by HOWIE STALWICK & r & & r & & lt;span class="dropcap" & G & lt;/span & onzaga's coaching staff has developed a reputation for recruiting basketball players who are outstanding talents and teammates -- not necessarily in that order.

That helps explain why GU coaches barely shrugged when Steven Gray not only started and occasionally excelled as a freshman last season, but also blended seamlessly into the fabric of a close-knit, veteran team.

"I don't think [Gray's season] was better than we expected, because we did expect a lot," associate head coach Leon Rice says.

"He had a phenomenal freshman year [considering] the injury situation he went through," head coach Mark Few says.

Few was referring to the wrist fracture that sidelined Gray the first 10 games. The sweet-shooting guard started in 19 of Gonzaga's remaining 23 games; averaged 8 points and nearly 3 rebounds a game; led the team with 46 percent shooting on 3-point field goals; and made the All-Freshman Team in the West Coast Conference.

"Last year, I felt any game-time experience I could get would definitely help," says Gray, whose humble manner and ready smile make him popular with teammates and fans alike. "Coming off the injury my freshman year, I did pretty well."

Of course, the one problem that comes with showing so much promise so soon is that people expect even more out of you as a sophomore. Gray says that suits him just fine.

"We've challenged him to grow his game," Few says. "To be able to put it on the floor and do some things, yet really 'hunt' [look to shoot].

"A lot of times last year, he wouldn't aggressively hunt his shot. I think he's doing a better job of that. To us, he never really takes a bad one."

Gray capped his freshman season with his finest game. The former Bainbridge High School star poured in season highs of seven 3-pointers and 21 points in his NCAA Tournament debut, but little Davidson (N.C.) star Stephen Curry responded with a memorable 40-point performance in an epic first-round game that Gonzaga lost in Raleigh, N.C.

"I remember everything about it," Gray says with a smile. "Just getting there. We were doing our 'media practice'" -- a short workout the day prior to the game -- "and looking around. You'd be like, 'This is what I watched every year on TV.'"

Gray admits it rattled him a bit when he spotted two familiar TV faces prior to the game.

"You look over and see [CBS broadcasters] Billy Packer and Jim Nance, you're like, 'Oh man. Ah!'" Gray says. "You're surprised you're nervous.

"Once that ball's tossed [to open the game], all that's gone. You just focus on the people on the floor and the game."

Few flatly declares Gray to be Gonzaga's "best perimeter defender and shooter," but the 6-foot-5, 208-pound sophomore says improved defense is one of his goals this season. Gray was one of several Gonzaga defenders who had little luck slowing down Curry, who is projected to go high in the 2009 NBA draft.

"Guarding one of the top scorers in the NCAA Tournament, that was a great experience," Gray says. "I can take a lot from that."

Gonzaga is loaded with experience and talent after a 25-8 season. The Bulldogs always like to think they have a shot at a national title, but they've lost in the first round of the NCAA Tournament two straight years and only made it as far as the Elite Eight one time, in 1999.

The Bulldogs are ranked 10th by the Associated Press, but Gray says preseason polls are barely worth the paper they're printed on.

"It's nice to get that recognition," he says. "For other people to notice this group of guys, to be seen as national contenders, it's nice.

"But once you step on the floor, no one is going to care what rank we are."

Win or lose, Gonzaga's fanatical fan support is not going away any time soon. Gray says "it was like Christmas for everyone" on the Bulldogs when a near-capacity crowd estimated at 5,500 turned out for Gonzaga's first official practice last month.

"We got here at 3:30 -- the doors opened at 5:30 -- and there were people already lined up. The people are crazy!" Gray says approvingly.

And the Bulldogs are counting on Gray to drive opponents crazy all year long.

"He's done a great job in the off-season," Rice says. "He's bigger, stronger and faster than he was.

"I think guys make a big jump from their freshman year to their sophomore year. If he does that, he can be a very special player in this program."

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Fri., June 25, 1-9 p.m. and Sat., June 26, 12-9 p.m.
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