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Gonzaga’s bench players put in the work, wait for their opportunity

GLENDALE, Ariz. – Immediately after each game, Gonzaga players shake hands with the other team then head to the locker room.

Gonzaga coach Mark Few does his usual handstand in celebration of another GU win. The Zags cheer and clap and congratulate each other.

Then the media rushes inside. Reporters and photographers immediately flock to Gonzaga’s star players. They crowd the big fellows, the Zags who saw the court for 30 minutes, and the player who had the highest amount of points on the scoreboard that night.

And while the same players each week answer questions for the microphones in front of their faces, their teammates in the distance sit back and watch.

Those Zags are completely absorbed in their phones, not amused by the lights and cameras that have no interest in them. Some have already grabbed some dinner and are sitting back in their locker room cubbies eating. Others have claimed a spot on the floor, thrown on some headphones and are taking a couple minutes to just rest.

They’re the ones who were just on the court for the last minute of the game since Gonzaga was already up by 20 points. They’re the ones who caused a few fans to lean over and ask their friends, “What’s his name again?”

Gonzaga’s players on the bench have certainly followed the journey to the Final Four from a somewhat different point of perspective than that of players such as Nigel Williams-Goss, Jordan Mathews or Przemek Karnowski.

For some of them, this year’s march to the national championship was a chance to watch, learn and improve.

Throughout the entire month of March, redshirt sophomore Jeremy Jones has been taking mental notes on the sidelines. He and some of his other teammates, like Jack Beach, Rui Hachimura and Zach Norvell, have a few more years left in a Zags uniform. They know that watching the older guys on the court will only make them better once they take over the leading roles in the next few seasons.

“It’s a great experience and even though you don’t get to play, you’re still soaking it in,” Jones said. “We’re still watching and learning a lot and maybe, maybe we will be on the stage next year and the year after that.”

For a few others who are near the end of their collegiate career, such as redshirt senior Rem Bakamus and redshirt junior Dustin Triano, the road to the final has offered the chance to practice on the biggest stage in college basketball as a member of Gonzaga’s “red squad.”

Just like they did all year inside the McCarthey Athletic Center, the red squad put the pressure on the GU’s top players in practice this week. They took instruction from Few and practiced the variety of plays planned for Saturday’s semifinal against South Carolina.

“Even though we probably won’t get out on the court, we still have to be ready. We still have to know the plays,” Jones said. “In our mind, we’re ready to go in if they call on us.”

Which is exactly what Hachimura was called to do last week in GU’s Elite Eight win over West Virginia. In the first half of that game, Hachimura checked in twice for a couple minutes after Karnowski and Zach Collins fell into early foul trouble.

The red squad will be ready and well prepared if Few needs them on Saturday. Otherwise, Jones and Bakamus, Ryan Edwards, Hachimura and Beach, Bryan Alberts and Triano will all be content with just pulling up a courtside seat to watch the madness and enjoying the opportunity to be on the Final Four floor.

“You’ve got some guys who are enjoying it and soaking it all in and then you have other guys here who are observing and maybe learning … to get experience for later in their careers,” assistant coach Tommy Lloyd said.

Either way, Lloyd said he and the other coaches have been repeating the same piece of advice this week to all of the players on the bench.

“We keep telling them, ‘Just enjoy the experience,’ ” Lloyd said.

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