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Ex-GU star Santangelo: It’s easy to root for this team

Guard Matt Santangelo directing the Gonzaga show was a familiar sight during 1999 run to the Elite Eight. (Associated Press)
Guard Matt Santangelo directing the Gonzaga show was a familiar sight during 1999 run to the Elite Eight. (Associated Press)

HOUSTON – The celebrating was done. Back at their hotel, the Gonzaga Bulldogs had already turned their thoughts to Duke and the 40 minutes that stand between them and the Final Four – not in a scouting-report kind of way, but just in the thinking-about-it kind of way.

When Matt Santangelo spotted Gary Bell Jr. in the lobby, he knew that.

He knew the glow of beating UCLA in the Sweet 16 round of the NCAA Basketball Tournament was still warm, but fading. He knew the ache and the high, and not just the gratification of shared accomplishment, but of this shared accomplishment – and the danger of hanging on to it too long.

“There was a great sense of pride,” said Santangelo, “because maybe more so than anyone else, I knew what he was feeling.”

If the Zags do dispose of Duke this afternoon, it of course will be another frontier of Bulldog basketball breached and “just amazing,” admitted guard Kevin Pangos.

But there is Jahlil Okafor to be dealt with on the block, and Quinn Cook’s 3s and the freakish gifts of Justise Winslow, and even Coach K and the Duke mystique – not that the Bulldogs are playing the Dukies of 2010 or any other vintage.

“So it’s best not to focus on what might come out of the game afterwards,” Pangos said.

Or what came out of the last one.

Matt Santangelo has no such need to compartmentalize. He gets to big-picture it all he wants as the analyst on GU’s radio broadcasts or the thermometer for all things Zag for any guy who bumps into him on the street. Or even as resident smart-ass, as in his message to former Zags coaches Dan Monson and Bill Grier on Friday night after the 2015 Bulldogs battled their way back to the Elite Eight.

“I don’t know what the big deal is,” he wrote, texting thumbs in cheek.

Actually, he knows best of all. He was the ringleader guard on the 1999 Zags who did it first – and, yes, don’t hesitate to point out at the family barbeques who had the longest March run.

This did not make them the 1972 Miami Dolphins of Zagmania, however.

“I get the feeling I’m supposed to feel hostile about it and that’s not the case,” he said. “For them to bust through the ceiling – and I don’t think they’re done – it validates our history. It continues to give credibility to the program that all former Bulldogs remain a part of.

“That’s a big deal for us because we do spend a lot of time having to defend the program – defending our success because we haven’t got to the pinnacle yet.”

So there’s validation. And there’s more.

“This group,” he said, “is so easy to root for.”

Santangelo, like a good many former Zags, has been bullish on these Bulldogs from the start, for the obvious reasons: the experience, the depth, the diversity of talent. Superior post play. Long-range shooting. Team defense. The sacrifice and selflessness that allows stars-on-any-team to satisfying themselves with being in the ensemble.

“More than anything,” he said, “‘I’ve come to appreciate Pangos and Bell and their leadership. When you have guys who demonstrate that it’s truly, truly all about winning, it’s easy for other guys to fall in line.”

When he puts on his analyst hat, Santangelo thinks the matchup with Duke “is as good as you could hope for” – size to battle Okafor, guards that aren’t overly big. Yes, it’s college basketball’s prestige program and its most successful CEO coach, and that alone probably makes the Blue Devils 2 1/2-point favorites.

“And there’s the fact that everyone at ESPN went there at sometime in their college careers,” he cracked.

But all week long, Zags assistant Tommy Lloyd has insisted the team “expected to be here. And that hasn’t been lip service.” That’s a little stronger tonic than just belief.

“This team has a bit of a chip on its shoulder,” Santangelo insisted. “A generation of teams at Gonzaga may have lost sight of that, because they were the darlings and perennial Top 10s, and everybody loves you.

“But because they had to live through some of (the criticism), the hunger is there that maybe since Adam Morrison’s group hasn’t been quite as much a part of the vernacular. Throw a little hunger and urgency with this much talent and now you know why they are where they are.”

In Santangelo’s time, even the Zags’ (smaller) public didn’t give much thought to “first weekend” or “second weekend” of the tournament. There was just another game to win.

“We didn’t have enough sense to understand the grandeur of the moment,” he said.

And these Zags, well, they don’t seem to care.

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