January 11, 2013 in Sports

Blanchette: ‘New’ Zag an amazing revelation

By The Spokesman-Review
 

Recruit- ing’s impact on college basketball can never be understated. Even plugging in just one player can make an incredible difference.

Like the new 7-footer Gonzaga has this year.

And, no, not the kid from Poland, although he’ll be just fine, too.

The other new 7-footer. The overnight sensation who, wait, he’s been in the program for four years?

The greening of Kelly Olynyk moved into yet another phase Thursday night in the Bulldogs’ harrowing escape over Saint Mary’s, defending champion of the West Coast Conference who didn’t always play like it but certainly hung in like one.

The final was 83-78, and they may have been playing yet had the Gaels’ reigning Player of the Year not clanked a wide-open 3-pointer off the rim and over the glass with 8 seconds left. The Zags would be wise not to tempt that sort of fate again.

Or to let a 20-point romp become a two-possession flop-sweat special in the space of barely 4 minutes.

The Zags had a chance to make a statement this night. They settled for an equivocation.

Yet 16-1 is its own statement.

And there’s a subtext in the saga of Olynyk, who put himself in some interesting company by tattooing the Gaels for 31 points, after a 33-point bonanza five days before at Santa Clara.

The last Zag to score 30 or more twice in a season?

Fellow named Adam Morrison.

Olynyk has been a revelation virtually from the time he came off the code-of-conduct violation that more or less extended his redshirt year of 2012 three games into this season: 18 points a game, a shooting percentage in the high 60s, poise, aggressiveness, confidence.

“We didn’t go into the game thinking he couldn’t play,” said Saint Mary’s coach Randy Bennett. “We were prepared for him and he still did it to us.”

That said, after viewing Olynyk on tape this season and recalling what he’d seen way back in 2011 when the big Canadian was last in uniform, Bennett might have demanded DNA testing to prove Olynyk was the same person.

“I remember him,” Bennett said. “I didn’t think he was very good. He’s improved more than anybody in college basketball.

“Credit him and their program. We brag about it when it happens in ours, and they certainly should in theirs, too. He’s done nice work, because he’s a totally different player than he used to be.”

All right, not 100 percent different. Outsized stats or not, he’s human.

Like the rest of the Zags who sputtered and wheezed through the middle part of the second half when the Gaels surged, Olynyk contributed to the swoon – a couple missed layups, rebounds unclaimed, a couple offensive fouls and additional turnovers.

“Our bigs did a lot of that,” sighed coach Mark Few. “Maybe it was fatigue.”

But Few has also marveled at Olynyk’s development.

“In the past, he was running over a lot of people – falling down, out of control, turning the ball over,” he said. “You don’t see that now. He’s under control. His game is mature.”

The mulch for Olynyk’s growth, it’s been noted before, was that redshirt season. If it was taken with an eye to the big-man rotation – which then included Rob Sacre as well as Elias Harris and Sam Dower – that wasn’t going to give him an abundance of minutes, it also served to grow his game.

“In practice when you’re redshirting, you’re always the (scout) team’s best player and you get every rep,” Olynyk said.

“You can take some bad shots and make mistakes because it really doesn’t matter. You’re meant to make mistakes. If you turn the ball over, then the defense is doing a good job rather than you doing a bad job. So it works out.”

So does the concept. In college basketball’s big time, the redshirt isn’t extinct, but the species is dwindling – in no small measure because players itchy to get to the pros aren’t likely to sit still for a year without competition. Among the rest of Gonzaga’s fellow Top 10 teams, a quick survey reveals five players who play 10 minutes a game or more who redshirted outside of the one-year sit mandatory for transfers.

Then there’s Gonzaga: The Zags have four one-time redshirts in the rotation now, and have redshirted more than 20 players since 2000.

The Zags are a long way from the mom-and-pop-store days, but they still do it a little differently.

And if they staggered in finishing off the Gaels this night, they still finished.

“They’ve done a heck of a job to get to 16-1,” Few said. “This (stretch) has been emotional game after emotional game after emotional game. I don’t know how many teams this far into the season have done that, if any – have faced as many hard, tough, better-be-way-up-or-you’re- going-to-get-beat games. They’ve done a remarkable job.”

Helped along by a remarkable new player.

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