Off The Leash

by HOWIE STALWICK & r & & r & & lt;span class= "dropcap " & T & lt;/span & he Gonzaga Bulldogs put together one of the greatest seasons in school history last season, but it sometimes seemed to Derek Raivio that the Bulldogs were succeeding despite him. "Toughest year of my life," Raivio says.

The sudden death of a young friend. A painful breakup with his longtime girlfriend. A back injury. A lack of shots in an offense geared around Adam Morrison and J.P. Batista.

That's all in the past, Raivio says. The Bulldogs are ready and willing to gear their offense around Raivio and fellow senior Sean Mallon much of the time this season, and Raivio says he welcomes the challenge. It all starts Friday night against the Easter Eagles.

"It's what I had in high school -- I always had the ball in my hands," says Raivio (pronounced RYE-vee-oh), who scored 29 points per game his senior year at Mountain View in Vancouver, Wash.

"That's why I came to Gonzaga, to be in a situation like that. It's something I'm used to. With Adam and Ronny [Turiaf] and J.P. here, I just had to wait my turn.

"It's finally my turn and Sean's."

The skinny little kid with the buzz cut who showed up at Gonzaga in 2003 -- "That's the new point guard?" one decidedly unimpressed student blurted when she first saw Raivio -- has grown bigger, stronger and hairier.

Now that he's a senior, the 6-foot-3 Raivio needs to come up big in more ways than one if the Bulldogs are going to make a ninth straight trip to the Big Dance, aka the NCAA tournament.

"He just needs to continue to seek his shot," says Mallon, the only other senior on the Bulldogs. "That's the best thing he does. He does a great job of getting us into the offense and taking care of the ball, but he's a shooter. He's got to look for his shot, and we've got to look for ways to get him open for shots -- screens, play-calling, things like that."

Raivio averaged 19 points in his first four games last season. Soon, however, he was hurting physically and mentally, and he lost the feel on that funky but deadly jump shot that he perfected during countless all-day, all-evening and/or post-midnight workouts.

One year after making the All-West Conference team in his first season as a starter (he backed up second-team All-American Blake Stepp as a freshman), Raivio didn't even make honorable mention last year. His scoring average dropped from 13.0 to 11.1, his assists from 4.9 to 2.8, his 3-point shooting from 46 percent to 36 percent.

Raivio did maintain his phenomenal free-throw shooting, improving on his own school records with 91.2 percent for the season (fourth in the nation) and 90.3 for his career. He also made 52 fewer turnovers than the previous year, shored up his once-shoddy defense and made progress toward graduating with a marketing degree next spring.

"While his offensive numbers were down," says coach Mark Few. "He was still a leader and got the ball into the hands of the right people and continued to do a solid job of running the offense. We need his offense to return this season to what he showed as a sophomore and for the rest of his game to improve."

To help that process, Few plans to move Raivio (the son of former University of Portland and European pro standout Rick Raivio) from point guard to shooting guard frequently this season.

"As long as I'm on the floor and I'm playing, that's all I care about," Raivio says.

Raivio is similarly philosophical about Gonzaga's lackluster showing in preseason polls after a 29-4 season that ended in the Sweet 16 of the NCAA tourney.

"We kind of like that. It's better being underdogs," Raivio says. "People aren't expecting a whole lot of us right now, and I think we play better like that. It's a little added motivation."