by Tony Duarte

For all those feeding squirrels and living under a 1971 Audi-sized rock for the last couple of years, we bring you this breaking news: The Gonzaga hoops program has arrived and put its feet up on the couch. Get used to it. They're going to be around awhile. Eating the food, drinking the beverages, reading the mail, commandeering the remote. They have crashed the NCAA's party, and they're not going anywhere, whether Billy Packer likes it or not. Whatever "it" is, the Bulldogs have had it for the past three seasons: Domination, spunk, charm, you name it.

Most people like it. Especially Mark Few, the head coach -- perhaps "architect" would be the better description -- of the Bulldogs (now 1-1, with Sunday's win over Montana). Longtime coach Dan Fitzgerald poured the concrete and predecessor Dan Monson built the frame; now Few is creating the blueprint and landscaping the future of Gonzaga basketball. With their clumsy formative years over, the Bulldogs can concentrate on enlarging their impact crater rather than merely making a dent.

"I don't know that this year is any different," says Few of the new attitude permeating the program. "I think we have proven ourselves over the last few years, but obviously we have goals."

Two years ago when the Zags made the NCAA tourney for only the second time, they were deemed the so-called "Cinderella" team of the Big Dance. The popular label grated on the coaches for its perceived negative connotation referring to a lesser-talented team perhaps making it farther than it otherwise should. They used it as a motivating tool and made it all the way to the Elite Eight before falling in a gallant effort. Everybody got the point. Last year, when they breached the Sweet Sixteen again, only a rare mention of the term "Cinderella" emanated from the mouths and keyboards of sportswriters. So far this year in pre-season, nary a peep. Operation "Eradicate Cinderella" accomplished.

The rewards are more than just the financial gains the university makes from the NCAA and television money as the team advances through the playoff bracket. It has already helped with scheduling (see exhibit A -- the Bulldogs' 2001-02 season opener with Illinois last week, albeit a loss).

"It's made it a little easier," says Few of the name the team has made for itself. "In this case, we needed an RPI game, and I like scheduling games against the teams I think are going to have a good shot at the national championship. Last year it was Arizona, and this year I targeted Illinois. I really am looking forward to their return game in Spokane," Few jokes. "When's that? 2010?"

Some bridges take longer to cross than others. Still, even the rift with WSU appears to have been patched up as the Zags will play the Cougars in the Kennel for the first time since 1977 (previous WSU head coach Kelvin Sampson refused to play there, and recent GU-WSU games in Spokane have been played at the Arena). Few downplays the significance of the team from the bigger conference shying away from a regular game in its own backyard.

"I don't see the difference between that game and the games with Montana, Illinois and Eastern Washington," he says in perfect coach-speak.

But there is a distinction between those single games and the Great Alaska Shootout, a tournament where he has Gonzaga competing next week, saying that he feels such tournaments are good mimics of the NCAA's post-season tournament. In addition, the Zags' latest post-season tourney success has already begun to pay off dividends in recruiting circles.

"It's helped dramatically," Few says, "and more so this year than that first year. We've finally been able to beat some Top 15 programs for some kids. It's helped the level which we recruit at."

One of those prized recruits was point

guard Dan Dickau. One of the keys to

the Bulldogs' success last season,

Dickau wasn't the one that almost got away -- he did get away, to the University of Washington after a prep career in Vancouver, Wash., even though Monson was wooing him at the time.

"I told Monson I didn't want to go to a cold school, then I went to where it rains every day in Seattle," Dickau recalls.

Eventually Dickau saw the light and transferred to Gonzaga, where he will be returning with his leadership and 18.9 points and 6.3 assists per game this year. He's even being mentioned as a pre-season All-American candidate. The Pac-10 parting was made and Dickau sheds no tears.

"I don't keep in touch with any of those [UW] guys. It's not a situation where I call them up and see how those guys are doing," says Dickau.

Dickau figured to have experienced backcourt help from sophomore guard Blake Stepp, but off-season preventive surgery on Stepp's right knee may prevent them from being paired up until later in the year.

Stepp "went in to get a piece of cartilage clipped after the Michigan State game [the final game of the 2001 NCAA tourney], and they noticed a big hole in there and they fixed that, but the only way to check if it's healing for sure is if they open it back up again. The knee is supposed to swell to indicate healing, and so far it has been," explains Few.

At this point, Stepp is questionable week-to-week and his play will be limited, meaning sophomore Kyle Bankhead will step in as the immediate replacement.

In the frontcourt, the heir apparent to last year's inside presence Casey Calvary, is 6-8 sophomore Cory Violette.

"I just want Cory to play this year -- kind of like Casey did -- and we'll get the bigger team leadership roles from Dan and Zach [Gourde]. Last year, Cory came in with that country boy, baby-fat kind of look, and this year he's starting to come into his own. He's been the most pleasant surprise so far," says Few.

Another pleasant frontcourt surprise package expected to arrive on opponents' doorsteps is 6-9 forward Ronny Turiaf, a native of the Caribbean island of Martinique who played for the French national team. A proverbial diamond in the rough, Few has no doubts about Turiaf seeing playing time this year.

"Oh yes, he'll play," he says with the confidence of a poker player with an ace up his sleeve.

Gonzaga will play this year as well, and now that the Gonzaga hoops program has established itself as a player in the NCAA's big money game, the trick is to not foul out.

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