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Blanchette: Bell and Pangos left important legacy

Mark Few congratulates his two young freshmen, Kevin Pangos, left, and Gary Bell, Jr. in their first NCAA tournament back in 2012.
Mark Few congratulates his two young freshmen, Kevin Pangos, left, and Gary Bell, Jr. in their first NCAA tournament back in 2012.

In the spring of 2000 – still at the beginning of things, in the modest scope of Millenial Zag – Matt Santangelo, Richie Frahm, Mike Nilson and Ryan Floyd departed the Gonzaga basketball program in the greatest exodus of backcourt achievement in Inland Northwest college basketball history.

It included what at the time were the Nos. 3 and 5 scorers in school history and top 3-point shooter, plus Gonzaga’s career assists leader. There was the defensive stopper who established a program standard for that skill, and a former B legend who took apart UCLA like it was another night in the Bi-County League.

Plus: 93 wins, two West Coast Conference titles and appearances in the NCAA’s Sweet 16 and Elite Eight.

Whatever would the Zags do?

Well, they’d plug in three brand new guys – one of them another walk-on – and go back to the Sweet 16 the next year.

And now there’s all this hand-wringing about losing a couple of guys named Kevin and Gary?

Yes, there is. And not without cause.

The Bulldogs have had too many exceptional guard combinations to suggest that Kevin Pangos and Gary Bell Jr. established a benchmark for the how the position should be played. But maybe they codified it.

Or how is it that Santangelo put it when discussing Pangos’ legacy last March?

“Is he on the Mount Rushmore of Gonzaga basketball?” he wondered. “I don’t know what it is – but he’s been awesome to watch from Day 1 on this campus.”

We know the numbers. Pangos started a school-record 141 games at GU, Bell 124. Together they played a part in 122 victories, took the Zags to No. 1 and, not insignificantly, shushed some of the clueless blather about the program’s purported “flops” in March.

And, yes, at one point they had to fetch up the same expectations that Josh Perkins and Silas Melson do now as the gatekeepers of Gonzaga’s basketball future.

It’s the rites of autumn. Santangelo and Frahm had to build on what Kyle Dixon, Jon Kinloch and John Rillie had left them as Gonzaga’s first NCAA Tournament team. Dan Dickau and Blake Stepp took the baton from Santangelo and Frahm.

Subsequent successions – Derek Raivio and Jeremy Pargo, Matt Bouldin and Steven Gray – were more staggered. But they’re all fraught with hiccups and obstacles.

Asked to distinguish between the Pangos-Bell takeover and the transition to the new kids on the block, senior Kyle Dranginis – who actually came in with the former pair, but redshirted – insisted that he saw “more similiarities than differences.

“When you’re young and you’re starting out, you’re not very vocal. You don’t want to step on anybody’s toes. But you need to get out there and be aggressive – you can’t tiptoe into this or else you’re going to get beat.”

And Pangos and Bell couldn’t afford to sit back. They were needed too much. Gray had graduated. Demitri Goodson, the incumbent point guard, had decided he’d gone as far as he could with basketball and transferred to Baylor to play football – a spectacularly prescient notion. Marquise Carter, who had rescued GU’s 2011 season, for some reason regressed into the unsure JC transfer he’d been.

So all Pangos did was score 33 points in his first collegiate start – a spash so big no one seemed to notice that Bell had 14 off the bench in the same game.

“And from the jump, Gary was ready to defend on this level,” said coach Mark Few. “We was tough and detail-oriented and we felt pretty good about just throwing him out there on the other team’s best player.”

Perkins and Melson at least have had a year in the program to acclimate – though Perkins’ freshman year was wiped out by a broken jaw, and Melson often got misplaced in the Zags’ remarkable depth.

But for all their wins, Pangos and Bell left another legacy.

As the Zags took another step in their evolution, they kept the program grounded, as ever more talented – and regarded – players signed on, including highly sought players like Perkins himself, and Zach Collins and Zach Norvell of the class to come. They grew up fast when they had to, and later subjugated themselves to big dogs who needed fed (there’s a chance they will have played with as many as six NBA big men). They took care of details.

“We didn’t do things to the 70th percentile,” Few said of Bell and Pangos’ final team, “we did them to the 99th percentile or 95th percentile. Whether blocking out or taking care of the basketball or executing or communicating what we were doing on defense. That’s as big a lesson as we need to learn right now. These things don’t magically happen. There’s a process to them. You’ve got to execute the process before winning happens.

“You’ve got to hit the Zag standard.”

And if it happens, those rites of autumn become the rites of spring.


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