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Leaving Zags for NIC working out for Sarbaugh

Chris Sarbaugh led G-Prep to the 2011 State 4A title. (Associated Press)
Chris Sarbaugh led G-Prep to the 2011 State 4A title. (Associated Press)

In the lament about the mounting transfer rate in college basketball and the reflex of hitching it to the bullet train of instant gratification that whisks us through each day, the very things that drive players and competitors are often dismissed.

Playing. Competing.

They were whispers that grew louder in Chris Sarbaugh’s head, along with the ticking of an unforgiving clock, through his first college year. Three weeks before the start of a second, he could ignore them no longer.

What’s he given up? The giddy carnival of Gonzaga basketball, now 80 minutes from the possibility of being the No. 1 team in the college game.

Funny, though. At the moment, all the urgency has pooled at the spot where he’s landed, 40 minutes away at North Idaho College.

The Cardinals host the National Junior College Athletic Association’s Region 18 tournament this weekend, the prize being another step toward perhaps the greatest basketball show under one roof, the nationals in Hutchinson, Kansas. At-large life rings are rare and not to be counted on, even for the 10th-ranked team in the country, which NIC is.

That the Cardinals get to play this step in their own gym is no security blanket, but it is a creature comfort.

“I didn’t realize how much until halfway through the season,” Sarbaugh said. “We had like a month straight where we were on the road, then we were home for a month. The difference is crazy. You don’t know how much the home crowd helps.”

Well, OK, he picked up a hint at Gonzaga, even though the raucous crowd there doesn’t lift you off the bench.

That’s where Sarbaugh spent his year as a Zag, after an MVP performance leading Gonzaga Prep to the 2011 State 4A title. His aspirations were familiar. He had models there in another former Bullpup, David Stockton, and Mike Hart, who had both risen from walk-ons to resident wonderboys. He accepted the odds.

“I knew I wouldn’t get a lot of playing time, if any, the first two or three years,” he said. “I knew I’d have work my butt off just to pull a Mike Hart. What I didn’t know is how hard it was going to be on me emotionally.

“I wanted to play so badly. I thought I could handle it. But I realized that I have four years to do this and I’m just too competitive not to play.”

This realization didn’t crystalize completely until midsummer, which is why GU assistant Tommy Lloyd suggested the junior college route in general and NIC in particular – everyone else’s scholarships having long ago been allotted.

“Honestly, I wasn’t all that excited,” Sarbaugh admitted. “You know all the things they say about JCs.”

Yeah. That’s it’s every man for himself, or worse.

And Sarbaugh acknowledged that his first few pickup sessions reinforced that unfortunate stereotype, “guys think they have to show they’re someone to be reckoned with.” Time and practice, however, revealed what they ideally do: a team, a chemistry and a mission. That the Cardinals had five different leading scorers in the first three games didn’t hurt. Neither did that fact that in Sarbaugh, they had a point guard who didn’t care if he ever did.

“His understanding of what’s needed is remarkable,” NIC coach Jared Phay said. “There have been times when teams are running a different set and you’ll see him recognize it before the coaches do.”

There were also times early, on trips to Arizona and North Dakota, when Sarbaugh felt like he was dribbling it off his knee every other time down the floor and “letting the team down.” That rust gone, he and the Cardinals have put together a 26-4 season, the major hiccups being two losses to the regional tournament’s top seed, Salt Lake, which they’ve also beaten once.

Though still a freshman, Sarbaugh will be jump back in Division I basketball next year – offers from Eastern Washington, Idaho, and San Diego among the ones he’ll weigh when it’s time. He’ll go with lessons he absorbed at GU about preparation and sacrifice (“You don’t know how many hours Kevin Pangos puts in to be what he is”) – and with lessons learned at NIC.

“Guys here want to be great, too,” he said. “They want to go big-time programs and be on TV. They are hungry. Some come from powerhouse college sand leagues and they want to be back at that level.

“These guys don’t want to settle. They really compete.”

And if they’re like Chris Sarbaugh, they’re too competitive not to play.

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