Dynamic Canadian duo leads Zags
Pangos, Olynyk take two different roads to find success for fifth-ranked Gonzaga
Of course, Pangos being Pangos, the straight-laced, gym rat, basketball-centric Zags guard, he had a reason to let his hair grow.
"I wanted to look like Steve Nash,'' he said.
Olynyk has a good reason for his current hirsute choice, as well.
Of course, Olynyk being Olynyk, the free-spirited, quirky Zags big man, his reason is slightly less reasonable than the one proffered by Pangos.
"I've never gotten my hair cut in the U.S.,'' the Canadian said. "I'm not sure why. I just haven't. Usually I'd wait until I went home at Christmas and get it cut. But last year when I was redshirting, I wasn't home very long so I didn't have time. So it just started growing. Now with the season going so well, I don't want to risk it by cutting it.''
At least that last bit of logic, no one will argue.
Gonzaga is 23-2, ranked fifth in the country and come March, may be the epicenter of an interesting debate concerning coveted No. 1 seeds for the NCAA tournament. Plenty think this might be Mark Few's best group, as well as the coach's best chance at an elusive Final Four berth. The Bulldogs are good for a lot of reasons -- they are, in the age of one-and-dones, comparatively experienced; they are smart; they've got terrific guard play.
But if you want to find the big difference between this year's Gonzaga team and last year's, it's the guy with the 1980s headband wrapped around a 1960s coif.
Olynyk's emergence, or rather explosion, has turned a good Gonzaga team into a great one and put a player who thought about leaving school on most short lists for national player of the year.
He's averaging 17.7 points and 6.8 rebounds per game. That's triple what he averaged in scoring and double what he averaged in rebounds as a sophomore in 2010-11, his last time in uniform.
"Kelly's situation was really a learning opportunity for me, too,'' Few said. "For all of us, I think. He's not unusual in that he came in here with a vision for how his career was going to go and we, the staff, didn't have the same vision. You're 7 feet tall, so no, you're not going to sit on the perimeter and shoot 3s. He didn't see it that way.''
Olynyk's path to college basketball stardom, especially told alongside the road traveled by Pangos, his Canadian compatriot, is an interesting case study of how a person can make it in this sport.
The road less traveled, it turns out, can work just as well as Easy Street.
Not long after Kevin Pangos decided to grow his hair like Steve Nash, his country decided he was the next Steve Nash.
In Canada that is not, say, the same as being the next Bobby Orr, but it's a big deal. By the time he was 16, he was suiting up with the Canadian national team -- a true boy among men -- and when he arrived in Spokane, it was all the bells and whistles typically accompanying a highly sought after player.
Pangos insists he was blissfully unaware of the attention and inherent pressure -- "I was just an oblivious freshman. Honestly, I was just trying to play my best,'' he said -- but he nevertheless shouldered it with ease. In his first season, Pangos came off the bench for the season opener, scored 11, added four rebounds and promptly started for the remainder of the year.
By the end of the season, he was the West Coast Conference's newcomer of the year and a bona fide star in the making.
Pangos is that coach's dream perfect combination of natural talent and obsessive worker. Few said if you tell Pangos to correct some nuance, he will hit the gym almost round the clock until he gets it right.
Mix that with his Nashian talents and you have the recipe for a player whose arc only grows and rarely, if ever, plateaus.
"He's been so consistent,'' Few said. "Usually a guy comes in and eventually he hits a wall. He never has, and that's remarkable. He's never had any mental blocks, nothing. He's kept going. I'm very impressed.''
The natural ease and steady climb of Pangos' progression seems almost unfair, or at least it could, especially to someone like Olynyk.
For every easy step Pangos took, Olynyk took 13 hard ones. Stuck behind Gonzaga's run of talented big men -- Robert Sacre first, Elias Harris later -- he also bristled at Few's suggestion that he work on his post moves.
Now why would a 7-footer want to do that?
The problem for Olynyk -- to him, he was a 7-footer in a 6-3 body, still playing in his head like the point guard he'd been before a late growth spurt. Coach and player knocked heads but it was more Olynyk's inability to adjust his game that put him deep on the bench. He averaged only 13.5 minutes as a sophomore and toyed with leaving.
"It wasn't so much waiting your turn but wondering what if my turn never comes?'' he said. "It's like you're in the backseat waiting but you're not sure if you're ever going to drive the car.''
Plenty of guys would have left, taken their talents somewhere where they could be "appreciated." The more thoughtful Olynyk made the bold move to redshirt during his junior season. He worked on his game, his strength and conditioning.
Most important, from the backseat instead of worrying about driving the car, he studied how to be a better driver.
"It opened his eyes, not just in terms of how to play the game, but how to analyze it,'' Few said. "He'd see what we saw. He'd see us tell the guys something for an entire week and he'd be like us. Why aren't they getting it right? He really acted like a player-coach and it helped him to grow. He deserves so much credit for being adaptable to that.''
And so here they are, the prodigy and the pupil.
Pangos is on the Cousy Award list and Olynyk on most national player of the year final cuts.
In some ways, they've almost swapped places. Olynyk, barring some sort of twisted vote, will go from benchwarmer to West Coast Conference player of the year while Pangos, now complemented with a sturdy backcourt mate in Gary Bell Jr. and David Stockton, doesn't need to do nearly so much to be effective.
Neither is terribly interested in the awards or their numbers. This summer they were part of a select group invited to a five-day Canadian national team training camp. They got to rub elbows with Nash, who took over as the program's general manager in May, and the suddenly burgeoning population of NBA talent that hails from the Great White North.
"Just being around people like that and watching how they went about their business helped us so much,'' Pangos said. "We both left there with so much more energy and such focus on how to do things differently. You appreciate so much how to do things the right way.''
Always cerebral, thoughtful players, they brought that attitude with them to Gonzaga.
The Bulldogs are just like them -- devoid of drama, a businessman's team (save for Olynyk's skater boy hair).
"Every coach talks about team chemistry, but with this group it's legit,'' Few said. "They understand what you're trying to do, so you can do so much with them. It makes it so much easier to coach them at a higher level because they get it.''
Just what does it all add up to for Gonzaga? That right now is the big question.
If the Zags beat rival Saint Mary's on Thursday night, they will be another selection committee conundrum. Their RPI right now is 12 but their strength of schedule is rated just 67th. Critics will argue the strength -- or lack thereof -- of the WCC. Saint Mary's is the only other team in the top 50 RPI; BYU and Santa Clara are the only other top-100 entrants.
So are they a No. 1 seed?
Truthfully Gonzaga doesn't care. The Zags has been to the NCAA tournament 14 years running but have reached the Elite Eight only once -- in 1999. There once was a time that going from a Cinderella to being national program would be enough, that even expecting a school the size and scope of Gonzaga to reach the Final Four was downright silly.
But that was before George Mason and Butler and VCU and Butler again.
Now instead of the little engine that could, the Zags are the team under the full throttle glare of "great program that's never been to a Final Four."
Is this Few's best shot?
"I don't know,'' the coach said, answering a question he has heard repeatedly. "We'll see what happens.''
Or where, you might say, the road paved by Pangos and Olynyk takes them.
Easy Street and the one less traveled.
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