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Blanchette: Coleman a quick sell to Gonzaga fans

Spokesman-Review sports columnist John Blanchette. COLIN MULVANY The Spokesman-Review_2009 STAFF MUGS (Colin Mulvany / The Spokesman-Review)
Spokesman-Review sports columnist John Blanchette. COLIN MULVANY The Spokesman-Review_2009 STAFF MUGS (Colin Mulvany / The Spokesman-Review)

There are those Gonzaga Bulldogs over the years who have had to grow on the team’s many acolytes. Players like Mike Hart, David Pendergraft, David Stockton – lunch-pailers or walk-ons whose special gifts could be subtle and not instantly appreciated.

And then there are the fall-in-love-moment Zags.

Kevin Pangos lighting up Washington State with nine 3-pointers. Elias Harris’ brutish 31-point tattoo on Saint Mary’s as a freshman. Sam Dower’s 11-of-12  night against San Diego (“Why doesn’t he start?” roared the Greek chorus). The first time Ronny Turiaf rose, cocked, dunked, stretched his jersey into an XXXXL and howled at the rafters.

On Monday night, they fell in love with Gerard Coleman.

Whatever else happens this season with the Zags – and in it’s own way, it might be more interesting than the rise to No. 1 a year ago – in-person witnesses and those viewing at home have been put on notice. When Boston checks in at the scorer’s table, eyes light up.

Boston being Coleman’s hometown, and one of his many nicknames.

“My last coach called me ‘Bones,’” he said, “and ‘Sticks.’ Coach (Mark) Few calls me ‘Slim.’ Some people call me ‘Wavy.’

“Not too many people call me Gerard.”

No matter. Just getting the call is what counts.

The Zags were hardly desperate for what Coleman had for them in a 93-61 skewering of Colorado State at McCarthey Athletic Center. By the time he entered the game, Gonzaga already led 18-9 and it was pretty clear the Rams had no interest in – or perhaps guidance – in guarding Gary Bell or anyone else beyond 12 feet from the basket.

Bell’s eight 3-pointers were leading-man stuff.

Coleman was the supporting actor who stole every scene he was in.

A 90-second cameo at the end of the first half in particular stands out. A hard slash from the right wing with a left-handed finish that resulted in an and-one. A gritty follow in traffic of his own missed layup. And finally an acrobatic transition hoop, sort of a lateral shovel shot after he’d elevated and seemed to pass the basket, a Plan B if ever there was one.

“I was on the break and GB had already hit a couple of 3s before that,” Coleman remembered. “I was thinking he’d stay at the 3 and I was going to drive and kick it to him.

“Sometimes you have to improvise in the air. I’m just glad it went in. It was ‘Whoa, how did that even go in?’ Someone put it on my (Facebook) page already.”

The 16 points – and the 15 he had in Saturday’s season opener against Bryant – were welcome. But it’s how Coleman delivers them that sets him apart.

“He gets to the rim,” said Few, “and attacks it fearlessly.”

And, from the looks of things so far, finishes. Gonzaga has brought in a few players advertised as “slashing types,” but the production didn’t always match the promise. Few is happy that he’s “picking his spots pretty good right now,” but knows bigger tests await.

“The big key will be when we play these slow-down grinders that aren’t going to run to save their lives,” he said. “He still has to be a functional player then – which he can be. To me, that’s the difference between him and some of the other guys we’ve had. You play off him, you’re just giving him a head of steam to come at you.”

He’s had a while to work up that head of steam here. The 6-foot-4 guard transferred from Providence and watched GU’s ride last year doing his NCAA-mandated sit-out penance for exercising his free will. He was a two-year starter for the Friars, but the team was 8-28 in the Big East those seasons, and Coleman had no qualms about a 2,200-mile change of scenery.

“I remember watching Gonzaga in high school and even middle school,” he said, “when Adam Morrison and J.J. Redick were the talk of my neighborhood. Now I shoot with Adam Morrison (a volunteer assistant with the program). It’s crazy.”

However spectacular the early returns, Coleman is a work in progress, even after that redshirt year. Structure and intricacies are not necessarily his strong suit (“My basketball vocabulary wasn’t too high,” he said), and his defense may still be in the remedial stage (“He’s growing,” Few said).

But the Zags know what they have.

“He’s electric,” said assistant Tommy Lloyd. “A savant.”

Yes, he looks like 6 o’clock, but even that’s come along (“I was 167 pounds when I came here,” he reported, “and 180 now”).

And he’s here to win, in whatever role.

“I came because I had a chance at a national title, really,” he said. “That’s why I always play the game, to win something at the end. That’s the whole purpose to me – and I’m glad I’m with a group of guys who think the same way.”

Sounds like Gerard Coleman has had his fall-in-love moment, too.