Believe the Hype

Taking the temperature of Zag Fever, 2014 edition

Believe the Hype
Ryan Sullivan
Seniors Kevin Pangos (left) and Gary Bell Jr. are set to lead one of the most talented Gonzaga teams ever.

All of the televisions at Jack and Dan's are turned to college football. But the conversation around the bar is about basketball, as it will be for the four months to come.

It's two hours before the Gonzaga men's basketball team plays its only exhibition game of the season against a team that requires Googling to reveal its Canadian location. At maybe 95 percent of just-off-campus bars around the country, hardly a damn could be given about an exhibition game played on the first day of November. That is not the case at this bar, or the brewery down the street, or the sidewalks leading to the McCarthey Center where Gonzaga apparel is the style du jour.

Preseason hype is a part of the Gonzaga basketball culture and has been for several years. Sports Illustrated once ranked the Zags in the Top 10, and fans thought that was absurdly high. In years when the team was omitted from Top 25 polls, fans found that doubly ridiculous. The program has been good long enough to have developed a few fans who, while ostensibly loving the team, will bitch about any prognostication that doesn't prove true.

If anything, measuring the Zag hype is an entertaining source of barstool debates, especially when the Zags, like this season, have a No. 13 preseason ranking that could easily soar much higher thanks to some high-profile early season games. For the more serious folks who saw a Las Vegas sports book put the Zags at 25-1 odds to win the NCAA championship (among the top 10 favorites), the hype might be even more intriguing.

There's reason for the hype; not saying there hasn't been before. But Kevin Pangos, who was just short of being declared the Canadian basketball Jesus when he came to campus four years ago, is a senior and his foot is healed. Fellow senior Gary Bell, Jr., is at full health and also is ready to lead. The Polish mountain of a man named Przemek Karnowski trimmed down, got stronger and worked on his touch in the off-season.

At Jack and Dan's, a table of longtime fans share a pitcher of Coors Light as they list the transfers the Zags will put on the court later that night: There's Kyle Wiltjer, the kid from Portland who was SEC Sixth Man of the Year as a sophomore at Kentucky before coming to Spokane and sitting out last season. Then there's "the kid from USC," better known as Byron Wesley, who led the Trojans in scoring last year but can come to Gonzaga and play, thanks to an uncharacteristically common-sense NCAA rule that allows transfers to play immediately if they've already graduated.

On the back side of the McCarthey Center, hip-hop booms across the leafy campus as a line of students makes their way into the arena. They're not in their regulation Kennel Club shirts, but rather Halloween costumes that may or may not have remained on since the previous night.

"We have high hopes," says Daniel Incerpi. He's wearing a collection of red, white and blue clothing, including a stars-and-stripes headband. He's talking really fast and really loud as he outlines his plans for this year's Zags.

"I would not be surprised if we ended up in Indianapolis," says the sophomore from Los Angeles. The Final Four is in Indianapolis this season, in case you needed some context.

Next to him, Madeline Stutz is dressed as a penguin because, again, Halloween. She says there's been a special feeling on campus as the season approaches.

"There's a consensus on campus that this is one of the best teams we've had," she says.

Down on press row inside the Kennel, former Zag legend Matt Santangelo is back behind the microphone after a brief hiatus, providing color commentary to the incomparable play-by-play call of Tom Hudson for the Gonzaga radio network. During his time away, he became Spokane's unofficial Mr. Basketball when he took the reins of Hoopfest.

He knows there's a lot of hype around this iteration of the Zags.

"They have depth at every position and athleticism that GU hasn't enjoyed in a number of years," says Santangelo. "Now the question becomes, can they fit all the pieces together and live up to the hype? Either way, it's going to be another great ride for the GU basketball family."

Up in Section 104 of the McCarthey Center, Jerry McGinn, a Kennel regular since the pre-Stockton era, is convening three generations of Gonzaga fans for an annual "how-do-these-guys-look?" confab. His son Shane and grandsons Dylan and Bo are blown away by the depth of talent the Zags have on their roster this season.

"Behind the key players, we see many interchangeable Zags running at least two platoons deep. We're excited to see this movable feast of talent continue to battle it out for minutes, and we predict there may even be some changes in the starting rotation," says McGinn. Like any seasoned Gonzaga fan who knows a thing or two about tempered expectations, he adds, "To be continued." ♦


Head coach: Mark Few

2013-14 record: 29-7 overall, 15-3 WCC

Preseason WCC coaches poll: 1st

Key returning players: G Kevin Pangos, G Gary Bell, Jr., C Przemek Karnowski

The 39 Steps @ Spokane Civic Theatre

Thursdays-Saturdays, 7:30 p.m. and Sundays, 2 p.m. Continues through Feb. 12
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About The Author

Mike Bookey

Mike Bookey was the culture editor for The Inlander from 2012-2016. He previously held the same position at The Source Weekly in Bend, Ore.