By John Sleeper
SEATTLE – Dismissed for years as a nice, small, basketball program with all the bite of a poodle, Gonzaga University has turned into a nationally respected power snarlingly competitive with any team in the country.
And don’t think University of Washington coach Bob Bender hasn’t noticed.
Any thoughts that the graduation two seasons ago of guards Ritchie Frahm and Matt Santangelo would turn the Bulldogs into Rice were summarily quashed last season when Gonzaga reached the NCAA Tournament’s Sweet 16 for the second straight year. This, after many thought Gonzaga was a fluke when it reached the Elite Eight in 1999.
Now, a season after standout forward Casey Calvary graduated, the Bulldogs are up to their old tricks. Led by ex-Husky Dan Dickau, Gonzaga (7-2) has jettisoned St. John’s, No. 23 Texas and No. 16 Fresno State.
Third-year coach Mark Few just keeps plugging in new players and gets similar results.
“The personnel has changed over the years, but what they do and their strengths and how their kids play, they haven’t missed a beat,” said Bender, whose 6-2 Huskies will host Gonzaga tonight before a sellout crowd at Hec Edmundson Pavilion.
Given the growth of the program and its impressive victories against ranked teams, it remains a mystery why the Bulldogs aren’t ranked higher in the Associated Press poll (they broke in Monday at No. 25). But disrespect is nothing new. Gonzaga figures to introduce itself again to the nation come NCAA Tournament time.
The Bulldogs’ guards are the most storied part of the team. Dickau, averaging 18.2 points a game, continues to confound opposing guards by hitting 43.2 percent of his 3-point attempts and slicing fearlessly through the lane to set up teammates. Sophomore guard Blake Stepp was the West Coast Athletic Conference’s Freshman of the Year last season, but is coming off knee surgery during the off-season and a sprained ankle and is working back into the offense.
Gonzaga’s front line is contributing mightily with yeoman work on the boards. The Bulldogs have a 14.1-per-game rebounding advantage over opponents. Cory Violette, a 6-foot-9, 255-pound forward-center, grabbed 20 rebounds against Fresno State and 12 each against Illinois and Eastern Washington. He leads the Bulldogs at 9.2 rebounds a game.
In addition, 6-foot-8, 249-pound forward Zach Gourde is nearly Violette’s equal on the boards at 8.1 a game and also adds a blazing shooting touch.
In the last three games, Gourde is 24-for-35 from the field (68.6 percent), including 8-for-9 against Portland State, 7-for-9 against Eastern and 9-for-17 against Fresno State.
“They’re doing what Casey did,” Bender said of Violette and Gourde. “When you build a program, that’s what you want to have happen. Guys were learning and playing a different role. And when they get their opportunity, they seize it.”
But the trigger man, the unquestioned leader, is Dickau. A nominee on the 50-player list for the John Wooden Award, Dickau transferred to Gonzaga from Washington after his sophomore season in 1998. He has blossomed since as one of the premier point guards in the nation.
Bender said guards Curtis Allen and Erroll Knight would share duties trying to slow down Dickau, and also possibly forward Doug Wrenn.
“We can’t play just one person on him,” Bender said. “We have to be able to have some different looks for him. You’ve got to be able to keep him in front of you. If you leave him with any kind of penetration, he just kills you. You have to have guys strong enough to fight through ball screens because they’ll set a lot of ball screens to free him up.”
The Huskies will try to counter Gonzaga with athleticism. Bender wants an up-tempo attack that starts with the hope that 6-11, 270-pound center David Dixon can keep the Bulldogs off the boards.
Dixon, a senior, shed more than 30 pounds from last season and is more active and aggressive than he had previously shown in two-plus seasons in a UW uniform. Dixon, who averages 10 points and nine rebounds a game, plays nearly 30 minutes a contest and has not fouled out yet. Dixon also has shown shot-blocking ability, stoning a school-record seven Nov. 24 against Santa Clara.
His role is crucial to what Washington wants to do on both ends of the court. With center Marlon Shelton (knee) and power forward Mike Jensen (shoulder) out for the season, Dixon and freshman Jeffrey Day carry the brunt of rebounding responsibilities.
“Our rotation is very critical in how we keep guys fresh and out of foul trouble, just because of the numbers we have inside,” Bender said.