Bulldogs A Top Flight Basketball Program

Nov 11, 2002

By TIM KORTE
AP Sports Writer

SPOKANE, Wash. (AP) - Gonzaga coach Mark Few rubs his eyes, stifles a yawn and drops into a chair in his snug office overlooking The Kennel. The Bulldogs begin warming up for practice on the court below.

Poor fellow. Few is flat-out gassed after a 20-hour trip to New York to promote Gonzaga's game in the Jimmy V. Classic. And because he agreed to an interview, his clam chowder is getting cold as it sits in a plastic foam bowl.

"I've been going pretty hard lately," Few said.

That's life these days for the big-time Bulldogs, who burst onto the national scene as the NCAA tournament's upset darlings in 1999. They missed the Final Four by one game that year, then followed it up with two trips to the Sweet 16.

Look at Gonzaga now.

The school's four-year NCAA run had the 'Zags cracking the top 10 last season, a travel schedule worthy of the Rolling Stones, and big success on the recruiting trail.

It's no stretch to say the little Jesuit college previously famous as the alma mater of crooner Bing Crosby has become the home of a topflight basketball program.

"Long gone are the days when anybody looks past us," Few said. "When we play, we're usually going to face the other team's best effort and emotional focus. Last year, everywhere we played was a sellout."

That's something you might expect to hear from Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski or Roy Williams at Kansas. But this is Gonzaga, a tidy campus where 4,765 clean-cut students walk to class along the banks of the Spokane River.

"We're kind of a community team," point guard Blake Stepp said. "We don't get as much media attention, at least like schools in the Top 10, but it's fun to go to the mall and have little kids come up and talk to you."

Don't let the funny name fool you anymore. Gonzaga has gone big-time.

The Bulldogs play this season at the Maui Invitational, where the field includes Kentucky, Indiana and Utah. They'll meet Georgia at the Peach Bowl Classic in Atlanta, then North Carolina State two days later at the Jimmy V. Classic in New Jersey.

They've got Stanford at the Pete Newell Challenge in Oakland, Calif., and an ESPN game against visiting Tulsa.

How things have changed.

"We travel just as much as before, but it wasn't everywhere in the country," senior forward Zach Gourde said. "We were still regional back then, going to big tournaments every once in a while. Now, we're in more high-pressure situations."

That's just the warmup. Few knows plenty of West Coast Conference opponents would love to shock the Bulldogs.

"That's what has made it difficult these last three years," he said. "We've definitely been the hunted. That's been a much more difficult journey than the one we initially made to the Elite Eight."

Need more evidence this program has evolved? Go back to March, when Gonzaga's first-round NCAA tournament loss to Wyoming was characterized as an upset - exactly what the Bulldogs used to do to the big boys.

"That was all fun and games back then," Few said. "We bum-rushed and sprung it on everybody. They didn't know what hit them. Our guys were playing footloose and fancy-free."

What makes Gonzaga's rise even more remarkable, Few said, is that it's happened within the structure of the university's mission. You won't see any Bulldogs jumping to the NBA after a year in college.

"We haven't sacrificed our core value of 'Team First,"' Few said. "We want good kids who want to graduate and be good teammates, who are really willing to work on reaching their full potential, with basketball and scholastically."

Gonzaga is a study in contrasts, operating from a gym no larger than one found in most high schools, yet drawing crowds on the road and beating some of the elite teams on the recruiting trail.

Take Sean Mallon. The versatile 6-foot-8 freshman forward was heavily recruited after making the high school summer tours with a Spokane-area team. For college, he chose to stay home.

"The size of the school, the league, all of that didn't factor into it," Mallon said. "I just wanted to go someplace that was known for winning, and winning the right way. I plan to stay the whole four years."

It's not just incoming players who look solid. Gonzaga has a front line that would be the envy of any Atlantic Coast Conference coach.

There's Gourde (6-8, 249 pounds), Cory Violette (6-8, 250) and Ronny Turiaf (6-9, 228). Throw in Richard Fox (6-11, 270), eligible this season after transferring from Colorado, and the Bulldogs are imposing.

"We have a front line that's big enough to bang with anyone in the country, yet we're agile enough to run with anyone," Gourde said. "We don't have a bunch of large, plodding players."

It's going to be tough to replace sharp-shooting guard Dan Dickau, who averaged 21 points a game and guided the Bulldogs to a No. 6 national ranking last season before taking his game to the NBA.

Stepp is the top candidate to run the floor. Few expects Winston Brooks to shoulder some of the responsibility, too, but with such a talented frontcourt, the Bulldogs won't be so guard-oriented.

"Every set isn't going to run through that position like it has in the past," Few said. "We'll adapt and share the load, whether it's scoring, leadership or shooting technical fouls."

All this success hasn't spoiled Gonzaga. Just look at Few, who's working just as hard at home as he is on Xs and Os. His two small children temper his perspective when the work load gets crazy.

"You go home and change diapers, or you have to change your outfit three times a day because you've got a baby spitting on it," Few said. "Those things tend to humble all of us.

"I don't know that myself, my staff or my players have changed at all," he said. "The time demands have changed on all of us. But this program, who we are and where we came from, that will always ground us."

 

 

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