Chasing the Zags Julie Jacobson/AP PhotoJeremy Pargo is one of the pieces that should keep the Zags atop the WCC again.
Bill Grier spent time in the penthouse for years and years. He slept on luxury mattresses and ate with sterling silverware and lived the annual existence of a champion.
In other words, he was part of the coaching staff for Gonzaga basketball.
Grier has now departed Spokane in hopes of building his own version of Zags' dominance, only the team is San Diego and the story is an old one.
For nearly a decade, seven other West Coast Conference teams have attempted to discover the reason for and then duplicate Gonzaga's success.
It hasn't been a pretty sight.
Think crash and burn at an amazingly high rate.
"A lot of people have lost perspective about how difficult it is to do what they have done up there," said Grier, who after 16 seasons assisting the Zags replaced the fired Brad Holland at the University of San Diego in March. "A lot of administrators say, 'Why can't we do what Gonzaga has done?' They want that quick fix. That's not reality.
"It took a really long time to build that program. The administration was very patient and supportive. Now, they're on a completely different level than the rest of this conference. Would I like it to happen here? You bet I would. I also know the uniqueness of the situation at Gonzaga."
He also knows this: The Zags this season could be better than ever in seeking a 10th-straight NCAA Tournament berth, a fact strengthened by the arrival of Austin Daye, a 6-foot-9 forward ranked 28th in the country by Scouts Inc., and Steven Gray, a 6-3 guard ranked 80th by Scouts Inc. Gonzaga has long since eliminated the idea of recruiting the same players as other WCC teams, fortunate enough now to confront and clash over talent with schools from the Pac-10 and other major conferences.
The Zags simply allow other WCC teams such a slim margin of hope. Last season, Gonzaga was actually thought to be down after losing the nation's leading scorer (Adam Morrison) and the league's best inside player (J.P. Batista) from the previous season.
All teams should be so down. The Zags responded by going 23-11 and won a seventh straight regular-season title and eighth league tournament in nine years.
Here's a reality this season that might be difficult for other WCC teams to accept: Mark Few, in his ninth season as head coach, should have his deepest roster since the 2003-04 season and owns a young and veteran balance of talent.
Ironically, the best player carries with him the type of baggage not traditionally associated with the program.
Senior forward Josh Heytvelt is expected to rejoin the Zags after being suspended with teammate Theo Davis following their Feb. 9 arrests for possession of hallucinogenic mushrooms. The 6-11 Heytvelt averaged 15 points and nearly eight rebounds before his indefinite suspension began.
School officials said earlier this month the players were on track to return after performing required community service hours and that they have more than complied with specifics of their punishment both from the courts and school.
"I got calls from people all over the country when it happened, people I respect and look up to and count as my friends," Few said. "They just said, 'Hey, it happens to everyone.' We really had been blessed up to that point with a run of great kids. But we didn't pretend to be perfect. We just had a few kids do something really stupid. It's still a day-to-day process. So far, I've been happy and proud how they have responded. But I'm hesitant to praise them or pat them on the back. We have a long ways to go."
Not in the ways of continuing to win.
It's not easy. Despite Gonzaga's success, there still remains a weak perception about the WCC, a reality Few will assuredly always battle.
So he just keeps scheduling and beating those thought to be superior.
There is no one the Zags won't play from November to January. It's a program now included in as many high-profile nonconference games as anyone nationally.
"Whether someone from the Big East or SEC loads up on cupcakes and plays 10 dogs before their conference and we're playing such a tough nonconference schedule, what's the difference?" Few said. "I'm more than happy to compare our schedule and the number of nationally televised games we get with anyone.
"We always want our players focusing on things like our annual quest for excellence and taking care of business now. Whether or not we reach our goals within the program or as individuals, we don't want them hanging onto something from the past. We always think if we play our best, we should be able to beat anybody in the country."
Ed Graney is a columnist for the Las Vegas Review-Journal and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Why the Zags dominate
One major reason for Gonzaga's conference supremacy is its Spokane mastery. The Zags are now 39-1 in the three-year-old McCarthey Athletic Center, having won their first 38 games in the facility before falling to Santa Clara in February. Prior to that defeat, Gonzaga had won 50 straight home games dating to the final 12 played in the old Kennel gymnasium. The Zags made their ninth straight NCAA Tournament last season, tying them with Florida, Texas and Wisconsin for the sixth
longest active streak nationally.
Talent Down Under
Saint Mary's has three players from Australia on its roster this season, including incoming freshman guard Patrick Mills. Mills was selected as Australia's top under-21 player and is a member of his country's national team.
Better win now
After serving as an assistant coach at UCLA, first-year Santa Clara coach Kerry Keating knows about pressure. He will face some high expectations in taking over a Broncos' program that won 21 games last season (the most since 1994-95) under longtime coach Dick Davey, whose pressured resignation brought a healthy dose of negative reaction from many alums (NBA star Steve Nash included) about how the administration handled the situation. Despite his exit being announced on Feb. 1, Davey went on to win the league's Coach of the Year honors in leading the Broncos to a second-place finish.
A good omen?
Bill Grier has a little bit of recent history working for him as the new San Diego coach. The Toreros in 2003 advanced to the NCAA Tournament for the first time in 16 seasons, and a major reason why was the WCC tournament being played at the school's Jenny Craig Pavilion. The event returns to San Diego this year from March 7-10.
* NCAA Tournament
If senior forward Josh Heytvelt is indeed reinstated from his indefinite suspension, the Zags will return three starters from a 23-win team. Heytvelt will be surrounded by all kinds of skill, led by junior Jeremy Pargo (who inherits point guard duties from the departed Derek Raivio), senior guard David Pendergraft (an all-WCC tournament pick last season) and Kansas transfer wing Micah Downs (who sat out the first semester last year before averaging 16.6 points and seven rebounds over the team's final five games before NCAAs). Outside help should come from sophomore Matt Bouldin, a returning starter who found his rhythm over the last two months and helped lead the Zags back to the NCAAs.
The Lions are promoting this season as a youth movement with nine underclassmen and just one senior on its roster, meaning it must replace 75 percent of its scoring and 64 percent of its rebounding from an injury-plagued team that went 13-18. The only senior is guard Jon Ziri, who averaged just 5.3 points and 4.1 rebounds in 2006-07. The lone returning starter is junior forward Marko Deric (5 ppg, 2.8 rpg). It could be another long season for LMU and third-year coach Rodney Tention, who lost leading player Brandon Worthy for 17 games last season to a knee injury. Tention was able to turn things around his first season (LMU went from three WCC wins the year prior to his arrival to eight) but is back to rebuilding.
Vance Walberg promised an up-tempo style when he took over as coach last season and delivered. Now, he hopes the system delivers more wins. The Waves set conference records for 3-pointers attempted (843) and made (303), but finished 8-23 overall and 4-10 in league. Senior guard Kingsley Costain (11.5 ppg) made a team-high 80 3's while shooting nearly 42 percent beyond the arc. The production inside begins with Jarrad Henry, a 6-10 senior center who needs just five blocks to move into a tie for fifth on the school's all-time list. The rebuilding project continues with 11 new faces, including seven freshmen. One of the more explosive newcomers is Tyrone Shelley, a 6-6 wing and the 98th-ranked Scouts Inc. recruit who is one of three new Waves arriving from Crawford High in San Diego.
Baby steps. It's where the Pilots are right now. A 9-23 team under first-year coach Eric Reveno last season, Portland ended a 10-year winless streak in the conference tournament with a first-round victory against Loyola Marymount. The returning starters are senior wing Sherrard Watson (28 starts last season after none the previous two seasons) and sophomore point guard Taishi Ito. Eight newcomers are on the roster, including Dutch junior national team member Robin Smeulders; redshirt sophomore guard Nik Raivio, brother of former Gonzaga standout point guard Derek Raivio; and freshman forward Luke Sikma, son of former NBA star Jack Sikma.
If there is a team that can wreck Gonzaga's pursuit of an eighth straight regular-season conference title, it is likely the Gaels. Seventh-year head coach Randy Bennett returns eight players who all made at least one start last season. One of the league's best is junior forward Diamon Simpson, an all-conference selection who led Saint Mary's in scoring (14.1), rebounding (7.7), blocks (2.4) and steals (1.3). He is supported by 6-11 sophomore center Omar Samhan, an all-freshman performer in the WCC after averaging 9.2 points and 5.6 rebounds. Led by Simpson, Saint Mary's had a WCC-record 172 blocks, shattering the previous mark of 159 by Pepperdine in 2002.
New head coach Bill Grier realizes it will take much work to get a similar talent base as he had at Gonzaga. Grier does inherit a team with four returning starters, including one of the league's better frontcourt players in junior forward and first-team all-conference pick Gyno Pomare (14.9 ppg, 8.3 rpg) and a capable point guard in junior Brandon Johnson (12.8 ppg, 4.8 apg). A major key is to find a scoring replacement for departed guard Ross DeRogatis and his 15.7 average and 228 career 3-pointers. Danny Brown is one potential answer outside after the junior guard made 21-of-58 3s last season.
Anything short of another upper-tier finish would be disappointing given that the Dons return three starters from a team that finished conference 8-6 last season and in a tie for third. Manny Quezada averaged 13.2 points in his first season at USF following the guard's transfer from Rutgers. Two other transfers to watch this season are sophomore forward Dior Lowhorn (who started 10 games as a freshman at Texas Tech while averaging 7.2 points and 3.9 rebounds) and sophomore Hyman Taylor, who arrives from Virginia Tech and, at 6-9, 245 pounds, affords the Dons a needed inside threat. Jay Watkins earned all-WCC freshman honors last season.
New head coach Kerry Keating has six upperclassmen from which to start the process of keeping the Broncos near the top of the standings, beginning with senior point guard Brody Angley (8.3 ppg, 3.8 apg). Angley needs just four more starts to tie Steve Nash for 10th on the school's all-time list. Junior center John Bryant already ranks fourth in school history with 87 blocks and can tie Kurt Rambis for third with seven more. Bryant had 49 blocks last season to go along with 10.4 points and 6.7 rebounds. The Broncos need senior Mitch Henke (6.9 ppg, 4.0 rpg) to bounce back from a season where he was limited to 13 starts with an ankle injury. Henke started every game in 2005-06, when he averaged 9.4 ppg and 5.6 rpg.
This team may not be as deep as Noah's Ark, but coach Mark Few seems to have two of everything. There may be least five players who, eventually, could play in the NBA. Junior Josh Heylvelt is back from a late-season suspension and is in the best shape of his career. Junior Jeremy Pargo is the latest in a long line of Zags' scoring point guards and sophomore Matt Bouldin has a terrific feel for the game. Freshman Austin Daye is Gonzaga'a most highly decorated recruits and Micah Downs averaged almost 17 points over his last five games and is finally ready to blossom. The nonconference schedule is brutal, but the Zags should cruise through the WCC without many speed bumps.
2. St. Mary's
The feisty Randy Bennett returns four starters, including one of the league's best inside tandems. Diamon Simpson has a Dennis Rodman-like nose for the ball. Sophomore Omar Samhan (6-11 and 265 pounds) is the WCC's version of "Big Baby" with soft hands and a huge frame. Watch out for speedy 6-foot point guard Patrick Mills, who led Australia's FIBA Under-19 team to an 8-1 record in the world championships. This may be the one team that can challenge the Zags.
3. San Diego
Bill Grier takes over a Torero program that has some talent. Junior Gyno Pomare could be a dominant player in the conference with a tad more consistency. Brandon Johnson will give Gonzaga's Pargo a run as the WCC's best point guard. Junior guard Ray Murdock came on strong at the end of the season. It's not Gonzaga, but Grier has a nice nucleus.
4. Santa Clara
New Broncos' coach Kerry Keating comes into the job with an impressive résumé, most recently assisting Ben Howland at UCLA. Replacing a coach who won 21 games a season ago won't be fun because there is some rebuilding to do. Junior John Bryant is a huge building block, literally and figuratively, although conditioning will be his biggest hurdle. Senior Brody Angley, the former California high school football phenom, is a flat out winner. Look for one of the WCC's many Aussie imports, rugged 6-7 freshman Ben Dowdell, to help early.
Vance Walhberg's system is in place after a long 8-23 first season. Now it's a matter of filling the roster with players who can attack on both ends of the court and shoot the 3-pointer. Help is on the way. Minnesota transfer Rico Tucker will be a perfect fit for this system. The former San Diego prep prodigy leads a contingent of recruits up Interstate 5 to help Walhberg rebuild this traditionally solid program. Tyrone Shelley, a fellow San Diegan, is a top-100 recruit and should help immediately.
6. San Francisco
A lot of talent has come through this program recently but it doesn't always stick around. Leading scorer and UConn transfer Antonio Kellogg was the latest Don leave early. Coach Jesse Evans does welcome Texas Tech transfer Dior Lowhorn, who should be a solid WCC wide-body. He'll team with former Rutgers transfer, junior Manny Quezada, to give Evans a solid inside-out combo.
One of many programs in transition in the WCC, the Pilots are relying on a familiar name to help rebuild. Junior college guard Nik Raivio, brother of former Zags star Derek, is also the son of one of the school's all-time greats, Rick Raivio. Like his brother, he's a combo guard with a great feel for the game. Coach Eric Reveno's first recruiting class is now on campus, so help has arrived. By the way, if bloodlines mean anything, former Seattle Sonics great Jack Sikma's son, Luke, is a 6-8 freshman there.
8. Loyola Marymount
No one in the WCC has had worse luck than Lions third-year coach Rodney Tention. A missed layup kept the program out of the NCAA Tournament two years ago and last season, a promising start was decimated by injuries. Now, five of Tention's top six players are gone and a massive rebuilding job is under way.
-- Fran Fraschilla
The WCC is still Gonzaga's show, according to Joe Lunardi.
For all the 2007 ShootArounds, click here.