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Without Heytvelt, Zags must display a smart toughness

Josh Heytvelt was being prepped for surgery Monday afternoon about the same time Gonzaga coach Mark Few was being asked about what sort of adjustments might be in order to compensate for his young post player’s absence these next three months.

Which was the wrong question, apparently.

“It’s not as if we haven’t been playing without him before,” Few said. “We’ll just continue doing the same things we have been.”

Point taken. A condition called a “stress reaction” had kept Heytvelt from practicing with the Bulldogs during the preseason, or from playing in the two exhibitions and even the season opener against Idaho.

But the 6-foot-11 freshman from Clarkston was cleared for service shortly before the Zags left for Maui, and if his performance in the island tournament last week was wildly uneven, it did give birth to one deliciously arguable premise: That aside from GU’s three musketeers – Adam Morrison, J.P. Batista and Derek Raivio – who are currently supplying 80 percent of the points, the player the Zags could least afford to lose, as they pursued this season of endless possibility, was Josh Heytvelt.

And then came the ugly twist. Three games into his college career, Heytvelt broke his left ankle in the Maui title loss to Connecticut.

It could hardly have been more disappointing for Heytvelt, who voluntarily redshirted last season in deference to GU’s more work-ready inside players – Batista, Ronny Turiaf and Sean Mallon – and for the chance to grow and mature, with more productive minutes to follow. Now he’ll miss almost an entire second season, with little hope of the NCAA giving it back.

“I don’t know if I’d be handling it as well as he is,” said GU sophomore David Pendergraft, who roomed with Heytvelt on the road. “Getting just two games in two years – that’s tough. It’s going to be another long year for him, so we hope it’s a fast recovery and that he can get back into the flow of things.”

As Heytvelt faced surgery Monday, another injured Zag – senior swingman Erroll Knight – was being re-examined. After early progress from arthroscopic knee surgery three weeks ago, Knight has suffered more pain and swelling. Infection may be an issue, and Few indicated another scope job may be required.

So you get an idea that what’s going around Gonzaga at the moment isn’t just Maui hangover.

While he practiced the Zags without Heytvelt and Knight all fall, Few did it while projecting them back into the lineup and gauging where that might take the team.

“We knew we had an ace – a couple of aces – in the hole,” he said. “We were not only hoping to improve ourselves with better execution and team defense the way you always do, but we thought we had a couple of new elements that could change the dimension of our team with what they bring to the table, especially athletically. It would infuse us with all sorts of different things we don’t have. And now it doesn’t look like that’s going to be the case.”

What the Zags – who jumped to sixth in the AP Top 25 on Monday – do have is still plenty good.

But Heytvelt would have been a true wild card, for obvious reasons.

“What he gave this team was a guy like Turiaf inside defensively with his length and athleticism,” said assistant coach Bill Grier. “In time, he would have really changed some games defensively because of how he can block shots and get a rebound above the rim.”

There is also his considerable offensive skill. Though he over-adrenalined a couple of dunks and layups in Maui, he did display a knack for getting to the rack and also showed off his remarkable 3-point touch.

“You saw the impact he could have on a game,” Few said.

But beyond that, there was a bounce and an energy to his game you may not have picked up on if you’d only seen him in high school against some overmatched Greater Spokane League centers. Even the circumstances of his bad break – diving headlong for a loose ball early in the UConn game – suggested, as Grier said, “that you could see the light starting to come on and that he was figuring things out.

“It was amazing to me,” Grier said. “For a kid who hadn’t played for a year, he didn’t seem rattled or intimidated in that company at all.”

Of course, the fundamental issue at the moment is depth and rotation at the inside positions. Behind Batista and Mallon, the Zags have Pendergraft – a 6-6 wing player who’s remaking himself into a banger – and 6-9 junior college transfer Mamery Diallo, whose game is so raw that Few has dared only use him for four minutes all season.

Pendergraft’s play in Maui was nothing short of inspirational – Few played him all three overtimes against Michigan State – but his land-of-the-giants act will need some refining.

“It’s fun – I have no problem with it,” he said of playing as a power forward, or four. “I have no problem banging in there and scrapping – that’s kind of what I do anyway. Probably now I shouldn’t foul as much because there aren’t as many backups, but I’m happy with whatever they ask me to do.”

But it simply can’t be assumed that Heytvelt’s injury will accelerate Diallo’s emergence, even out of necessity.

“His progress has been inconsistent,” Grier admitted. “Probably the most difficult thing for a foreign kid is adapting to the college environment because it’s so different from what they’re used to in terms of intensity. He has some really good days and he’ll take a couple of steps forward, but then he’ll take steps back.

“He does have great length and he’s athletic and those are things we can really use right now, but he has to show in practice that he can do it on a consistent basis.”

In the end, there is one obvious upshot.

“It just puts more pressure on J.P. to play really smart basketball,” Grier said. “He can’t pick up any silly fouls, which you don’t want him to do anyway. The same goes for Sean and David, but without Josh coming in for J.P., you don’t have a true five man.”

The Zags had their toughness challenged in Maui and came up big. But the test, it seems, is only beginning.


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