Zags Return Deep Veteran Squad
Bulldogs In Stepp Again
Don't look for Gonzaga University to be out of step this season.
Not with veteran senior point guard Blake Stepp running the show.
Bulldogs' head coach Mark Few actually hopes others step up to take some of the pressure off the 2003 West Coast Conference Player of the Year, Associated Press honorable mention All-America selection and one of two Zags on the John R. Wooden Award Pre-season Top 50 list. Senior forward Cory Violette is on the Wooden list for a second straight year.
Stepp was the go-to guy for the Bulldogs last year, averaging 18.0 ppg, 3.7 rpg and 6.0 assists/game as the Bulldogs won the WCC regular-season title, advanced to the title game of the WCC Tournament and received an at-large berth to their fifth straight NCAA Tournament.
"Blake is the most versatile point guard we've had here," said Few, who finished last season as the second-winningest fourth-year head coach in NCAA history with 105 victories. "Matt Santangelo was like that. You can count on him to rebound, play some rugged defense, distribute the ball and score. The best part of Blake's game has always been his versatility."
But Few would like his troops to become just a bit less dependent on the Eugene, Ore., native.
"I think last year's team had Blake's signature more than anything," Few said. "We leaned on him so hard last year I would hope with the experience and depth we have this year that hopefully we won't be as dependent on Blake every game and every minute of every game like we did last season."
And like the two previous point guards before him - Santangelo and Dan Dickau, Stepp got a chance to wear the red, white and blue of USA Basketball last summer as he was selected to the Pan-American Games squad.
"The Pan Am Games was another great opportunity for Blake. It's great people outside our program get to see him healthy. A lot of judgments were made on him his sophomore year when he was running around on one leg and they came out to see Dan (Dickau)," Few said. "Everybody has been surprised at how he has played and how much more athletic he is.
"It's great for our program to have three straight point guards make USA Basketball. That makes quite a statement about our program and player development."
While the 2003-04 version of the Bulldogs will be Stepp's team, the talent and depth of this team are perhaps the best of all during Gonzaga's recent string of success.
Skinner, a JC transfer a year ago, got better as the season progressed. Although he missed three games midway through the WCC season with a severely sprained ankle, he was a factor down the stretch. In particular was his play in the NCAA Tournament, especially in the 96-95 double-overtime loss to top-seeded Arizona. He scored a season-high 25 points, going 8-for-17 from the field and 5-for-11 from 3-point range. His tip-in of a missed Stepp trey at the buzzer of regulation sent the game to overtime.
"Tony Skinner was great for us in the NCAA Tournament and had some big games down the stretch," Few noted. "The big thing with Tony was getting consistent. If he can play consistent this year and improve his ball handling, decision making and defend then he will help this team even more.
" I think he just went through an adjustment period like you have to when you come from JC. He's always been a shooter, now he's working on other parts of his game so he's not just a shooter."
Skinner shot 44.5 percent from the field and 41.5 percent from 3-point range last season, quite an improvement over his 4-for-21 start from the field through the first three games.
Bankhead is also back for his senior season and will once again be called on to give the Bulldogs stability as well as a long-range threat. He hit 44.0 percent of his shots last season, including 40.0 percent from 3-point range. Like Skinner, he struggled with his shot early last season, going 4-for-18 from beyond the arc through the first five games prior to breaking out with an 11-for-20 streak through the next four outings.
A senior from Walla Walla, Wash., he's a career 43.0 percent shooter from long range (128-for-198).
"Kyle has a ton of experience and has won a lot of games for us. He's been a great player and a great contributor in this program. We're going to lean on him for his experience, toughness and savvy," Few said.
And the fifth-year Bulldog head coach is looking for another solid year from the former walk-on
"Hopefully he'll have another year for us like he had last year and maybe improve upon that. Kyle does a lot of good things. He's always in the right place and usually always makes the right decision," Few said.
Returnees Colin Floyd, a redshirt sophomore, and Brian Michaelson, a redshirt junior, will also vie for minutes. Both saw limited duty last season, Michaelson playing 49 minutes in 14 games and Floyd 16 minutes in eight appearances.
"Both of them can help this team," Few said. "Both are perimeter shooters who must make the best of their opportunities. They have to be ready to come off the bench and contribute."
Knight transferred from the University of Washington and sat out last season. As a freshman for the Huskies he averaged 20 minutes/game, starting 19 of 29 appearances. He averaged 7.1 ppg and 2.1 rpg.
While Few is excited about what Knight brings to the program, he said the expectations - at this point - are blown out of proportion.
"I think some of the expectations of Erroll are unrealistic right now. Everybody needs to back off a little bit and let Erroll play. Erroll is a sophomore, a tremendous athlete but is still learning things about the game of basketball on a daily basis. As long as he keeps plugging away and stays positive he can become a really good player. The legend has outgrown the reality right now," Few said.
"Everybody needs to be patient. His greatest attributes are how athletic he is, how hard he is going to play and how much of a team guy he is. He's really improved his shooting and is working hard on ball handling and decision making. He can help us on the defensive end because he can become our stopper much like Anthony Reason was. He can run the lane and get to the rim better than anybody we've had in awhile. It's a bright future but I think it's way too early - and crazy - for people to expect him to come in and take over a game."
Raivio, who joins the program after an outstanding prep career at Mountain View High in Vancouver, Wash., is expected to play this season. He averaged 29.2 ppg and set single-season, career and single-game scoring marks during his high school career. He was a two-time All-Greater St. Helen's League Player of the Year.
"Hopefully Derek can come in and spell us at the point. We need Derek to play. He's got a scoring mentality, is a very good passer, really solid decision maker and can shoot well," Few said of the true freshman.
While the perimeter game again seems to be in good hands, the Bulldogs once again return a plethora of big men.
The veterans are seniors Violette (6-8, 265) and Richard Fox (6-11, 265), and junior Ronny Turiaf (6-10, 243). The trio had solid seasons a year ago. Violette averaged 11.4 ppg, a team-high 8.0 rpg to rank third in the WCC and shot 50.3 percent from the field to rank sixth in the WCC. Turiaf averaged 15.6 ppg to rank fifth in the WCC, 6.2 rpg for sixth in the conference and shot 51.9 percent from the field for fourth in the WCC. Fox averaged 6.6 ppg, 3.4 rpg and shot 54.7 percent from the field but did not meet the necessary minimum to qualify among the WCC leaders.
Violette started 26 of 32 appearances, sitting out the WCC Tournament championship game after spraining an ankle in the semifinals. Fox started 17 of 28 appearances and Turiaf was the invaluable sixth man until starting the final 10 games of the season among his 11 starts for the season.
The trio get nothing but the highest praise from their coach.
"I think Cory will have a great senior year," Few said of the Boise, Idaho, native who at times was disappointed with his play a year ago. "Cory possesses such a high character and does such a great job physically that he'll have a great senior year. Cory's worst enemy is himself. He has a tendency to put a lot of pressure on himself and get down on himself. If he just relaxes and goes out and plays hard, steps back and looks at what he does, then he makes all kinds of contributions to win games."
Turiaf provided the Bulldogs high energy off the bench, something that carried over into the starting roll late in the season. Off-season ankle surgery to remove some bone chips has responded well, although he was hampered early in the fall with a stress fracture that had him in a cast. That injury was unrelated to the ankle injury.
Turiaf played for France in the European Championships last September.
If there's one player who has made great strides since joining the program it's Fox, who came to Gonzaga two year's ago from the University of Colorado and sat out the 2001-02 season due to NCAA transfer rules.
"Richard has changed his body. He no longer takes shortcuts. I think he takes pride in taking the path less traveled. I think he'll step it up and have a great senior year," Few said. "He really came into his own a year ago and played a great game against Arizona in the NCAA Tournament when Ronny went to the bench after fouling out."
Fox played 19 minutes against the Wildcats, most of them late in regulation and in the two overtimes, scoring 13 points and grabbing five rebounds.
Add to the group of veterans redshirt freshman Sean Mallon and dispersing minutes among the big men becomes another dilemma for Few, as it was a year ago.
"I think at times is was frustrating for the big men last year and took them out of that rhythm," Few said of trying to find a nice balance in his substitution pattern. "It's nice to have that depth. This year won't be much different because Sean is going to play a lot, too. Each of them brings something different to the table. Ronny is different than Cory. Cory is different than Richard. Richard is different than Sean. They all play well with each other and I think they get along great on the floor and off the floor."
And Few believes the redshirt season did nothing but help Mallon, a local product out of Spokane's Ferris High.
"The redshirt year helped Sean a bunch. He's upo to 220 pounds," Few stated. "If you haven't seen him for a year I think people will be shocked. He has a great knack to score, is a tremendous passer, great decision maker and a great competitor. He'll be a key to this program for years to come. He shoots the ball so well he can scoot out over the perimeter and play some, too."
Throw into the mix a multi-dimension (guard/forward) local product in Mead High's Adam Morrison, a 6-8, 204-pounder who set Greater Spokane League single-season and career marks, the latter breaking Mallon's record.
Morrison followed in Mallon's footsteps as the GSL Player of the Year in averaging 27.7 ppg. The Panthers were 28-0 until losing the Washington State Class 4A title game to Franklin.
"Adam is more than ready to play. He had a phenomenal senior year. He'll contribute in a variety of different ways. He's much like Sean. He'll have a tremendous career at Gonzaga," Few said.
But as is the case with all freshmen, Few and Morrison will sit down prior to the first game and discuss his progress and where he fits into the scheme of things for the upcoming season. The decision to play or redshirt will be left up to Morrison.
"We'll sit down and see, but right now I have every intention of him playing this year. I think he can play about four positions," Few said.
With five seniors dotting the roster - Stepp, Bankhead, Skinner, Violette and Fox - Few doesn't think leadership will be lacking.
"I think we have different leadership. I think with that core group of seniors being around and finally realizing that's something they need to bring to the court I think we could have a team where there is some definite leadership at all times," Few predicted.
And he believes a veteran club leads to solid chemistry, both on and off the court.
"This team has shown this spring and summer they are going to work hard individually on their games, and collectively come together. They seem to be close; there is versatility and depth on this team. It's one that on paper has the pieces to do some special things," Few observed.
But he doesn't think this team can rest on its laurels.
"We can get better," Few said.
While the Bulldogs will more than likely be the prohibitive favorite to win a fifth WCC regular-season title in the last six years, Few thinks the gap is closing.
"Pepperdine will be real good, San Francisco will be good and Saint Mary's is coming on," Few said. "San Diego (which ended Gonzaga's string of WCC Tournament titles at four with its victory last March) is always tough, and Santa Clara gets Kyle Bailey back. Everybody is tough in this league. There's not a night off. We have our work cut out for us. What used to be considered the bottom of this league really stepped up and contributed and that's what made our league the 10th rated league in the country last year."
But while the Bulldogs didn't win the WCC Tournament last year for the automatic ticket to the NCAA Tournament, Few thinks the at-large bid gave the program another notch of credibility.
"I think the at-large bid gave us another stamp of endorsement," Few noted. "I think we're running out of ways to get uncharted ground for our program based on the job our guys have done the last five or six years. Garnering an at-large bid with that high of a seed says a lot about our program."
And the Bulldogs face another tough schedule with the likes of the University of Missouri, Stanford University, St. Joseph's University, the University of Maryland and the University of Georgia on the non-conference slate. Throw in local rivalries such as the University of Washington, Eastern Washington University, the University of Montana and Washington State University and the Bulldogs should again be RPI worthy if they need another at-large bid to return to the NCAA field.
"We've learned every year what we need to do and what's best for our program for a variety of reasons, whether its NCAA committee geared or exposure geared or just challenge geared for our team. This schedule is every bit as tough as we've played," Few pointed out.
There's also a bit of nostalgia associated with the upcoming season as the Bulldogs will be playing their last season in The Kennel, home of Bulldog basketball since 1965. Construction of a new arena is underway and will be ready for the 2004-05 season.
"The new arena lends an aura of legitimacy to recruiting rather than always talking about it. If we didn't finally break ground and start seeing walls out there, recruiting is a tough business and I think people would have called us out on it and the plan of ever playing in a new building," Few said of the advantages of having a new arena in progress. "This makes it the last year of The Kennel which makes it nostalgic. There's a lot of emotion, but playing and competing will take away from that. When you look back on it it's hard to sort out your best memories because we've had so many. It's a very special place and part of progress. We're doing something that's best for the program, for the school and for the community. It's going to be a very, very positive step."
But for this year, the Bulldogs figure to take one last Stepp in The Kennel in their quest for a sixth straight step into the NCAA Tournament.
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