Bulldogs take aim on Akron
Heytvelt appears at peak of focus as Gonzaga career winds down
Gonzaga’s work at the West Coast Conference men’s basketball tournament was done. Saint Mary’s was vanquished by 25 points in the championship game. Trophies were presented. All-tournament teams announced. High-fives exchanged.
Senior forward Josh Heytvelt started a slow jog toward GU’s locker room at the Orleans Arena in Las Vegas only to be called back by the shouts of teammates. A ladder was set up under the hoop and the Bulldogs still had to cut down the nets.
A nice keepsake, to be sure, but Heytvelt’s attention was already shifting forward.
“I just wanted to get out of there,” he said later. “Cutting the nets isn’t that important to me. We have a lot more basketball to play and we have to be in that mind-set. We can’t be fat, happy cats.”
Fast forward to Selection Sunday. Heytvelt is asked about drawing Akron in the first round of the NCAA tournament. Then he’s asked to name potential second-round opponents if Gonzaga wins Thursday.
He draws a blank and shakes his head. “Couldn’t tell you,” he shrugs.
It isn’t hard to find examples of Heytvelt’s singular focus. His effort in games, on-court demeanor and practice habits indicate a player who has never been more dialed in than he is at present.
The Clarkston High product has had a mercurial five-year run at Gonzaga, his ups and downs chronicled at every turn. As his career winds down, Heytvelt seems driven to prolong the finish line.
“I haven’t seen him like this in the 3½ years I’ve been here,” senior forward Micah Downs said. “Basketball is what it is for him right now. He’s not worrying about anything else. It’s his senior year. He wants to play in the NBA so he’s trying to do the best he can. He knows if he does well, the team is going to do well.”
Heytvelt isn’t sure what to call it – senioritis, maturity, intensity, desire – but he knows it’s there. It hasn’t always been that way.
“I think there have been spurts of it in the past, but it’s been pretty solid the last few weeks and definitely in the conference tournament,” Heytvelt said. “We had our goals set and I wanted to do everything I could to get us there.
“It’s gotta be a combination of things. I only have so many games left. It’s one-and-done if we lose.”
Head coach Mark Few has an apt description: engaged.
“He’s more engaged with everything we’ve been doing all year. Before it just wasn’t always there, socially or even in practice when you’re coaching him,” Few said. “Down the stretch, I thought (Matt) Bouldin should have been MVP of the conference, but you could have made an argument for Josh with the numbers he was posting.”
Heytvelt mentions the phrase “chip on our shoulder” often these days. He brought it up late in the regular season when GU was trying to achieve an unbeaten WCC record. He used it when recalling that San Diego knocked off Gonzaga for the 2008 WCC tournament championship.
Gonzaga has been bounced in the first round of the past two NCAA tournaments. Heytvelt missed the 2007 tournament because he was suspended after his arrest for drug possession.
“I think we have a chip on our shoulder, even from the (2008) conference tournament and going out in the first round of the big tournament last year,” Heytelt said. “It’s something that’s going to push us like it did in conference tournament when we came out and played with fire.”
Heytvelt has always been known for his athleticism. He’s a mobile forward who can step out and hit a 3-pointer on one possession and dunk home an alley-oop pass on the next. His numbers this season are solid: a team-leading 14.9 points per game, 6.7 rebounds, 54.5-percent shooting, 42.3 percent on 3-pointers. Those statistics almost mirror his sophomore year (15.5 points, 7.7 rebounds, 53.7 percent from floor, 40.4 percent on 3s).
A couple of foot/ankle surgeries have probably diminished some of his athleticism, but he’s found another way to impact games this season. His defense has improved “300 percent,” Few boasts. Heytvelt has had success guarding Santa Clara’s John Bryant, the WCC player of the year, and he limited Saint Mary’s center Omar Samhan to 14 points in the teams’ first two meetings. Connecticut’s Hasheem Thabeet scored nine points while dealing with foul trouble and Heytvelt.
“He’s finally made a commitment to it,” Few said. “It’s a process of being more engaged. We always felt we had to sub him out after 3-4 minutes because the concentration level would be lost with fatigue or from 4 straight minutes of game time.
“He’s guarding ball screens better. His post defense is better. Before you could graph it for 2-3 minutes and as soon as he got a little tired. … That hasn’t been nearly the case this year.”
This season Heytvelt is a more complete and more committed player. And, he points out, more goals are within reach.
“I feel like this is best team we’ve had and this is the best chance to advance through this tournament,” he said. “If we play like we have the last couple weeks, it’s going to be great games and if we end up getting beat somewhere, I know we’ll be giving it 110 percent.
“It’s just the calm we have. Everyone gets along. I mean, everyone screws around like you see back here (gesturing at teammates chucking up wild shots between interviews Sunday). But when it gets down to business, everybody knows what to do.”