Little Gonzaga Hopes To Improve On Surprising Season
Nov. 15, 1999
SPOKANE, Wash. - These are heady times for Gonzaga, the little school that taught people how to pronounce the name of an obscure saint.
Tickets for home games are selling with the speed of a fast break led by star guard Matt Santangelo. Eight of the Bulldogs' games could be televised. And they are ranked No. 24 in The Associated Press preseason poll, the first Top 25 appearance in team history.
Much of the success is the result of last season's run in the NCAA tournament. Gonzaga (pronounced gone-ZAH-guh) advanced to the Elite Eight by shocking Minnesota, Stanford and Florida before losing to eventual champion Connecticut.
"We want to prove that last year was not a fluke," said Santangelo, entering his fourth year as a starter. "This is a good program, not just a good team last year.
"Last year is over. This is a new team. It just so happens we have a lot of the same components and talent level."
Gonzaga, a private Roman Catholic school of 4,800 students, did lose two starters from a team that went 28-7. And coach Dan Monson jumped at the higher-paying Minnesota job after last season.
Mark Few, an assistant for nine years at Gonzaga, succeeded Monson, taking his first head coaching job at any level.
One of Few's immediate concerns is playing the toughest schedule in school history, including road games against No. 2 Cincinnati, No. 7 Temple, No. 12 UCLA, Washington and holiday tournaments in Oakland, Calif., and Honolulu. Five of their opponents made the NCAA tournament last year.
"You can't make a run like last year and not play teams like that," Few said.
Not many teams enjoy playing at Gonzaga, where the 4,000-seat campus arena known as the Kennel puts noisy fans right on top of visiting players.
Don't expect any games against Minnesota, either.
"I hate playing friends," Few said. "I'd rather play somebody I don't care for."
Gonzaga, whose most famous alumni include Bing Crosby and John Stockton, is not exactly an overnight success. The Bulldogs won four of the past six West Coast Conference titles, with three NIT appearances and two in the NCAAs. They've averaged 19 wins a season in the 1990s.
"We understand there is a bull's-eye on us," Few said. "In the league, we've had a bull's-eye for a while."
The 6-foot-1 Santangelo averaged 12.7 points and 5.3 assists a game last season. He was chosen for the U.S. team to the World University Games this summer.
This season, he is moving back to point guard. He was a shooting guard the past two seasons to make room for team sparkplug Quentin Hall, who graduated.
Santangelo's 1,349 career points moved him past Stockton last year for ninth on the school scoring list. Santangelo needs another 112 assists to break the school record of 554 set by Stockton - the NBA's career assist leader - from 1981-84.
Santangelo figures the assist record will be his, but he says it's not a big deal.
"It's bigger to the community than to myself and Mr. Stockton. He played a long time ago," Santangelo said. "He was about competing to win. Statistics don't matter."
In the back court, Santangelo joins senior sharp shooter Richie Frahm, who led Gonzaga with 14.4 points a game last season. He hit 93 of 217 3-pointers (42 percent).
The graduation of Jeremy Eaton will mean more scoring is expected from 6-foot-8 forward Casey Calvary, whose tip-in lifted Gonzaga to a 73-72 win over Florida in the round of 16. The junior averaged 9.4 points and 6.9 rebounds a game last season.
Axel Dench, a 6-foot-11 senior, is expected to be the starting center, despite playing limited minutes in the past three seasons.
The players aren't expecting major changes under Few, who recruited most of them.
"With so many veterans," Santangelo said, "he doesn't need his foot on our backsides as much."
By NICHOLAS K. GERANIOS
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