Gonzaga University coach Mark Few has never been one to hurriedly or off-handedly dispose of a basketball season or basketball team.
He prefers, instead, to take some time – weeks, in many cases – to savor each group and individual accomplishment before reluctantly turning that final page and saying goodbye to the seniors who played such keys roles in helping write another Bulldogs success story.
That’s why Few once again left the stargazing to his players following last week’s 70-57 loss to Indiana in the opening round of the NCAA tournament in Sacramento, Calif., opting to focus his comments on Sean Mallon and Derek Raivio, who had just played their final game in a GU uniform after leading the Zags to a ninth consecutive berth in the NCAAs.
“They’ve had incredible careers here,” he said of his two seniors. “I’m really proud of them to get us back into the NCAA tournament and make it nine straight. They did a great job of not letting (the streak) end on their watch.”
Raivio, a 6-foot-3 guard and co-player of the year in the West Coast Conference, averaged a team-high 18 points per game as the Bulldogs finished 23-11 overall and won both the WCC regular-season and tournament titles. He also led the nation in free-throw percentage (96.1) by making 148 of his 154 attempts from the foul line and finished his career as the most accurate free-throw shooter (93.7 percent) in the history of the NCAA, missing only 33 of the 522 foul shots he tried in his four years at GU.
“How about leading the NCAA (in free-throw percentage) back to when they were shooting at peach baskets?” Few asked of Raivio. “He’s the best free-throw shooter of all time.
“Now I don’t have to listen to (director of basketball operations Jerry) Krause talk about all those old guys and how they used to shoot it. Raivio shoots it better than all of them.”
Mallon, a 6-9 forward, averaged eight points and 4.2 rebounds during his final season and earned the respect of Few and his teammates with his team-first approach to everything he did.
“Sean Mallon, I’ll always remember him as being a winner,” Few said. “He just wins. Whether he has to make a free throw, get a rebound or take a charge, he does whatever it takes.”
Raivio and Mallon will be missed next season. But as Mallon stated, the future of GU basketball remains rosy.
“This program is not going to go away,” Mallon said. “People thought it was dead this year, but we proved all of them wrong. They’ve got a solid core of guys coming back next year and some good new guys coming in, so they’re going to be real good again next year.
“And for years to come after than, I’m sure.”
There is some uncertainty about next season, however, based primarily on what the future might hold for Josh Heytvelt and Theo Davis, the two young players who were suspended indefinitely late in the season after being arrested and charged with drug possession.
Both, according to Few, will have to meet strict criteria set down by the courts, university and team, in order to be reinstated. But he added he remains confident both will be able to do so and expects to have them both back by the time practice for the 2007-08 season starts next fall.
If so, Heytvelt, a 6-11 sophomore who was leading the team in rebounding (7.7 rpg) and averaging 15.5 points, and Davis, a 6-9 freshman who redshirted this season because of a shoulder injury, will join a large contingent of returning players with considerable starting experience.
Sophomore point guard Jeremy Pargo was the only player other than Raivio to start every game this year and should be one of the premier players in the WCC next season. Freshman guard Matt Bouldin will also return following a solid rookie season that saw him finish third on the team, behind Raivio and Pargo, in minutes played.
Junior forward David Pendergraft and sophomore guard Micah Downs, whose contributions skyrocketed following the loss of Heytvelt, will return, along with junior forward Abdullahi Kuso and, presumably, junior guard Pierre Marie Altidor-Cespedes, sophomore forward David Burgess and freshman center Will Foster.
Sophomore forward Larry Gurganious is eligible to return next winter, should he recover from the lower-back problems that sidelined him this year.
The catch is that Few has signed four recruits – Austin Daye, Steven Gray, Robert Sacre and Ira Brown – to letters of intent next year, which means the Bulldogs will have to drop at least two potential returnees during the off-season to reach the NCAA scholarship limit of 13 next year.
Few refused to reveal who might be leaving, saying only that “things will sort themselves out like they always do.”
Foster and Burgess played sparingly throughout the season and Altidor-Cespedes saw his minutes dwindle significantly late in the year, even though Few was constantly looking for a scoring spark off the bench.
Those who do make it back next fall will welcome, perhaps, the best recruiting class in school history.
Daye, a 6-10 wing with guard-like skills, recently capped off his splendid prep career at Woodbridge High School in Irvine, Calif., by leading all of Orange County in scoring (30.9 ppg), rebounding (14.7 rpg) and blocks (6.6 bpg), while also averaging 3.5 assists per game.
Gray, a 6-4 guard, averaged 19.2 points, 8.5 rebounds, 5.2 assists and 2.1 steals in leading Bainbridge (Wash.) High to the title game of the State 3A tournament.
Sacre, a 7-0, 255-pound Canadian whom Few calls a “true man-child,” averaged 19.1 points, 11.8 rebounds and 3.5 blocks for Handsworth Secondary School in North Vancouver, British Columbia.
Brown, a 6-4, 235-pound forward and junior-to-be, averaged 16.1 points and 8.7 rebounds at Phoenix College.
“We’ve got a great young squad coming back,” said Pendergraft. “We’re only losing two guys, and we’ve got a great recruiting class with a lot of talent coming in.”
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