Friday, December 12, 2008
Zags 7-0 for first time under Few
SPOKANE, Wash. -- For all the gaudy success Mark Few has enjoyed in building the basketball program at No. 4 Gonzaga, he's never opened a season with seven straight wins.
That's because the Zags' non-conference schedule is always a slog through the elite ranks of college basketball, and an early loss or two is inevitable.
Or is it? The next test is Sunday against Arizona.
"We have a possibility of going undefeated," guard Matt Bouldin said this week. "That's something all of us are thinking about."
"It's always good to have zero losses," added Josh Heytvelt, whose rejuvenated play has been a major factor this season.
In their past five games, the Zags have beaten Oklahoma State, Maryland, No. 8 Tennessee, Indiana and Washington State -- all on the road.
"We've played big-time teams and came out and showed we could win against top teams," Heytvelt said.
They haven't played a home game since beating Idaho on Nov. 18.
"This has been a long, hard stretch for us," said Few, in his 10th year at the helm.
Even though Few has won 80 percent of his games, this is his best start ever, eclipsing the 5-0 start two years ago that ended with a loss to Butler.
No major college team has gone undefeated since Indiana in 1976, and the road remains perilous for the Zags. But it's not a ridiculous goal for a team that has six players who are threats to score 20 points on any given night, and is winning games by an average of 21 points.
After Arizona (6-2), the Zags return to McCarthey Athletic Center to host Texas Southern (0-8).
Then comes a major barrier, when No. 2 Connecticut plays Gonzaga in the annual Battle in Seattle game.
The Zags finish the year by hosting Portland State (7-1) and play New Year's Eve at Utah (5-3). They open 2009 with a Jan. 7 rematch with Tennessee, this time in Knoxville.
Then they enter West Coast Conference play, where they have a 113-13 record in the Few era, going undefeated twice.
They also have another non-conference matchup, when No. 17 Memphis comes to Spokane on Feb. 7 as part of ESPN Game Day.
What makes the Zags a little different this year is their depth. Five players are averaging more than 10 points a game, led by Heytvelt (16 points, 6 rebounds), Austin Daye (12 points, 6 rebounds), Bouldin (11 points, 4.9 rebounds), Micah Downs (10.7 points, 6 rebounds) and reigning West Coast Conference player of the year Jeremy Pargo (10 points, 7.5 assists per game).
Steven Gray comes off the bench for 9.9 points per game.
"We've got a lot of good players, but no great player" like former Zags Adam Morrison or Ronny Turiaf, Few said. "Our strength is our balance and versatility. I don't worry about who is hot or isn't."
Indiana coach Tom Crean is a believer.
"They are above average or great at every position," Crean said. "They really know each other's strengths and weaknesses."
The Zags are averaging 79 points per game, not unusual for them. But their defense is allowing only 58, which is new, and has held opponents to under 60 points five times this season.
Against Washington State on Saturday, the Zags put together a 27-2 run early in the second half to blow open a close game and coast to a 74-52 victory.
The 6-foot-11 Heytvelt is thriving in his senior year after two disappointing seasons. He's been dominant inside and is making 60 percent of his shots, including 9-of-19 from 3-point range.
Pargo decided to forgo the NBA draft to return for his senior year. Assuming a playmaker role, he has 53 assists and 11 turnovers in seven games.
"He's attacking so much more intelligently this year," Few said.
The Zags have been touted as Final Four material since the preseason. They've never gotten there, with the Elite Eight team of 1999 setting the high-water mark for the program.