Marquise Carter’s first crack at the starting job came in the second game of the season, but he played 13 non-descript minutes.
His next chance came in mid December after a couple of strong efforts off the bench, including a clutch 13-point showing versus Baylor. He played 19 solid minutes in a rout of Lafayette, but his performance tailed off in subsequent games. He played seven minutes or less in six of Gonzaga’s next seven games.
His third shot came last month, again on the heels of a couple of nice games as a reserve. This time, he was ready and he told folks around him he was ready, while maintaining proper etiquette, of course.
“I told one of my teammates (Manny Arop) that I was actually going back and forth with at the position, ‘If I ever get the opportunity again, I’m going to take it and run with it,’ ” Carter said, shortly after learning No. 11-seeded Gonzaga will open against No. 6 St. John’s in Denver on Thursday in the NCAA tournament. “I told him, ‘Man, I apologize, but I’m just going to do it.’ I’m happy I got the opportunity.”
That discussion was between teammates, competitors and friends. It’s an interesting dynamic in team athletics – the relationships of teammates often vying against each other for playing time and starting spots. They go through the same practices, conditioning and videotape sessions, then come home to a dorm or apartment that sits next door to somebody they just spent the last two hours trying to beat in a rebounding drill.
Whether teammates bond or bicker can have a measurable impact on what unfolds on the court. Gonzaga’s starting lineup wasn’t cemented until Carter stepped in against Memphis on Feb. 5. The emergence of Carter, reserve forward Sam Dower and backup point guard David Stockton have coincided with Gonzaga’s 10 consecutive WCC wins, the last two at the conference tournament securing an automatic bid to the NCAAs.
“We haven’t had one situation all year,” head coach Mark Few said. “It’s a group that comes out and works really hard. If they play, they play. If they don’t, they don’t, but they’ve been very supportive of each other with all the ups and downs and the difficult schedule we played.”
Carter, with first-hand knowledge on the subject, agreed.
“Actually me and Manny are really good friends, we talk a lot,” Carter said. “I remember talking to him about the struggles I was going through. There were points I was telling myself, ‘Am I really not meant to play basketball?’ I just told him, ‘When I get that opportunity again, you better hope I don’t get it.’ He just laughed, and I laughed.”
Carter’s transformation began in practice. Few has talked about “getting Carter out of second gear.” Carter referred to it as “being in cruise control.”
“In junior college, I could do what I wanted, go through half speed and not really have the coaches say anything to me,” he said. “Going through things half speed here, coach (Few) hit it on the head quick: ‘Marquise, go hard, go hard, stop going slow.’
“I thought he was always picking on me, but he wasn’t. When I went hard, I noticed a lot of things coming easier on defense, getting steals, my offensive game.”
When Carter went full speed, he went from being glued to the bench to rarely leaving the floor. He has started the last 10 games and played more minutes (327) than anyone on the team. Carter’s average of 11.4 points during that span is just behind Elias Harris’s 12.3 and Steven Gray’s 11.8.
Carter played 77 of 80 possible minutes in the WCC tournament while earning MVP honors.
“Without Marquise and his play the last month,” Gray said Sunday, “we wouldn’t be here celebrating a trip to the tournament.”
After adjusting his work ethic, Carter’s confidence began to soar with each successful outing. He wasn’t used to the lengthy minutes at first, but he knew slowing down might result in another trip to the bench.
“My brother (Nate, who plays professionally in France) always told me to stay coachable, continue to work hard and the coaches will see it,” Carter said. “The key thing with me is when I go in, and I’m not worrying, my confidence is high and I feel like I can compete with anybody. Coach has been giving me a little leeway. I can make a mistake or two and he’ll leave me in there. I thank the coaches for that.”
Few cited another automotive-related phrase to describe Carter’s improvement over the second half of the season.
“I don’t think I’ve ever seen somebody go from zero to 60 like that,” Few said.
And that doesn’t happen in second gear.