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Saturday, December 14, 2019  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Zags must rely on freshman guards

Freshman guards are not the third rail of college basketball. To hear tell, they might be even more lethal.

It does not take much to inflate common wisdom into that sort of hyperbole, but this might be the easiest topic in which to do so. College hoops, we know from our lessons, is a guard’s game. They must be playmakers, yes, but reliable, low-risk, seen-it-all, steadying – descriptives that are applied to first-year guards about as often as Jay Bilas acknow- ledges that someone else might have a better idea.

Live-wire freshmen are bound to deliver a jolt – either invigorating or debilitating – from night to night.

Which jolt on which night is the great intrigue of the Gonzaga Bulldogs season that opens Friday night against Eastern Washington, thanks to the most anticipated recruiting class in, well, at least a couple of years.

The graduations, defections and misjudgments of the past couple of seasons have left the Zags with a virtually unprecedented windfall of youth in the backcourt: three highly regarded freshmen (Gary Bell, Kyle Dranginis and Kevin Pangos), a sophomore with zero starts (but several finishes) to his name (David Stockton), and a second-year senior who went from being January’s afterthought to March’s hero (Marquise Carter).

Nor is there much of a grace period for breaking them in, as you know from all the hyperventilating over the Zags’ schedule.

Just how they’ll be deployed will unfold in time – amazingly, not all strategies are required to be divulged before tipoff – but it seems safe to imagine that Bell and Pangos at least will play a lot, often together, staring into the bared teeth of some nasty opposition and with the expectation they’ll do more than simply survive.

“We’re hoping to contribute every bit as much as people want or expect us to,” Pangos said. “We’re all competitive guys.”

That’s a pretty good, and underrated, place to start. Among the things suggested, correct or not, about some of the premature roster churn the Bulldogs have endured of late is a reluctance to compete.

Carter couldn’t be more impressed about that aspect of the newcomers – but it comes with a caveat.

“They’re taking it in pretty well,” he said, “but they haven’t hit any adversity yet, either. And I’ve been talking to them about that: Adversity is going to come. The way they deal with it is the going to say a lot about how their season – and ours – is going to end up.”

A heralded junior college transfer last season, Carter struggled from the onset not just to find a rhythm but a gear. It was February before he truly found himself, but when he did Gonzaga became a different team – and Carter wound up as MVP of the West Coast Conference tournament.

“I didn’t react to adversity very well,” he admitted, “and it messed me up for half of the year. So I’ve just been trying to tell them to learn from it and not let it bring them down.”

Actually, Bell has already experienced a little. In GU’s exhibition against Carroll College, he forced shots, missed them all and didn’t get much of anything done, possibly because he wanted it all now.

“The game is faster, but what you want to do is slow yourself down,” he said. “It’s an easier game when you get it to your pace. But hearing the crowd, your adrenaline just makes you want to play faster, and that’s something I’ve got to be better at.”

Carter insisted he will.

“Gary has a killer instinct,” he said. “He does not back down. And he’s a mature player. The way he’s bounced back in practice shows me that.”

The concern, naturally, is that it’s not just one freshman guard the Zags are trying to mix in, but multiples. Matt Bouldin and Steven Gray had veterans around them. When Derek Raivio took over the point in 2005, he was at least a sophomore with some big-game experience and three sure-thing scorers to throw it to. In 2001, Blake Stepp responded heroically as a true freshman point guard when Dan Dickau broke a finger as the Bulldogs beat up on Washington – but they went 4-4 afterward with nothing but underclassmen in the backcourt until Dickau returned.

But it’s becoming evident that more freshmen are better equipped to deal with the Division I rigors every year, having played better competition on the camp and AAU circuits and grown confident in their skills – and their approach.

“We’re not going to act like freshmen and make that an excuse,” Pangos maintained. “Yeah, there are going to be bad games, but just don’t get down on yourself. Those games happen whether you’re a freshman or a senior. As long as you keep doing what you can to help the team win, that’s all you can really ask for.”

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