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Redshirting made Gonzaga’s Zach Norvell more hungry to help Bulldogs to another NCAA Tournament run

Gonzaga redshirt freshman Zach Norvell Jr. warms up during a practice session for their NCAA semifinal game last year. Norvell says his experience as a redshirt helped him grow as a player and improve his game heading into this season. (Mark Humphrey / AP)
Gonzaga redshirt freshman Zach Norvell Jr. warms up during a practice session for their NCAA semifinal game last year. Norvell says his experience as a redshirt helped him grow as a player and improve his game heading into this season. (Mark Humphrey / AP)

In Gonzaga’s inaugural run to the Final Four last season, Zach Norvell Jr. was forced to just watch.

He was chained to the bench with a redshirt, a decision by the team that cost him the chance to play in Gonzaga’s most successful season in program history. But throughout that season Norvell found the bright side of watching the success unfold from the bench, saying he was happy to watch and learn from some of Gonzaga’s best.

On Friday, Norvell recalled his redshirt year and what it did to improve his game this season.

“Just having guys like Josh (Perkins), to see how the guys approached every day, every practice, stuff like that. All that stuff you can learn,” Norvell said. “They’re all winners, so the attitude and mentality that they had going into every practice was big for me.”

Gonzaga coach Mark Few said Norvell’s knee was causing him a few problems in the summer before last season, but he ultimately decided to keep Norvell off of the active roster last year because he wouldn’t be getting much playing time over last season’s guards – Perkins, Silas Melson, and transfers Jordan Mathews and Nigel Williams-Goss, who was coming off a redshirt season after transferring from Washington.

Few said redshirting players are case-by-case decisions, and redshirting Norvell his freshman year when the Zags were stacked with guards that had much more experience than he did was “the right thing to do.”

“It’s strictly up to the individual,” Few said. “… I think (a redshirt season) gives those guys just a great opportunity to assimilate all that stuff as well as grow the basketball side of them. We’ve been lucky enough and fortunate enough to do that with a portion of our guys.”

Norvell’s playing time and starting role were questionable at the start of this season. Freshman Corey Kispert started the first seven games instead of Norvell, and Norvell took over only when Kispert was forced to the sidelines for two games in November with an ankle injury.

Since then, Norvell has stepped out of the shadows and become one of Few’s clutch players. He got a taste for the national spotlight in his first NCAA Tournament game on Thursday when he hit a go-ahead 3-pointer in the final minute of Gonzaga’s 68-64 win over UNC Greensboro.

Norvell is one of eight former redshirts on the team this season, but not all were decisions that can be attributed to Gonzaga.

Redshirt sophomore Alex Martin was redshirted at Belmont in the 2015-2016 season. Transfer rules forced Williams and Jeremy Jones to sit out in the same season after they transferred to Gonzaga. Williams came to GU after two seasons at Missouri and Jones transferred after a season at Rice.

Brian Pete, a manager-turned-player, also earned the redshirt label this season. He was added to the roster to fill some holes after the team temporarily lost a couple of players to injuries.

Few’s hands were also tied with Perkins and Jacob Larsen, who were both redshirted because of injuries. Perkins was out with a broken jaw and Larsen sat with a knee injury.

Norvell and reserve guard Jack Beach are the only two on the roster who were redshirted by choice of the team.

Keeping players motivated to return after redshirt seasons is not an easy endeavor. Few attributed the culture around the team that has kept players coming back after seasons on the bench.

He pointed to the integrity of the program, the success of the team and the involvement of former players that have made it easier for guys like Norvell to trust the process and to return for the chance to not only play more, but be part of a band of Zags that have stayed close to the team.

“We’ve been able, because of the players that came before them, to create a unique team-first, winning culture that involves cohesiveness of players that really care about each other,” he said on Friday. “We have a culture that we’re very proud of. It’s a culture of winning. It’s a culture of handling things the right way.”

Former Zags like Matt Santangelo, John Stockton, Dan Dickau and Cory Violette have found a home in Spokane and make a point to stay involved in the program. Others like Robert Sacre don’t live near Gonzaga anymore, but still make an effort to visit and play a few games of pickup with the current Zags.

Their visits give the newbies and redshirts fighting for minutes a taste of that winning culture. Kispert said he got a feel for the culture before he started playing at Gonzaga.

“I remember one of the very first games in pickup I played on campus, Rob Sacre was screaming at me,” he said. “After the game he’ll tell you a joke and give you a pat on the back.

“Being a scared freshman, my first few days in the summer really helped me feel at home, and to have all those guys come back gives me a good feeling to know that this is where I need to be.”

In Norvell’s case, the former Zags and the “culture of winning” gave him enough reasons to trust Few and return to The Kennel this season.

“They’ve been through the program. They’ve been through the ups and downs,” he added. “Talking to them about the transition from your freshman (season) to graduating was really big for me. We came here to develop as … player(s).”

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