Last year, when Gonzaga -- the tiny Catholic school from Spokane that could -- made it to the collegiate post-season Division I hoop party affectionately called the Big Dance (but otherwise known as Revenue Heaven for the NCAA), the senior-laden squad proceeded to roll through the brackets. It was a repeat of the year before, when they reached the Elite Eight, and were on the cusp of the basketball Holy Grail -- the Final Four. But the previous year's magic wore off, and they were "only" able to make it to the Sweet 16. But at least that was some pretty good company -- better than the Throng of 32, or whatever they call the first-round winners.
Those sterling achievements were accomplished with the senior leadership of guards Matt Santangelo, Richie Frahm, Ryan Floyd and Mike Nilson combined with the inside presence of Axel Dench, Casey Calvary, Zach Gourde and Mark Spink. None of that starting backcourt returns for the 2000-01 season, but they do get Calvary, Gourde and Spink back for a solid frontcourt. For Head Coach Mark Few, the key to maintaining the recent success was the ability to replace Frahm and Santangelo -- the two main cogs of the GU machine -- without really replacing them. All coaches will tell you that a certain star player or players cannot be replaced -- it's one of the older cliches in the book -- but, while it's philosophically true, there's still that annoying spot on the depth chart that the fans and alumni want to see filled. Preferably with the same caliber player, thank you very much. Early season indications are that Few has found those in University of Washington transfer Dan Dickau and true freshman Blake Stepp.
"No question, we expect Dan and Blake to step in and create their own niches," admits Few. "Obviously, you don't expect to replace Matt and Richie, nor will we ever replace the senior class, but each team takes on their own identity, and these guys need to do that."
Although Dickau broke his finger in the tough loss to Arizona and will be out until just before West Coast Conference play begins, the silver lining is getting Stepp some minutes. He responded well against the University of Washington in the Bulldogs' win on Saturday night, and once Dickau returns, the backcourt looks to be in good shape.
As a transfer from a Pac-10 school, Dickau knows what grueling conference play is all about.
"Dan's played at this level. He's played games in tough arenas, he's played against competition at the Division I level, and that's all well and good," says Few, "but he's also been out for almost two years because of his broken foot and the transfer rules.
"Blake, on the other hand, is a true freshman, and he's going to make freshman mistakes, but he's also about as far along as I've seen in 12 years of coaching, as far as being ready to play," says Few. "He's a coach's kid, he's physically prepared and he's very heady -- not too many things will rattle him."
Usually when coaches are dealing in that highly combustible commodity known as true freshmen, they are not expecting immediate results. In fact, some might not produce any noticeable benefits until the end of their freshman season. Few has all this in mind and more.
"Obviously, I hope not to have to wait until the end of the season for the learning process to kick in with a freshman, you just have to be patient," he says. "Freshmen need to grow. You can't expect too much. They're going to come out and make some great plays, but then they'll turn around and do something really crazy, and you'll be saying to yourself, 'Is that the same guy?' And it is. Eventually they figure it out."
Few needs Stepp to step up immediately because the Zags will play some tough road games against Montana and Florida before embarking on the increasingly tough WCC schedule.
"I think it's going to be a huge challenge and a real good barometer for us. I don't want to predict any type of doom on him -- he seems to be a gamer and responds best when the lights come on," says Few.
The Zags' only other true freshman is 6-8 forward Cory Violette, who isn't on the same developmental path as Stepp but has long-term potential according to Few.
"It's really important that he continues to develop because he's physically ready to play. We just need to get him to stop thinking so much and just playing more."
The Gonzaga program has had a good track record with developing freshmen, and Few says that comes about from a patient perspective and not the win-at-all-costs-right-now attitude that pervades so much of collegiate athletics these days.
"There's got to be a little give and take -- more on their part than on ours though," Few concedes. "But freshmen know they have to bring it up to our level, and at the same time, we need to be patient enough to understand that they have four or five years into it and not two or three months. That's something we've done that's been one of our most successful aspects of the program the last couple years. These kids have had a tremendous amount of freedom to develop, and when you have that on offense, it makes them hard to guard."
That's certainly been the case with the Zags' premier player this season -- Casey Calvary. Calvary more than proved he could hold his own with the more highly publicized forwards and centers of the aforementioned win-at-all-costs-right-now U's that he faced in the tourney. In fact, he frequently outplayed them -- and that comes as no surprise to Few.
"I tell Casey every night, 'Hey, you're the best player on the floor tonight, so you need to play like it.' I believe I can say that even when we go down to Arizona or Florida. I wouldn't trade Casey for anybody," says Few.
No, but there would be a lot of schools that might be interested to trade for him. Calvary has been an athletic force since his coming-out party in the 1998-99 season, but with senioritis comes expectations to be a leader, either by example or by verbiage.
"He's working on that. He's never had to do that before," says Few. "He's always just been asked to go out and play. He punches the clock, he'll go play really hard and goes out and makes a fantastic play. He might have 21 points one night and eight points the next. That was fine when we had the other guys to pick up the slack, but this year he needs to average a double-double [points and rebounds], it's as simple as that."
To take a few of the monkeys off Calvary's back, Few brought in some JC reinforcements in the form of Alex Hernandez and Anthony Reason -- one for scoring and one for boards and defense.
"Both of them bring something to the table, and together, hopefully, they can get us 10 rebounds and have double figures in scoring," says Few. "Alex has some moxie and scores pretty easy, while Anthony is very athletic and is going to end up being a great defender down the road."
That leaves last year's returning frontcourt tandem of Gourde and Spink to provide the final elements of success for Few. Gourde had pre-season knee surgery to repair a medial meniscus cartilage but appears to be on the road to wellville as he has played more and more minutes in recent weeks.
"Fortunately, a cartilage isn't as difficult of an injury to overcome as a tendon, so he looks to be good on that," says Few. "He's a natural scorer, so we're going to count on him to bring some points. He is also one of our veteran players and needs to be a calming influence when things get hairy."
Spink is the quintessential program player, always giving 122 percent and playing hard. Few now expects him to be one of the team's senior leaders.
"He leaves everything out on the floor, and in the past, that's been great, but now that he's been in the program for five years and understands our system, we need more leadership out of him, both by example and by talking some of our players through the rough stretches."
There will be many rough stretches this year for the Zags as they first must navigate their way through a tough pre-season schedule and then wade through the always nasty WCC conference. In the conference, the Zags share co-favorite status with Pepperdine and San Diego, and the conference tournament will be held in San Diego this year -- making it clear that will be the hurdle everybody will need to jump to get into their NCAA dancing shoes.
"I think Pepperdine and San Diego will definitely be up there along with Santa Clara and San Francisco in the mix," says Few. Pepperdine and San Diego have returning starters and all-league players back, and San Diego has its entire team returning -- but at the same time, they've never been able to finish any higher than third or fourth in the conference. So I guess that's good and bad, they have everyone back, but you know what? They have everyone back."
Few would certainly like to have everyone back from last year's NCAA squad -- they'd be a lock for not only the tourney, but maybe even the Final Four. But he'll have to settle for some new faces and likely some skips of the heartbeat along the way. But with the caliber of the incoming talent combined with the returning veterans, a few good men give them what they need to be able to make it back to the promised land.
& & & lt;i & Gonzaga hits the road for most of December, but will return to the Martin Centre on Saturday, Dec. 30, to take on Monmouth at 7 pm. Gonzaga plays a pair of games at the Spokane Arena in early January: on Tuesday, Jan. 2, against New Mexico at 7:30 pm, and Saturday, Jan. 6, against Prairie View at 7 pm. Tickets: $10 $50 gets you into both games. Call: 325-SEAT. & lt;/i & & lt;/center &