With the exception of a few transfers from four-year schools and junior colleges, the list reads like a who’s who of Gonzaga men’s basketball from the last 15 years.
Santangelo, Stepp, Turiaf, Morrison, Pargo, Bouldin, Gray, Daye, Harris. And now Kevin Pangos and Gary Bell Jr.
Gonzaga’s backcourt duo rate high on the list of playing time earned by Bulldogs freshmen since 1997. Pangos, in fact, is No. 1 at 31.5 minutes per game, just ahead of Matt Santangelo’s 31.4 in 1997 after a redshirt season.
Bell is sixth (27.0), trailing Blake Stepp (30.9), current teammate Elias Harris (29.4) and Matt Bouldin (27.8).
So much for hitting the proverbial “freshman wall,” where first-year players struggle with the physical, emotional and mental demands of the longer collegiate season.
High school teams typically play 20-22 games (defending Washington State 4A champion Gonzaga Prep played 26 last year). Harris and Bouldin played 34 games in their respective freshmen seasons.
“I did feel a little tired. I got sick, but I didn’t think of it as hitting a wall,” said Pangos, who came out of a mini-slump with 15 points in Saturday’s win over Pepperdine.
“Some games didn’t go my way and I bounced back in the last one. We played maybe 30 games in high school, but it wasn’t as intense and we didn’t practice nearly as much.”
Pangos and Bell have been remarkably consistent. Pangos has scored in double figures 17 times, Bell 10. Pangos averages a team-high 3.4 assists. Bell is a solid defender and ranks among team leaders in field-goal percentage (47.7) and 3-point percentage (41.4).
“There’s definitely some concern there and I think maybe it’s more of a mental thing than anything,” head coach Mark Few said of monitoring freshmen playing time.
“This team has had to get up emotionally for a lot of games. I think that’s a real advantage for Saint Mary’s (GU’s opponent Thursday). You look at the schedule they played in the preseason and they didn’t have to do that, so now when they faced a big game they’ve been really good in their big games. That’s not an excuse, it’s kind of a reality.”
Few doesn’t worry too much about Pangos. “He’s a coach’s kid, very driven and there’s not much carryover (from one game to the next) with him,” Few said.
Pangos said his legs have felt tired at times, “but that can happen after one game, 10 games, 20 games.” He agreed with Few that the mental aspect is often more challenging than the physical toll.
Few has tried to give Pangos and Bell extended breaks during practice. Bell, a stout 205-pounder, outweighs Pangos by 25 pounds. Both are 6-foot-1.
“I’m giving Gary more blows because he goes so hard and so physical at both ends,” Few said.
Harris said he was comfortable with longer seasons because that was routine in Germany, where he grew up.
“But I can see how it could affect freshmen,” he said. “You’re not used to that schedule and it takes a lot out of you when you play a lot of minutes. You fight through it easier when you’ve played a couple years. Those two are doing a great job.”
Few didn’t recall Stepp hitting the freshman wall.
“To be honest, he probably wasn’t as consistent as Kevin,” Few said. “He had some high turnover games in there.”
Gonzaga, ranked 24th last week, dropped out of the Associated Press Top 25. Saint Mary’s is No. 16 in AP, No. 13 in ESPN/USA Today, the latter represents the highest ranking in school history. … Freshman forward Ryan Spangler returned to practice Monday on a limited basis with a smaller brace on the surgically repaired left pinkie finger he broke three weeks ago. Few said the next couple days will determine whether Spangler is available Thursday.