As his Gonzaga basketball team prepared to take the court Friday at KeyArena, coach Mark Few was talking about "our cornerstone guy. " Adam Morrison, surely...

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As his Gonzaga basketball team prepared to take the court Friday at KeyArena, coach Mark Few was talking about “our cornerstone guy.”

Adam Morrison, surely. Or J.P. Batista, the beast on the blocks.

Actually, the reference was to Sean Mallon, the 6-foot-9, fourth-year junior of whom the Zags coaches have been trying to coax more assertiveness. They liked what they saw in Thursday night’s game against Washington State, when he took eight shots — for Mallon, that’s gunning — and scored a season-high 12 points.

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“That was the key to the game,” Few said, amending that to concede that Batista and improved defense also figured in.

With Derek Raivio nursing a bad back, and questionable to play today in the “Battle of Seattle” against Oklahoma State, the Zags have been dangerously close to becoming exactly what Few doesn’t want them to be — a team with distinct scoring threats at two positions with Morrison and Batista, but with other spots opponents don’t have to respect.

So, following a two-point night in 15 minutes in the losing effort at Washington on Sunday night, Mallon has been hearing it all week in practice — be aggressive, shoot the ball, attack the glass.

Today

Gonzaga vs. Oklahoma St., KeyArena, 12:51 p.m., Ch. 11

“We have a lot of guys who can score points,” Mallon said. “They kind of reminded me I can score points as well.”

Mallon took nine shots in the three games in the Maui Invitational and scored eight points. This, from the player who held the Greater Spokane League career scoring record until Morrison broke it.

It was back then that Rick Majerus, coaching Utah, said he thought Mallon “was Keith Van Horn on the come.” National talent evaluator Bob Gibbons said Mallon had “the best fundamentals of any big man I saw [in Mallon’s senior year].”

Early last year, Mallon was doing plenty to get noticed.

“I swear, he was our best player,” said Gonzaga assistant Leon Rice. “He was scrappy and nasty and tough. He scored a lot and got fouled a lot. He was really aggressive. That’s what we were looking for.”

Then something happened. Mallon leveled off, averaging only 5.6 points in the new calendar year after reaching double figures seven times before that.

That coincided, ironically, with the meteoric ascent of Morrison’s play. And this season, with Morrison leading the nation in scoring, Batista more solid than ever down low and Raivio the chief outside threat until his injury against the Huskies, can it be that Mallon deferred too much to the others?

“He better not,” said Few. “We need him to score, need him to be kind of a pain for the other team on defense and a find-a-way-to-get-it-done rebounder. He’s a good leader, too, and sometimes when that other stuff isn’t there, I think that lets down a little bit, too.”

Until the WSU breakthrough, Few says, “He just hasn’t been the same. I don’t know if he perceived himself as having less of a role and we had to convince him that wasn’t the case … I think it was part that, and part lacking in confidence a little bit.”

Whatever it was, Mallon’s contribution has become even more important with the early injuries to Josh Heytvelt and Erroll Knight, and now Raivio.

“I’ve got to get my own shots, too,” Mallon said. “It’s just kind of a balancing, I guess.”

While wily Oke State coach Eddie Sutton spent time Friday Lou Holtz-ing his young team’s chances — “This might be a blowout,” he said — the Zags should know better. This figures to be one of those all-hands-on-deck games, when Gonzaga needs every possible contribution, including Mallon’s.

“With every kid, you just want him to be super-confident,” Rice said. “At times, maybe he got away from that. It wasn’t anything coming from the coaching staff. We’ve never, ever doubted Sean Mallon.”

Bud Withers: 206-464-8281 or bwithers@seattletimes.com

Playing the best
Gonzaga’s non-league schedule is among the toughest in the nation. How they’ve fared against ranked opponents and the toughest foes on the horizon:
Date Result, schedule (TV)
Nov. 21* Gonzaga 88, Maryland 76
Nov. 22* Gonzaga 109, Michigan St. 106 (3 OT)
Nov. 23* Connecticut 65, Gonzaga 63
Dec. 4 At Washington 99, Gonzaga 95
Dec. 10 vs. Oklahoma State**, 12:51 p.m. (Ch. 11)
Dec. 17 vs. Virginia, 5 p.m. (FSN)
Dec. 22 at Saint Louis, 5:30 p.m. (FSN)
Dec. 27 at Memphis, 4 p.m. (ESPN2)
Dec. 31 vs. Saint Joseph’s, 3 p.m. (ESPN2)
Feb. 11 vs. Stanford, 6 p.m. (ESPN)
*Maui Invitational; **At KeyArena