ANAHEIM, Calif. — Gonzaga’s best player had just completed a career performance in what happened to be his most important game to date.
In an 83-71 win over Baylor, Zags big man Brandon Clarke tallied 36 points and eight rebounds on 15-of-18 shooting to send his team to its fifth consecutive Sweet 16.
It was a way-beyond-expectations day for a player whose expectations are becoming increasingly difficult to exceed. So, naturally, Gonzaga coach Mark Few said last Saturday’s player of the game was …
“The things we asked him to do — rebounding-wise, in defense and then to step up to make those big shots was huge,” Few said.
It is unlikely Few truly believed Kispert was the MVP of that second-round victory, but he didn’t want the Edmonds native’s deeds to go overlooked. In scoring 16 points on 6-of-8 shooting (4 of 6 from deep) and pulling down seven rebounds, Kispert may have had the best game of his college career, too.
It was was quite the upgrade from the sophomore’s contributions in last year’s NCAA Tournament, when he notched a combined 17 points and six rebounds over three games. Then again, for Kispert, this entire season has been an upgrade.
A year ago at this time, the 6-foot-6 shooting guard was a role-player epitomized. After starting the first seven games of the season — and scoring in double figures in five of them — Kispert sprained his ankle and sat out for 11 days.
‘That was all the time teammate Zach Norvell Jr. needed to snatch Kispert’s spot from the starting lineup for the rest of the year. And though he and Norvell have been close throughout their time in Spokane, Kispert admitted his confidence momentarily escaped. But there wasn’t a morsel of doubt in the former King’s High star’s brain Saturday. And there is little reason to think there will be when the top-seeded Zags (32-3) take on fourth-seeded Florida State (29-7) in a rematch of last year’s regional semifinal Thursday.
Averaging 8.3 points and 4.1 rebounds while starting all but one game this season, Kispert might not command the attention of some of his future NBA-playing teammates. Those teammates, however, will say that he should.
“Corey’s big time. This year he’s making a difference,” said senior point guard Josh Perkins, who was Kispert’s roommate last season. “He’s shooting the (heck) out of it right now and is an X factor guy that’s willing to do anything for the team.”
Added Clarke: “He’s a really big guard. He’s a combo guard that can shoot it, that can drive the ball, that can block shots at the rim. If you have a guard who can do that, that’s going to really help the team.”
And it’s not as though Kispert is without his fans. Before Gonzaga departed for Anaheim Tuesday afternoon, Spokane’s local NBC affiliate reported that 8-year-old Jacob Fague approached Corey with a letter explaining why he was his favorite player.
Among the listed reasons?
1. “He only takes shots when he needs to.”
2. “He feels good for other people, like when Josh Perkins got the new record for assists.”
3. “He always smiles, especially when he scores, when someone else scores, or when my dad tells him he does great.”
4. “He has very good hair.”
5. “He takes good care of his family. For example, he does the dishes. He cleans up the house.”
That last reason obviously pertained to off-the-court activity. On the court, Kispert takes good care of his teammates — dishing out assists and cleaning up on the boards. He’s taken good care of his body, too, not letting injuries sideline him like they did a year ago.
If there is one critical difference between this season and last, it’s that.
“Being healthy the whole year really helps,” Kispert said. “To solidify my place in the lineup, from a peace of mind standpoint, is huge.”
Has it been more enjoyable this year?
“I’d say it’s been more consistent. I wouldn’t say enjoyable is the right word. I’ve just known what to expect every game, just having a concrete and cemented role.”
Whether Kispert can build off his career game last week remains to be seen. But it’s clear that the mental barriers that plagued him last year have been broken. These days, the man has great head on his shoulders. And, of course, very good hair.