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Blanchette: Marquise back on the marquee

Students are not even close to being back yet – a quirk of the calendar has second semester at Gonzaga starting in March this year – so it doesn’t seem as if the West Coast Conference basketball season has even made the turn at the clubhouse.

Still, three conference games are in the books for the Bulldogs and the point spreads so far: 39, 28, 22.

At least the opposition is getting closer. But this seems awfully, well, eight years ago, doesn’t it?

Yes, the Zags have yet to play recent WCC barometer Saint Mary’s – that’s dead ahead on Thursday – nor the new bogeyman, Brigham Young. But this was the year that the league’s middlings were supposed to muscle up and contend, and even the bottom feeders were purported to have some ornery in them because, we were told, Everybody Has Everybody Back.

Maybe it’ll still turn out that way, but the early returns are hardly encouraging for the New WCC Order.

That included an 82-60 drubbing the Zags administered on Saturday night to Santa Clara, last year’s winners of something called the Tournament, which is sort of the basketball version of the Beef O’Brady Bowl but tougher, seeing as you have to win five times instead of just once. The Broncos are part of that WCC middle class thought to have upward mobility, though they lost standout forward Marc Trasolini to a knee injury on a September tour. Nonetheless, they had notable wins over New Mexico and Villanova at Thanksgiving and all seemed well until they were undressed by nearly 40 points at Washington State. Which, as we know now, probably wasn’t a good sign.

The Broncos were a handful for a half Saturday. Then Gonzaga’s ever-improving defense took hold – Santa Clara missed 10 straight shots – and the Zags finally found some rhythm on offense. Well, maybe not just rhythm. They scored 18 straight points, so it was rhythm, harmony, melody, structure, form and texture.

There was another, more subtle development about that time: Marquise Carter.

“I thought Marquise finally got back and we need him,” coach Mark Few said. “He’s got an exceptional feel for the game and if we can get him in those positions – we needed that tonight against switching defenses. We need a guy who can pinpoint through that; he’s that guy.”

Before-the-title billing went to several teammates this night: Sam Dower for being mostly unstoppable down low, Gary Bell for his lockdown defense on noted Zags thorn Kevin Foster, Kevin Pangos for the back-to-back 3-pointers (after an unlikely assist) that launched that second-half run. If Carter’s contributions were more modest, they were significant and occasionally spectacular – and notable because there haven’t been all that many lately.

And, yes, we’ve been down this road before.

When he arrived at GU last year from Three Rivers Community College, Carter was expected to be instant relief in a backcourt short on “complete” guards. Instead, he struggled mightily, to the point where he was summoned to play just 74 minutes the entire month of January. Then suddenly, his game came on – and so did the Zags. He was the one player Few couldn’t take off the floor, it seemed, and went on to become MVP of the WCC tournament.

In some respects, this season has been a mirror of that. Carter’s last start was at Illinois a month ago. He played just 18 minutes in a three-game stretch against Arizona, Butler and Air Force. He’s shooting a dismal 30 percent on the season, and averaging barely four points a game.

The upshot hasn’t been as damning. Pangos and Bell, incredibly mature for freshmen, have taken command. But it’s been difficult to see Carter struggle with his shot and his confidence, knowing what he meant to 2011’s turnaround.

“At first it was me pressing too much,” offered Carter. “Now I’m taking every opportunity I can to get in the gym, outside of practice, and work at different things, trying to get better. I did that the last couple of days, just to get my hands on the ball and get some touches and I felt really good today.”

His first touch Saturday, in fact, turned into a trademark from the 2011 season: a strong move to the basket and a runner in the key. That shot hasn’t fallen at all for him this year; this time it was the bucket that started the Zags inching their way back from a 16-8 deficit.

“Hitting that felt really good,” he said. “I haven’t done that much, and it felt like the game came really easy tonight.”

More impressive was his passing, as it has been in all of GU’s conference games so far. The highlight was a cut bounce pass on a high-speed break to Bell for a layup right after Pangos’ 3s broke things open.

“He’s great at seeing through his guy and into the interior of the defense,” Few said. “We’re still trying to teach those young guys some of that aspect – he and David (Stockton) are the best we’ve got at that. And when you get them out there with Gary and Kevin, that provides a lot of space, because (teams) have to chase those guys out to deep corners and out to 25 feet. So those passing lanes are a lot more open than what we’ve been dealing with in the past.”

It’s a pleasant circumstance Few must finesse this season – divvying up minutes for one of his deepest teams. It was a challenge last year, too, but in a substantially different way, and if the Zags don’t need Carter to re-emerge as an MVP, his situation is not without intrigue.

For if he can get back to that level…

“If I can get back to that,” he said, picking up the thought, “we’ll be an even better team that we are now – and right now we’re really good.”

Eight straight wins suggest as much. But bigger tests await.

John Blanchette can be reached at