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Dickau helps Zags make their point

The number he wears is a backward tribute to the number he can’t have.

But however you arrange the 1 and the 2 on his jersey and however many comparisons his game invites, Dan Dickau’s impact on the saga of Gonzaga University basketball is unique. It’s also the best evidence yet that the Bulldogs aren’t merely riding the momentum from The Run and The Sequel, but have discovered a whole new gear entirely.

In the 20-plus years now that the Zags have been a program consistently worthy of regard - whether Vitale Nation regarded them or not - it’s been a given that they don’t go anywhere without a point guard.

John Stockton went on to places without them, of course, but before and after him the Bulldogs thrived with various other tough guys and natural-born points - Don Baldwin, Doug Spradley (who had the responsibilities, if not the title), Geoff Goss, Kyle Dixon, Quentin Hall.

And, most recently, Matt Santangelo, whose particular art was winning.

He started more games, played more minutes and won more often and more notoriously than any other player in Bulldogs basketball history. By those measures alone, he probably should have been considered the most irreplaceable.

But replaced he has been - even superseded.

Comparisons may be irrelevant, but they are also unavoidable - and they’ve been made so because Dan Dickau has just been so damned good. “I don’t like to compare - teams or players,” said Bulldogs coach Mark Few, “but Dan’s exactly what you want at that point guard spot. You couldn’t have a better model.”

That said, some of Dickau’s legacy will be tied to what is accomplished now that he’s maneuvered the Zags back to familiar ground - the NCAA tournament and a first-round date Friday against Virginia here in The Pyramid.

There are some obvious differences in circumstance. The Bulldogs have, for the first time, been banished outside their region - far away from all but their most well-heeled fans - for reasons known only to the inscrutable bracketeers. They’ve been seeded lower - matched against a team which has managed to beat both Duke and North Carolina this season, led by a coach who cannot be accused of either mailing it in or fraud.

In other words, there’s another brick or two in the wall.

What hasn’t changed is that the Zags’ chances are married to the play of their point guard - maybe more so than ever.

Back when he was still trying to clear the runway for an at-large invitation if the Zags needed it - waging war against the evil RPI - Few took pains to point out that Gonzaga was really two teams: one with Dickau and one without.

The with-Dickaus are now 19-2, one of those losses against Arizona when Dickau left with a broken finger and Casey Calvary fouled out down the stretch of a two-point game. The withouts went 5-4, the losses coming by an average of 13 points a game.

“It was a hard stretch for the team and for me,” Dickau said, “but for the long run, it really helped us. It gave other guys an opportunity to gain exposure. Blake Stepp got a lot of time at the point, and Kyle (Bankhead) and Germayne (Forbes) got to play.

“It was definitely tough, watching Florida’s pressure and knowing if I’m out there, maybe we could have controlled the tempo a little more. Maybe if we’d have kept it closer down the stretch, we’d have had a chance. And New Mexico - I was hoping to be back in time for that and we lose by one at the buzzer.”

Even though GU’s other two non-conference road losses, at Green Bay and Boise State, found the Zags “in a funk,” as Dickau put it, “maybe one person on a roll can turn that around.”

Santangelo had the occasional sub-par outing over the past couple of seasons, and the Zags survived many of those. But whatever his statistics, the prevailing mood - as expressed by teammate Axel Dench - was that “we know something’s going to go right when the ball is in his hands.”

They still know it with Dickau, if not more so.

Not that we’re sure what happens when Dickau hits a rough patch - he’s really only had one bad game all year, at home in a win over Santa Clara. But we do know what happens when he’s not there.

“We knew he’d be good,” Few said, recalling his impressions from Dickau’s redshirt year after his transfer from the University of Washington, “but I don’t think any of us thought he’d be this good.”

After his two years at UW, who did?

Continually probed for the dirt on his transfer, Dickau steadfastly refuses to dish any. It was, he insists, all about “fit.” At Gonzaga, he has found a closeness, an attention to detail and fundamentals, an avenue for excellence and an element of freedom that were either elusive or nonexistent at Washington.

It can be measured in numbers. In the last 12 games, Dickau is averaging 21.3 points on 53.6 percent shooting - 51.9 from 3-point range.

“He scores, which is important for the point guard in our system,” Few said. “We like to spread you out and shoot the 3, and if you can put five guys out there that can shoot it rather than four or three, it makes our system that much tougher to guard.

“I believe in giving guards a lot of freedom and hope they can create scoring opportunities. He’s certainly done that.”

And cashed in on those opportunities. Between his own baskets and those he’s assisted on, Dickau’s accounting for 33.1 points per game - a figure that approaches Stockton’s senior-year mark of 35.2.

Of all the point guards who have played at GU as Stockton forged his legend in the NBA, Dickau’s style approximates the unflappable Stockton’s the closest - not so remarkable, given that Stockton is Dickau’s favorite player and continues to work out with the Zags each fall before the pro season begins.

“The first time I met him, I walked into the gym here and introduced myself, `I’m Dan Dickau,”’ said the junior from Vancouver, Wash. “He looked me dead in the eye and said, `I’m John Stockton’ - like he had to tell me that.

“He’s been real approachable and helpful. I’ll sit down with him and ask different things, pick his brain about basketball. He’s just so accessible to the college player.”

Naturally, Dickau would prefer to wear the No. 12 he had in high school and at UW. But no one at GU has since Stockton.

“I didn’t even think about asking for it,” said Dickau, who reversed the digits to 21 instead.

As much as everyone wants to compare Dickau to GU’s previous points, the context of the UW transfer and his subsequent reclamation is more reminiscent of the Jeff Brown situation a decade ago. That, inarguably, was a turning point in the program: the Zags have averaged 22 victories a year since.

Now, in the wake of the two best teams in school history, Gonzaga has made it a threesome - with an immediate upgrade, if you will, at the one position where it seemed unlikely that could be done.

That sort of thing only happens at schools where the extraordinary is routine - like, say, back-to-back appearances in the Sweet 16.

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