Sneaking-up days over for 4-1, No. 17 Gonzaga

Officially in power bloc, Zags play Terps today

December 06, 2003|By Don Markus | Don Markus,SUN STAFF

They are no longer the little college basketball team that everyone hears about during the regular season but doesn't see until March.

If all those upset wins in past NCAA tournaments put Gonzaga on the proverbial map, it was last season's uplifting loss in the Sweet 16 to Arizona that raised the program's profile and its status from cult hero to legitimate national contender.

A 96-95, double-overtime defeat in Salt Lake City entrenched the Bulldogs - or Zags, as they're widely called - solidly among the game's elite going into the current season. It is uncharted territory for a program that is used to playing most of the winter a time zone or two away from the spotlight.

"It's a little different to come in with a bull's-eye on our back," senior point guard Blake Stepp said recently. "We usually have that at the end of the season. High ranking, more national media attention ... it's still the same game, still the same players, nothing we're going to change."

Yet everything has changed for Gonzaga, which comes East for the second time this season, in this case to play Maryland today in the BB&T Classic at MCI Center in Washington. The No. 17 Zags (4-1) entered the season ranked in nearly everyone's Top 10 (fifth in one publication) and on everyone's radar.

For good reason: Only five Division I teams have won more games over the past four years than Gonzaga. Though it has helped fifth-year coach Mark Few land his most accomplished recruiting class ever, this sudden surge of publicity has not made his job that much easier.

"I can honestly say, having been a part of both, it's a heck of a lot more difficult to stay up there and try to maintain that kind of level than it is to make that first run in the tournament," said Few, an assistant on the 1998-99 team that reached the Elite Eight.

"That was a piece of cake. That was fun and easy, and we were much more relaxed, kicking our feet up and saying, `Let 'er rip, guys.' Now, with the exception of three or four non-league games, we go into every game favored, every gym is sold out, everyone wants a piece of us."

And the Zags are more than willing to comply.

Gonzaga already has played at New York's Madison Square Garden, opening its season with a 73-66 loss to another national upstart, Saint Joseph's, in the Coaches Vs. Cancer Classic. There will be the team's first national-network regular-season game, against Missouri, a week from tomorrow in Seattle.

"I think it's a sustained tradition of success," said Few. "Now, we can go to kids and say, `Hey, come to Gonzaga; you're going to be on the national stage.' That's what kids are after. The secondary part of it is that now we're putting some kids in the NBA, so you can talk about player development and where that can lead after their career is over with us."

Beyond Stockton

Not bad for a school once known mostly as the place where John Stockton played before becoming an All-Star with the Utah Jazz. (When Stockton retired last spring, he returned to Spokane, Wash., where he is coaching a boys middle school basketball team when he isn't working out with Gonzaga's guards.)

"You all have goals and dreams to what you want to happen for your program. I don't think we've ever sat back and thought about that," said Few, 40. "It's more a day-to-day grind. Once we went to that Elite Eight five years ago, we said, `Hey, let's not be satisfied with this. Let's try to build on this.' "

The byproduct of Gonzaga's success can be found in its upgrades, in terms of talent, scheduling and facilities. Next year's freshman class includes three players ranked in the top 75 nationally. The Zags will also leave their beloved, 4,000-seat home court known as "The Kennel" for a new, 6,000-seat arena next season.

"It's certainly been a fun and unique and interesting ride," said Few, who took over when Dan Monson left for Minnesota after the 1998-99 season. "I think we've cherished every moment of it. We certainly don't take it for granted because we know how difficult it is to compete at the highest level."

Gonzaga has become the model for all mid-majors to follow. Saint Joseph's coach Phil Martelli, whose 12th-ranked Hawks have become sort of the East Coast's answer to Gonzaga, said any team would do well emulating the one Few puts on the court.

"They have kids who weren't on everyone's recruiting lists, but they are extremely well-coached and they play with a joy that all college kids should play with," said Martelli, whose team has played the Zags for three consecutive seasons. "They're not playing to be on some highlight show or to get to the next level. They're playing for the right reason. They're playing to win."

The current Zags are not much different from their recent predecessors: a team built around its senior point guard, Stepp, who learned the ropes from Dan Dickau (who, in turn, learned from Matt Santangelo). Stepp sets the kind of blue-collar tone that goes back to the school's most famous basketball alum, Stockton.

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