player of the year Blake Stepp became a starting guard as a freshman. Two other freshmen - Idaho Class 2A player of the year Cory Violette and walk-on guard Kyle Bankhead - have performed well in limited roles.

With only Calvary and Spink graduating this year, the outlook for next season is good - again.



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