Adam Morrison looks up at the commemorative blue banners high above the floor in Gonzaga's new gym, and ponders the challenge of 2005-06...
Adam Morrison looks up at the commemorative blue banners high above the floor in Gonzaga’s new gym, and ponders the challenge of 2005-06.
“All those banners up there — second round, second round or regional,” he says with disdain, “we want some Sweet 16s and hopefully a Final Four.”
To Go Beyond — something like that would describe Gonzaga’s season goal. The program that stunned college basketball by narrowly missing the Final Four in 1999, then followed with consecutive Sweet 16 appearances in 2000-01, has struggled since to meet its own expectations and those of its fans. Since that last Sweet 16, Gonzaga has gone 107-21, with three first-round NCAA victories. That hardly puts the Zags on the wrong side of the tracks, but still, in a neighborhood they wouldn’t choose. The history:
• In 2002, a 29-3 team ran into a rugged No. 11 seed in Wyoming in high-altitude Albuquerque, N.M., and fell in the opening round.
• The 2002-03 team, a nine-loss outfit probably less capable than any of the other three, took top-seeded Arizona to double overtime before losing 96-95 in the second round.
• In 2004, with a friendly crowd at KeyArena, the Zags were flattened by 19 points by Nevada in the second round in what probably ranks as their most flaming disappointment ever.
• Last season, they watched a 13-point, second-half lead evaporate in a 71-69 second-round defeat to Texas Tech.
“The last four or five years, every Gonzaga team has been in the top 20, at least, in the preseason,” Morrison said of the eighth-ranked Zags. ” ‘They could do this, they could do that.’
“I’m not saying we’ve let people down or let the program down, but we don’t like to go out in the second round. Nobody does. That’s kind of itching in everybody’s mind.”
The antidote to the March badness is apparent to the Zags themselves — they have to defend better. Texas Tech scrambled back into the game in Tucson last March by scoring on eight straight possessions in the second half.
Gonzaga’s stock-in-trade has usually been its offense, the difficulty in defending coach Mark Few’s multiple sets and varied weapons. It’s on defense the Zags must prove they’re deep-into-March material.
“I don’t know if we have something to prove,” said Gonzaga’s best defensive practitioner, guard Erroll Knight. “We’ve just got to go out and play defense.”
As a matter of fact, Morrison not stunned he’s one of the country’s best players
It’s his team, and everybody knows it. Coming off his late offensive barrage last season, Adam Morrison is a first-team preseason All-American.
About Adam Morrison
Year: Junior. Position: Forward. Ht.: 6-8. Wt.: 205.
Hometown: Spokane. High school: Mead.
Honors: AP preseason first-team All-American … On 50-man preseason Wooden Award watch list … Last season, named to All-WCC first team and honorable mention AP All-American.
Last season: Led the Bulldogs in scoring (19.0 points per game) … Scored a career-high 28 points vs. San Francisco, including game-winner with .6 seconds left … Averaged 27.5 points per game in the WCC tourney to earn MVP honors.
It’s his team, and when the best player has a fire burning within, that’s a good thing.
On a recent day on the Gonzaga campus, Morrison is asked what he would have said when he arrived if three years later people would be advancing his name as a college player-of-the-year candidate and some would put the Zags in the national top five.
“I would probably have agreed,” he said, his laconic humor at work again. “That’s how my confidence is.”
It should be considerable. Morrison averaged 26 points in his final four West Coast Conference games last year. In the NCAA tournament, he put 27 points on Winthrop and 25 on Texas Tech, when Gonzaga bowed out in a two-point loss.
Against the Red Raiders, Morrison missed a three-point shot with 13 seconds to go, the Zags’ last hope of pulling it out. Typically Morrison, he hasn’t dwelled on that attempt.
“I’ve shot it [in practice] a few times,” he said. “I could have taken it in farther, I could have done this or that. I don’t really think about it.
“Great shooters remember the makes and forget the misses, that’s what I’ve been told. Move on.”
Morrison can raise his game in two areas: On defense, and as a three-point shooter, where he made only .311 a year ago. He can upgrade that simply by making quicker decisions about when to pull up and when to drive for his deadly mid-range game.
“People are going to play my drive probably a lot more this year,” he said. “You come off the screen, you’ve got to think shot first, and if they don’t give you the shot, you drive.”
The diabetic Morrison stayed in Spokane most of the summer, working on peeling off those screens. He turned down a chance to return to the U.S. under-21 team that won a gold medal at the world championships in 2004, saying the five-week commitment would have prevented him from doing a required summer-school practicum.
So he shot 500 jumpers a day, pointing to a junior season that could be his last at Gonzaga.
“He’s been drilling,” said teammate Erroll Knight. “He won’t let you hold him down. He finds a way. He won’t be denied.”
Heytvelt gives Zags an even better shot: 6-11 redshirt freshman threat from outside
On the floor of Gonzaga’s McCarthey Athletic Center, a ball-retrieval contraption is hooked to a basket. At the three-point arc, a lanky, 6-foot-11 youngster is pumping in shot after shot, maybe, oh, eight of every 10 attempts.
“I don’t think anybody in the league has seen a 6-11 guy that can shoot threes and run and jump like he can,” said Adam Morrison. “People don’t realize how athletic he is.
“And the funny thing is, he doesn’t even know how good he is yet. Once he does, it’s going to be scary.” The new face is Josh Heytvelt, a redshirt freshman from little Clarkston on the Snake River in southeastern Washington.
Job One for Heytvelt is to return to practice from a troublesome ankle problem and polish his post play. Gonzaga’s best teams have always had significant forces inside.
Yet it’s undeniable that the Zags will take advantage of Heytvelt’s perimeter skills as well.
“We’ve never had a big man who can shoot as well as he can,” said senior teammate Erroll Knight.
With Ronny Turiaf and J.P. Batista manning the block a year ago, Gonzaga could afford to redshirt Heytvelt, who was popularly ranked among the top 50 high-school seniors of 2004. Now Turiaf is gone and Heytvelt’s talent should win him playing time.
“I know they want me to get a post presence first, no matter,” Heytvelt said. “If I get the chance, they’ll let me take a couple of outside shots, but it’s not really my job to shoot the threes.
“According to the coaches, we’re going to have a pretty solid presence from all our posts this year. If I can compete with J.P. and Sean [Mallon], I’ll have a pretty good chance of competing against everybody else.”
Heytvelt was pretty much the classic in-state Gonzaga recruit, taking unofficial visits to Washington and WSU, but boring in on the Zags and committing early.
It has always been a program goal at Gonzaga to have five players who can hurt you offensively from anywhere on the floor. They won’t be breaking tradition with Heytvelt.
THE QUESTION MARK
Defense can’t rest if Zags are to go deep at tourney time
Last year, with new faces starting up front and at point guard, Gonzaga’s concentration in practice was on its offense.
A year later, entering Mark Few’s seventh season as head coach, the emphasis has been at the other end.
“We’ve got to get stops,” said senior Erroll Knight. “That’s what really set us apart from winning last year, [preventing us from] beating Texas Tech and winning other games.”
Or, as Adam Morrison puts it, “Our offense is fine. There’s almost too many weapons. We’re going to have to work on our defense and hitting the glass.”
A year ago, the Zags forced only 12.3 turnovers per game by opponents. Ten times, that number was 10 or fewer.
“Every year, we’ve gone out of the tournament by teams that play great defense,” Morrison said. “They always say offense sells tickets and defense wins games. I know it’s a cliché, but it’s true.”
This could be an extraordinarily deep team, but Few is concerned about a precursor to a stress fracture in the ankle of redshirt freshman Josh Heytvelt that has sidelined him indefinitely.
“We’ve got to get Josh back healthy, just to give us some legitimate depth in size and athleticism,” Few said.
With Heytvelt slowed, Gonzaga figures to depend quickly on 6-foot-9, 235-pound JC transfer Mamery Diallo, a defender and shot-blocker from France.
Until Heytvelt’s return, another guy who will see significant time at the big-forward spot is David Pendergraft, who does everything fundamentally well, but is undersized at 6-6.
Elsewhere, Gonzaga seems better positioned to achieve the kind of defense its players talk about. Freshman guard Jeremy Pargo adds quickness, “a great approach to the game and is a really quick learner,” Few said, and sophomore Pierre Marie Altidor-Cespedes has shown flashes of improvement.
It could augur well for March, when a lot of Gonzaga-watchers — not Few — figure the story of this season will be written.
“There’s such an obsession with just that tournament,” Few said. “You don’t put all your eggs in that basket.”
Still, having seen both sustained euphoria and sudden despair in the NCAAs, Few is resigned to the overemphasis on March.
“We’ve had our deep runs in March before, and it’s been a heck of a good time,” he said. “I think this group would love to taste that.”
Some interesting factoids about the Zags
The field Gonzaga joins for the Maui Invitational Nov. 21-23 is diabolical, including Arizona, Connecticut, Kansas, Maryland and Michigan State. It represents six of the past 12 NCAA champions.
Gonzaga’s big loss from its 2004-05 club is center Ronny Turiaf, who averaged 15.9 points and led the team in rebounds at 9.5. But the Zags return eight of their top nine scorers .
The West Coast Conference rose to an unprecedented No. 7 in the RPI computer rankings last year, and the league’s attempt to get greater exposure resulted in a sharing of the ESPN 9 p.m. “Big Monday” slot with the WAC. Gonzaga has four of those dates, starting Jan. 9 at Santa Clara.
Gonzaga hasn’t been able to host the WCC tournament because (a) its old “Kennel” was too small, and (b) the Spokane Arena has been used for years the same week for the state Class B tournament. This year, the Zags host the event March 3-6 at the McCarthey Athletic Center.
No surprise here: Gonzaga is picked to win its sixth straight regular-season WCC title by the league’s coaches, followed by Saint Mary’s, Portland, Loyola Marymount, Santa Clara, San Francisco, San Diego and Pepperdine.