Zags to Riches
by Brian Strong
Say it loud and pronounce it right. Gone-ZAG-uh is letting the country know they’re a Top Dog.
The power structure on the West Coast has officially extended north. UCLA, USC, and Stanford have long been the sturdy pillars of a strong left coast hoops tradition, but it’s now time to take a long, hard look north to the Martin Centre, better known as “The Kennel,” in Spokane, Washington, where the Gonzaga Bulldogs are officially legit. The Bulldogs earned their recent first appearance in the top ten of both polls, and that should now be fully apparent to not only the basketball connoisseurs who have been singing the Zags’ praises for some time, but to common civilian as well.
Gonzaga has achieved their status because they’ve learned to do things the way the big boys do it. Several years ago, they had a great head coach in Dan Monson, who proceeded to march his 1999 team to the Elite Eight. That team sent Minnesota home in the first round, and the Gopher higher-ups were men enough to admit they’d been spanked and lure Monson away to Minneapolis with loads of money. So the Zags, in the way of the Jayhawk and the Tar Heel, kept it in the family and promoted assistant Mark Few. He knew the system. He was young, intelligent and the protege of an exceptional ex-coach, Monson. He’s guided the team to two more Sweet Sixteens. That’s the way you build a program.
Relentless recruiting is another way. Good recruiting finds diamonds in the rough like senior point guard Dan Dickau, who has gone from unhappy backup at the University of Washington to All-America and John Wooden Award candidate at Gonzaga. Good recruiting also laughs in the face of the so-called “rebuilding year.” In 2000, exit superstar guard Matt Santangelo, enter Dickau and reigning West Coast Conference Freshman of the Year guard Blake Stepp to fill the talent void.
And what would the Zags do this year without last year’s conference player of the year and All-America Casey Calvary? Well, they would, and did for that matter, beat out Duke, UNC, Connecticut, Florida, and Georgia, for French junior national team forward Ronny Turiaf from Martinique, who is one of the better athletes you’ll see on a basketball court anywhere this year. Turiaf, is a graduate of INSEP, the National Institute of Physical Education in Paris, France, a hotbed of overseas basketball talent.
But as commendable as it is for coaches to take the time to recruit across the pond, you also have to give the Bulldogs’ staff credit for taking care of their own backyard. Big time programs don’t like to lose in-state talent. Look at the Indiana rosters over they years and count the number of Hoosiers listed as a former Indiana high school Mr. Basketball. Likewise, study the Zags and you’ll see a plethora of Washington talent. Of four players from the state, Dickau and freshman Josh Reisman, were each named Washington player of the year in high school (the Zags are redshirting Reisman, as is their tradition with freshman point guards). Gonzaga did a little fence-hopping as well, nabbing Stepp, a former Oregon Mr. Basketball.
Maybe it’s that collective home state pride that’s developed this squad’s air of invincibility on their home court – another signature of the big programs. The Zags and their supporters, led by the Kennel Club, have ruled their home venue with a threatening “beware of dog” mentality since the Zags last lost there in February 2000. Even as plans are in the works for a new and improved Kennel, it should also been known that the Zags have shown no fear in hitting the road to make their name. They traveled to preseason powers Illinois and St. Joseph’s early this season, as well as the Great Alaska Shootout, and have made a habit of playing tough teams on the road since their rise to recognition a few years back.
However, in a backhanded sign of respect, the so-called powers don’t seem as willing to travel to Spokane. Call it fear. Call it whatever you like, but come March you’ll be calling Gonzaga something that you never have in the NCAA tournament – a favorite.
Thus, the Zags’ next step toward further legitimacy: Dealing with life as the well-known, highly-seeded West Coast power that everyone’s gunning for, as opposed to the old double-digit seed that everyone’s been sleeping on.