The Gonzaga Bulldogs are unbeaten, cruised through a Holiday tournament, ranked in the top 10 and hearing Final Four chatter from national pundits.
Sounds like the 2008-09 Zags at the same point of the season.
And then came December, traditionally the toughest month on Gonzaga’s schedule. The Bulldogs lost four of five games, including three in a row, before the calendar reached 2009. That team, which featured Jeremy Pargo, Josh Heytvelt, Austin Daye, Micah Downs, Matt Bouldin and Steven Gray, rebounded to go 14-0 in the WCC and win a pair of NCAA tournament games before falling to eventual national champion North Carolina.
“I guess there are similarities with (winning) the Old Spice and maybe the ranking, but it probably ends team-wise,” coach Mark Few said. “The makeups are so different. At the end of the day, those guys had their sights on the NBA and the end of the rainbow a little bit, which there’s nothing wrong with that. These guys aren’t thinking like that.”
The Bulldogs (8-0), who visit Washington State on Wednesday, moved up to No. 10 in the AP and ESPN/USA Today polls.
“I think it (rankings) was mentioned once and it wasn’t said as ‘congratulations.’ It was said more as ‘who really cares?’” sophomore guard Kevin Pangos said. “We have goals aside from being ranked. Have we played good opponents? Yes. But have we played the best? I don’t think so, so there’s nothing to really be too happy about yet.”
December annually brings GU’s biggest nonconference challenges. In 2006, it was Texas, Washington State, Washington, Georgia, Duke and Nevada. In 2010, it was Illinois, WSU, Notre Dame, Baylor, Xavier and Oklahoma State.
This month, GU will face WSU, Illinois, Kansas State, Baylor and Oklahoma State. Illinois and Oklahoma State are ranked. Baylor, which just ended Kentucky’s 55-game home winning streak, is receiving votes.
Few likes GU’s unbeaten start, but emphasized that the season is still young.
“I can’t figure out what we’ve done so far,” he said. “West Virginia was very athletic; they seem offensively challenged. Oklahoma was extremely athletic, but you trust those coaches will really get their guys dialed in to the right roles and they’ll be good at the end of the year. Davidson is a good team, that’s an NCAA tournament team, and I wouldn’t be surprised if Pacific is an NCAA team.”
By Jan. 1, the answers will become clearer.
“You have to be incredibly resilient. You can’t let whatever happens in one game affect the next one, and/or injuries or getting beat up a little bit,” Few said of the December slate. “We were talking to Gary (Bell Jr.) about that. The next time you’re going to feel good is probably like May, that’s when you’ll feel like you have pop in your legs again and you’re moving pain-free. It becomes really hard because some weeks you’re cramming three games into a week and now we’re facing a bunch of ranked teams and some road games.”
Gonzaga assistant coach Donny Daniels was an assistant on Rick Majerus’ staff at Utah from 1990-2000. Majerus died Saturday of heart failure.
“You can’t work for someone that long and have the success we had and not take almost everything, including philosophy, terminology and style of play,” said Daniels, who was head coach at Cal State Fullerton from 2000-03.
“He was very simple and everything came back to fundamentals. He had a very good grasp of roles on the team and his intensity and the way he went about it was a skill, too. He was very hard-working and thorough, and his record proved it.”