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Sports >  Gonzaga basketball

Q&A with Dick Vitale: ‘I have them (Zags) as one of my Final Four teams’

Dick Vitale and Bob Wischusen call the Gonzaga vs. BYU game for ESPN on March 6 at the Orleans Arena in Las Vegas. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)
Dick Vitale and Bob Wischusen call the Gonzaga vs. BYU game for ESPN on March 6 at the Orleans Arena in Las Vegas. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)

The iconic voice. The notorious catchphrases. The unbridled enthusiasm. All three have been staples of a Dick Vitale broadcast since the popular ESPN announcer put on his first headset in 1979.

Over the years, Vitale’s vocal chords have provided the sound track for more than 1,000 basketball games. Fourteen years ago, he called a prep game in Cleveland, Ohio, featuring a certain high school phenom named LeBron James. Between 1979 and 2015, he lent his voice to every installment of the Duke-North Carolina rivalry aired by ESPN. Gamers would come to recognize his one-liners from the now-defunct but once-popular EA Sports NCAA College Basketball video games.

And these last three years, fans of the WCC – and especially those of Gonzaga – might feel more of a personal connection to “Dickie V.”

Vitale dipped his feet into the WCC pool three years ago, calling three of the six conference tournament semifinals – two of which involved the Zags – and all three title games, including GU’s 74-54 thumping of BYU last week in Las Vegas.

Earlier this week, betweeen his pre-tournament ESPN spots and radio interviews, “Dickie V” took time to chat with The Spokesman-Review. He recalls his favorite moments from the last three WCC Tournaments, gives his thoughts on the NCAA Tournament field – including a certain WCC omission – and evaluates the 2017-18 Zags.

In short, “They’re awesome baby!”

Spokesman-Review: You covered Gonzaga last week at the WCC Tournament in Las Vegas. What are your general thoughts on the 2017-18 Bulldogs?

Dick Vitale: Well, very impressed. So much so, I have them as one of my Final Four teams. I really like their winner’s mentality. I think they’ve had so much winning and success that breeds success. I think (Josh) Perkins and certainly (Silas) Melson in the backcourt have lots of experience. (Zach) Norvell has starrability, it’ll be interesting to see how he plays under the bright lights for the first time. And then (Killian) Tillie – I caught Tillie on just a special, special weekend. I mean he was incredible, just had a week down there. Monday and Tuesday with 11 straight 3’s, so he’s a threat from there. Then the Williams kid, Johnathan, gives them a great rebounder. Power guy, physical in the inside. They’ve got a complete package there. They’ve got guard play, they’ve got inside play, they’re well-coached and I think that they can create some havoc.

S-R: Last year’s team set the bar pretty high for every GU team moving forward. How does this team compare and contrast?

DV: Just separate clubs. Last year’s club, with veterans (Przemek) Karnowski in the middle with great size, Zach Collins was a terrific talent and just kept getting better and better. Then you’ve got the Player of the Year in Nigel Williams-Goss. They lack that, as Mark (Few) would always say, the alpha dog. They lack that. Right now they need that guy to step up as a leader. They’re all waiting for the next guy and that team last year was very unique and very special. I think it’s unfair to these kids to be compared to them. But it’s such an unpredictable year that the year’s been really one of unpredictability except for maybe Virginia and Villanova, and everyone else is kind of in the air. So I don’t think there’s any reason not to believe they can beat most people. They’re in my Final Four … Virginia, Gonzaga, Villanova and Michigan State.

S-R: Was it a surprise to see the Zags make the jump they did last year?

DV: No, it didn’t surprise me at all. I liked that team the first time I laid eyes on them. I thought they were special. That was a special group. That might have been the greatest team he’s ever had. It had size, it had size that was talented size and it had depth and it had the complete package. I was a big fan, I thought Nigel was a terrific college player.

S-R: Do you have an indelible or favorite moment from watching GU at the WCC Tournament?

DV: Yeah, Tillie going wild with 11 (3-pointers) in a row. That’s unheard of. You can put a lot of guys out there in the NBA to shoot 3’s with nobody on them and they’re not going to make 11 in a row. That was a magical moment to see that kid shoot that ball like he did. Then watching Zach Collins in front of me, I was just in awe of his footwork, his talent, his skills for a big player. Just felt that it was just a matter of time of getting stronger. He’s going to be a very good NBA player. He’s already getting playing time and he’s in the rotation. He’s going to be I think a heckuva NBA player as he gets stronger and gets physical a little bit more. I think he’s got a great upside. To watch that in front of me, it was special too.

S-R: And how about last year’s WCC Tournament … any particular moment that sticks out?

DV: I tell you, I can’t remember what I did yesterday, man. That was last year. Just watching that whole team blend right in front of me. Just seeing their toughness. What I love about them is they have that winner’s – you can’t put a definition on it – certain people have that winner’s mentality. And they got that. And when those kids put the uniform on, they know Gonzaga’s jersey stands for success and greatness and they represent it with great passion and pride.

S-R: What about Mark Few? Is there any sense he’s still underappreciated on a national level despite their success last season?

DV: Not really by his peers and by people in the basketball know – media people. Maybe by fans who don’t give him enough – same with John Beilein – don’t give him enough PR or get enough popularity with them. But anybody in basketball knows that he’s quality – you’re going to play them, they’re going to be prepared.

S-R: The omission of Saint Mary’s from the NCAA Tournament field obviously turned a number of heads. Did the Gaels deserve a bid?

DV: Well, not really surprised. You could feel the trend was going that way if you looked at the bracketology. Was I disappointed? Yes, very disappointed. I think when you look at the system that exists, it favors the elite conferences inside and out. It favors them in every way possible. They get so many opportunities and I think what’s happened in many cases, the tournament gets filled with lots of mediocrity when I think you should reward greatness for the year. You subject yourself to playing in a conference like that, if you can’t go .500 you shouldn’t be part of (the NCAA tournament). That’s my feeling. And it doesn’t make you right or wrong, I just feel teams like Middle Tennessee and certainly Saint Mary’s don’t get the opportunities the others do. The one thing they’ve got to do is they’ve got to definitely try to get a better pre-conference schedule. But I just think when you look at the opportunities with this Quadrant 1 that the elite conferences get is amazing. They get chance after chance after chance to get those kind of wins. These kids go out, you have a great year and you slip one time, bam you’re not part of it. I think the beauty of what makes March Madness is having those Davids against the Goliaths.

S-R: You saw Saint Mary’s last week and then went to cover the SEC Tournament – the SEC being an eight-bid league – a few days later … Do you feel Saint Mary’s would be competitive with many of the teams that qualified?

DV: On a given day, they could play with anybody. If you can go to Gonzaga, and beat them at Gonzaga, you can play with anyone on a given day. Again, I just think 28-5, coming out of a conference that’s had success at tournament time with Gonzaga, I thought they warranted a bid.

S-R: Gonzaga has been in conversations with the Mountain West regarding realignment. Is that something you believe GU should pursue?

DV: Well, I think those discussions are based on the fact that, first of all they’ve got a great thing going there, they’re such a dominant club. Part of it is they can schedule people, people want to play them, it’s not a major problem or dilemma for major schools. It’s almost a great honor to beat them. I don’t think that’ll be a problem getting teams to play them, but I think that the game now is about dollars. The other schools have to start to invest a little more like they do. I’ve talked to Mark about it and they take pride in investing in facilities and chartering and run everything like the majors run their program. Then you’ve got to come and split the money equally with everybody and that really is something that disturbs them dearly.

S-R: Who would have more to gain from that partnership: Gonzaga or the MWC?

DV: Oh I think Mountain West gains a great deal if they go to that conference. I mean they’re bringing in a high-profile basketball program to their league. But I don’t think it’s going to jump out as easy as people think. I don’t think it’s going to be that quick. I think they’re going to sit down and some reality sets in with the WCC and doing something out there and getting the other teams to invest a little bit more in their programs. I think everything will be solved.

S-R: Given their seeding and positioning, is the path for the Zags easier this year than it was last year?

DV: It’s never easy. All these teams are in a situation where they can compete in the second round. You have quality play right away, there’s so much parity. But do they have a chance? Yeah, they have a chance to be successful. They also have a chance, if they have a bad night, they can be beat quickly and not only that, but everyone else.

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