Gonzaga: If slipper fits ...

NCAA: Call them Cinderella if you must, but the Bulldogs' back-to- back tourney success has earned them the tag of a solid team whose talent won't go poof at midnight.

March 21, 2000|By Christian Ewell | Christian Ewell,SUN STAFF

TUCSON, Ariz. -- Joy is what makes the Gonzaga men's basketball team a Cinderella-type phenomenon.

It isn't the West Coast Conference affiliation, the school's size, nor the fact that in a sport heavily appropriated by blacks, the roster is nearly all-white.

There isn't another tournament favorite that would have its coach pointing toward the stands to say thank you, as Gonzaga coach Mark Few did following his team's 82-76 win over second seed St. John's at the McKale Center last weekend. And after a second-round win, the players on most front-running teams wouldn't be caught dead reveling in the highlights of their exploits.

Yet, afterward, there the Bulldogs were, forming a human mound of navy blue nylon jumpsuits as they crowded around a small locker room television, watching the "SportsCenter" clips of Matt Santangelo knock down one of his six three-pointers in the face of a St. John's player.

Gonzaga players maintain that they expected to make it this far. In normal seasons a 10th seed reaching the Round of 16 would be cause for wild celebration. But with the top three seeds gone in the South Region as well as the West, the Bulldogs have plenty of company being as happy with their not-taken-for-granted wins as the ousted are sad about their unexpected losses.

"If people need to call this an upset, or that we are a Cinderella team," Santangelo said after advancing to the region semifinals Thursday against Purdue in Albuquerque, "then it's OK because it means that we are still winning, and that's what it's all about."

But the team's reaction to its latest success should be the only surprise in a season that's produced a 26-8 record. Santangelo, who beat St. John's with 26 points, four rebounds and five assists, is a first-rate point guard who was a gold-medal winner on the U.S. team at the World University Games. He's complemented by Richie Frahm, who averaged nearly 17 points a game this season to lead the team and torched Louisville for 31 points in the Bulldogs' first-round win.

Inside, 6-foot-11 Axel Dench and 6-8 Casey Calvary present a formidable inside punch that was pivotal in getting Gonzaga to the Sweet 16; 43 of the team's 82 points against St. John's came from inside players.

St. John's guard Erick Barkley, who saw Gonzaga's outside strength as being the key, said, "I didn't expect their big men to dominate the way they did."

All of these guys were around last season, when the Bulldogs beat the No. 7 (Minnesota), No. 2 (Stanford) and No. 6 (Florida) seeds in the West Region, and came within five points of beating top seed and eventual national champion Connecticut in the regional final.

The run gave the 4,400-student school recognition, and gave Santangelo credibility when he joined the World University Games team.

"When I walked into the gym, I didn't have to explain where I was from," he said. "That kind of recognition is mostly what I experienced."

With three starters and four key reserves returning, and with former assistant Few taking over after last year's coach, Dan Monson, left for Minnesota, Gonzaga took some lickings against high-profile teams, but gave its share back as well.

In the space of four days in early December, there was the 16-point neutral court loss to Temple, coupled with an easy blitzing of UCLA (59-43) at Pauley Pavilion.

"After last season's success, we have gotten our opponents' best effort," Frahm said. "We didn't compete well at certain points in the season, but we have been here before, and we know what it takes to win."

It takes good athletes, which Gonzaga has plenty of. Anyone paying attention would have seen sinewy reserve forward Mark Spink rising well above the rim for several slams last weekend, or Frahm shaking free of Louisville defenders for any shot he wanted.

Still, because of the complexion of all but two of the Bulldogs, they are seen as an overachieving bunch that walks the ball up the court and shoots three-pointers. The team averages nearly 80 points a game.

"People, unfortunately, still haven't got it," said St. John's coach Mike Jarvis, who is black. "Most people would look at Gonzaga and they would say that because they're all white, they're not good athletes. They're very athletic. Some would say they're athletic for white kids. They're good athletes."

People also fail to take the Bulldogs seriously because of the league they play in, the West Coast Conference. If not for Gonzaga's results in last year's tournament, Pepperdine might not have made this year's field, despite winning the WCC regular-season title.

The WCC isn't on ESPN, nor should its members hold their breath waiting to be. But Few maintains that lower-tiered teams in major conferences couldn't win his league.

So he's equally bemused on the recruiting trail, by parents and AAU coaches involved with high school players who still turn up their noses at the Spokane, Wash., school in favor of a ninth-place team in the Pacific-10 or Mountain West Conference.

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