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Inside College Basketball | Robyn Norwood / ON COLLEGE
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Gonzaga Is Keeping a Low Profile

March 04, 2004|Robyn Norwood

Imagine this: Tiny Gonzaga is ranked fourth in the nation, two spots higher than the ballyhooed 2002 team led by Dan Dickau ever was.

But the Zags are almost an afterthought, nudged aside by the unbeaten runs of Stanford and Saint Joseph's.

"We're kind of laying low," Coach Mark Few said.

In an odd coincidence, Saint Joe's and Stanford happen to be the only teams that have defeated the 25-2 Zags, meaning they haven't lost to a team that has lost a game all season.

Yet the Zags are approaching the NCAA tournament without much accompanying buzz, even though they have their best and deepest team yet -- and ample reason to believe they'll do much better than the 2002 team that was sixth-ranked and sixth-seeded but went bust against Wyoming in the first round.

"One thing I like about this team as opposed to the team two years ago, was that team peaked in January," Few said.

"Every player had maximized his potential. This team has a lot more parts, and I don't think we've hit our max throttle yet."

Gonzaga went belly-up against Wyoming in 2002 because of a dismal shooting performance. Dickau was seven for 24 in his final college game. Blake Stepp was one for 13.

"This team has a lot more answers," Few said.

It's not only Stepp, the guard who recently picked up his second consecutive West Coast Conference player-of-the-year award. Nor is the team overly reliant on its best NBA prospect, Ronny Turiaf, a marvelously gifted 6-foot-10 forward who speaks four languages and is picking up a fifth. (In fact, Gonzaga lost to Saint Joe's by only seven points in the first game of the season even though Turiaf, coming off an injury, played only five minutes.)

Cory Violette, another big man with both brawn and finesse, is the other member of the core trio that gives Gonzaga an inside and outside game.

But as Few said, he likes all this team's "parts" -- players such as freshman forward Adam Morrison and guards Tony Skinner, Kyle Bankhead and Erroll Knight, who started his career at Washington.

"If we're not scoring, shove Adam in there," Few said. "If we're not rebounding, get Tony Skinner in. If it's getting crazy, put in Kyle Bankhead. He's just rock-solid, always in the right place on offense and defense.

"It's kind of the whole, not just the parts. One guy who has stepped up is Erroll Knight. You can put him on anybody [except the center] defensively. He's an X-factor guy. Tony Skinner had four 'threes' and a double-double against Tulsa. And you can count on Cory, Blake and Ronny -- they're so solid."

Solid is a good word to describe Gonzaga's season. The Zags have victories over Georgia, Washington, Maryland and Missouri, and swept their WCC games by an average of 19 points.

They haven't lost since the Dec. 20 game against Stanford, an 87-80 defeat.

"Stanford has been unbelievable," Few said. "We were pretty much full strength when we played them. [Stanford didn't have injured Josh Childress.] They were really, really good."

Gonzaga is the heavy favorite in the WCC tournament this weekend at Santa Clara, but unlike some years past, there is absolutely no suspense about whether the Zags will make the NCAA tournament if they lose.

The only debate is what seeding they'll earn if they keep winning -- a No. 2 or a No. 3.

Even with that No. 4 ranking, it appears they'll be seeded third in their region.

Gonzaga's nonconference schedule has kept its Ratings Percentage Index ranking relatively high this season despite the drag of the WCC schedule.

But the No. 11 RPI calculated by Jerry Palm probably points to a No. 3 seeding, not a No. 2. (One way to try to predict seeding is to divide the RPI ranking by four, which is the number of regions.)

After all the controversy over Gonzaga's No. 6 seeding two years ago -- and after going in as a No. 9 last season and nearly upsetting top-seeded Arizona in a fabulous double-overtime game -- Few no longer spends time campaigning for seeding.

"I just think there are so many good teams, you're going have play a good team in the tournament," he said. "After doing this five straight years, I know you're going to play somebody good whether you're a 10, a 12, a three or a six. I don't think it's that big a deal.

"What I tell our guys is, 'Let's not lose sight of the feeling on that Sunday of seeing your name pop up on the screen.'

"A lot of teams' names are not popping up. You're down there in the center of that [in Southern California, with no likely NCAA teams.]

"I tell them, 'Don't ever act like it's old hat.' "

*

Pac Two -- or Three?

Washington is the Pacific 10 Conference's last and best hope for a third team in the NCAA tournament after Stanford and Arizona, barring an upset winner in the Pac-10 tournament.

But with an RPI of No. 96, the Huskies need a strong finish against California and Stanford this week and a very good Pac-10 tournament performance -- and then they still have to hope the selection committee leans heavily on record in the last 10 games, one of the selection criteria.

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