Kispert, a freshman from Edmonds who attended Kings High School, lost his starting job after suffering an ankle injury. Since then the 2017 Washington Class 1A Mr. Basketball has overcome physical pain and mental strain to play a key role for the Zags in the NCAA tournament.
LOS ANGELES — On one side of the locker room is a freshman surrounded by cameras and at least two dozen journalists. His name is Zach Norvell Jr., the breakout Gonzaga star who, after dropping 28 points vs. Ohio State on Saturday, raised his scoring average to 12.7 points while capturing the attention of the nation.
On the other side is a freshman talking to just one journalist — me. His name is Corey Kispert, the 6-foot-6 wing from Edmonds who, after suffering an injury three months ago, essentially gave Norvell his shot.
This hasn’t been the smoothest season for Kispert despite a sizzling start. The King’s High School product scored at least 10 points in his first five games before spraining his right ankle five days later.
Gonzaga vs. Florida St., 6:45 p.m., TBS
It wasn’t particularly severe. Cost him only two games. But that was all Norvell needed to permanently snatch the starting spot from him.
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“It was difficult. I’m not going to lie. The competitor in me wanted to play,” said Kispert, who was the Washington Class 1A Mr. Basketball and was on the 2017 Star Times boys basketball team. “Zach has been riding his outbreak up until today.”
Please don’t interpret that as bitterness. Kispert called Norvell one of his best friends and said the Zags need Zach to play his best for them to win.
But that doesn’t mean Corey hasn’t experienced his share of tumult this season. By his admission, that ankle sprain led to a mental strain he couldn’t shake for weeks.
When Kispert returned 11 days later, he was held to three points on 1-of-3 shooting vs. Washington. He averaged just 3.5 points over his next four games, including a scoreless night in a two-point loss to San Diego State.
It was new territory for the man considered the No. 4 recruit out of Washington, and anybody with a pair of eyeballs could tell he was struggling upstairs.
“It was really tough for me to get out of my own head, and I think everybody on this team knew it,” Kispert said. “I was kind of my worst enemy at that point. Thankfully, all the guys on the team are like brothers and supported me and never doubted me, even though I doubted myself.”
Why were you doubting yourself? I asked Kispert.
And just as he was ready to answer, Gonzaga coach Mark Few walked by.
“Because his coach was yelling at him,” Few said.
This was partially true. Trying to get the best out of his talented freshman, Few has been on Kispert all season. But the primary source of doubt was lingering ankle pain that made Corey question his capabilities.
He didn’t feel he had his pre-injury explosiveness. He wasn’t sure he could get to the rim with the same ease. His physical health returned more quickly than expected, but he couldn’t quite bulldoze the mental barrier.
Then came a road game vs. Portland on Jan. 25, when Kispert scored 23 points and grabbed 10 rebounds in 23 minutes. Confidence back. Barrier bulldozed.
Good thing, too. Because without Kispert, the Zags might not be playing Florida State in the Sweet 16 on Thursday night. They might have been bounced from the NCAA tournament a whole lot earlier.
Taking on UNC Greensboro in the first round last week, Gonzaga managed just five points through the first 5 minutes, 36 seconds. Then, Kispert came in and scored eight points in eight minutes to give the Zags a four-point lead. They ended up winning by four.
These are the types of things Kispert can do for Gonzaga. This is why Few wanted him on his roster.
The old cliche is, “It’s not how you start but how you finish.” For Kispert, it has become, “It’s not if you start, it’s how your team finishes.”
Don’t be surprised if Corey pops in for a show-stealing spot Thursday. And don’t be surprised if he puts up some eye-popping stats next season. With Johnathan Williams and Silas Melson graduating, Kispert likely will play alongside the 6-5 Norvell instead of backing him up.
“(We’re going to do) big things,” said Norvell, adding that Kispert has been nothing but supportive of him. “Two really big guards that can shoot and finish really well … two big guards that really want to win.”
For now, though, the focus is on Florida State and the chance to take Gonzaga to its third Elite Eight in the past four years. Kispert is ready. He feels like himself again.
That’s good news for the Zags. Not so much for the Seminoles.