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Blanchette: GU’s Pangos holds key to ratchet time

Spokesman-Review contributing sports columnist John Blanchette.  (Colin Mulvany / The Spokesman-Review)

SAN DIEGO – Once the bracket is set for the NCAA tournament, everything gets ratcheted up.

The anticipation. The pressure. The stakes. The noise and nonsense.

And in Spokane, the Kevin Pangos Community Fret.

March Madness seems to have curdled into March Meh-ness surrounding the Gonzaga Bulldogs this time around. The Zags’ unrequited run in the tournament as the nation’s No. 1 team a year ago and the no-man’s-land of being a No. 8 seed have deflated the local investment, or so it appears.

But if anything’s tempering expectations, it’s a general Welschmerz over the puzzling turn in the production of the little guard who’s come to be regarded as the team’s motor since his arrival on campus.

And now the question gets asked, “Can the Zags win without Kevin Pangos?”

Even though, of course, Pangos will be very much with them as they tangle with a familiar intersectional rival, No. 9 seed Oklahoma State, in their NCAA opener today at Viejas Arena.

It’s just that his statistical impact has been muted as the season has built to a crescendo, and while the Zags have survived quite nicely to get to this point, the tournament is supposed to be a Whole Different Thing – requiring every bit of horsepower.

Not that Pangos or the Zags seem to be sweating it.

“I just have to pick my spots,” said Pangos in an interview this week, as teammate Drew Barham lingered at his shoulder. “Get open and be aggressive whenever I have the opportunity.

“And not pass the ball to Drew. Because I’ll never get it back.”

Loose enough for you?

Nor is OSU coach Travis Ford particularly moved.

“We know Pangos,” he said. “If he needs to go get 30, he can go get 30.”

It’s no secret that a December injury – sprained toe ligaments, or “turf toe” in the sportsmed parlance – dramatically changed the season for Pangos, who was averaging better than 20 points a game that first month. Slowed by a condition that screams for rest, Pangos was soon needed even more when teammates Sam Dower Jr. and Gary Bell Jr. were sidelined with injuries of their own. Even when they returned, he never played less than 30 minutes in a game – and clocked in all 40 in the West Coast Conference title game, which for all purposes was a double-digit romp.

Something else about that night: Pangos didn’t have a field goal, the first time that’s happened in 111 career games.

The Cougars hounded Pangos with their best defender, Anson Winder, when they weren’t in their zone, just as Saint Mary’s had sicced Stephen Holt on him the night before. Pangos is used to that, but there’s something more.

“People are coming into these games saying, ‘Pangos isn’t going to be the guy that beats us – we’ll face-guard him,’” said Gonzaga coach Mark Few, “and that attention has opened up opportunities for David (Stockton), for Sam and others.

“We’ve shown we can survive and play pretty good that way. Maybe there’s been stretches the last two years when we’d been more Kevin dependent than we needed to be.”

But Stockton’s increased role – his minutes are up nearly 45 percent from a year ago – has also changed the dynamic.

“They’re pressuring Kevin with denial and making it hard for him to get a touch,” said assistant coach Tommy Lloyd. “Maybe last year it was a little different because he was playing more minutes at point guard and it’s harder to do that when the guy has the ball that much.”

The combination of his decreased explosiveness and less space to operate has been reflected in some problematic math. Though he’s still averaging a career-high 14.1 points a game, Pangos’ shooting numbers from the field and the 3-point arc have plummeted from 46 and 45 percent, respectively, to 36 and 32 in the last 13 games. Just as telling: he’s averaging three fewer shots a game.

And it was significant at the end of the great escape against Santa Clara in Las Vegas that it was Stockton with the ball charged with making a play at game’s end. For the better part of three years, that’s been Pangos’ brand.

“But neither he nor Gary are guys who think they have to get 15 shots,” Lloyd said. “Hey, the advantage we have most nights is inside. Those guards have won a lot of games and they have a good understanding of how to do it.”

Still, it has eaten on Pangos during his struggles that his toe hasn’t allowed him to work his way through it with his usual diet of, well, more. More practice, more shots, more late nights. At least the break between the WCCs and today has given him some rest, right?

“I almost said, ‘Screw it,’ and just went in the gym,” Pangos reported. “That’s what I did. (Rest) can wait ’til afterward.”

See? Everything gets ratcheted up this time of year.