SALT LAKE CITY – When Geno Crandall decided to spend his final college basketball season at Gonzaga, leaving the University of North Dakota to join the Bulldogs as a graduate transfer, it’s hard to imagine anyone was more elated about the idea of bringing another seasoned point guard to Spokane than head coach Mark Few.
A close second would’ve been Drick Bernstine.
Why? Well, the Zags had essentially built his fantasy backcourt.
“It was cool,” Bernstine said, “because basically my two favorite point guards I’ve ever played with are on the same team, now looking to win a national championship.”
Bernstine is an ex-Washington State forward who played in Pullman for one season as a grad transfer (2017-18) after stints at Denver University (2013-14) and North Dakota (2014-17).
And he’s the only person on the globe who might know the playing tendencies of Few’s point guards better than the coach himself.
Bernstine and Gonzaga’s starting point guard, Josh Perkins, formed a close friendship while both were growing up in the greater Denver area. They go back at least 10 years – “10, 13 maybe,” Bernstine estimated – and Bernstine remembers when the two were adversaries whose competitive genes often tangled when they were on the same court.
“We actually hated each other,” Bernstine claimed. “We were so competitive in basketball, we didn’t like each other.”
But they joined forces when Bernstine was a high school senior, both playing for the AAU Colorado Miners, and stayed close throughout college. As Perkins was steering Gonzaga to an appearance in the 2017 national title game, Bernstine was leading North Dakota to a Big Sky Conference championship and the program’s first NCAA berth.
When Bernstine and Perkins traded notes over the phone, Crandall’s name surfaced from time to time.
“I remember when I went to North Dakota – that would’ve been my sophomore year – I told Josh, I called him and I told him and my best friend, I said, ‘Josh, Geno is just like you, except he’s just a little skinner and ya’ll are a little different people,’ ” Bernstine said. “ ‘But ya’ll are just really similar.’ ”
“I’d be on the phone with Drick and I’d hear Geno in the background, so I’d talk smack to him,” Perkins said. “So I always had a little baby relationship with Geno, and then it just took off.”
Perkins came up in conversations between Bernstine and Crandall, too – usually because they were disputing which AAU team would win a head-to-head matchup: the Colorado Miners club Bernstine and Perkins played for, or Crandall’s Net Gains Sports, based in Minnesota.
That debate still hasn’t been settled, by the way.
“We’re for sure winning that,” Perkins said. “Ask Geno, he’ll probably say something differently, but with our basketball IQ and everything else I think we’ve got them. We look better than them, too, and that’s what really matters.”
“AAU teams grab guys from everywhere,” Crandall fired back, playfully. “I like to talk about my high school team. There was a stretch we won, like, six state tournaments in a row and I was part of three in a row. We would’ve smoked them. It wouldn’t have even been close.”
But that was a trivial argument in Gonzaga’s locker room at Vivint Smart Home Arena, one day before the top-seeded Zags (30-13) take on 16th-seeded Fairleigh Dickinson (21-13) in the first round of the NCAA Tournament.
Instead, Perkins and Crandall talked mostly about their partnership – which is still less than a year old – and how two point guards with similar playing styles have been able to coexist for a team that’s needed both at various points this season.
“We’ve got one of the more high-powered, complicated offenses, in a way,” Crandall said. “It is really simple, but there are a lot of decisions that you have to make, especially as a point guard, being a ball-handler. He helped me out a ton with that. He is full of confidence. I feed off of that.”
Gonzaga began pursuing Crandall early last summer as Perkins was recovering from shoulder surgery. Unsure of Perkins’ timeline, or if he’d return to the court as the same player, it seemed a safe bet to go after a transfer point guard who could start for the Bulldogs if necessary, or at least supplement their backcourt depth.
Crandall made 90 starts in three seasons at UND.
“We told him we felt we needed another ball handler with some experience,” GU assistant Tommy Lloyd said. “We’ve got some young kids that we didn’t know if they were ready. We thought we had a really good team, and you don’t want to leave your team one player short.”
Crandall’s initiation didn’t take long.
“You never get anybody that late,” Few said. “He came in October and from Day One, it was crazy, the first practice he jumped right in and fit in with us. I think he’s such a likable guy and such a good person, and such a team guy. Just a phenomenal communicator.”
Bernstine didn’t facilitate Crandall’s move to Spokane, per se, but give him the assist for forming an initial alliance between Gonzaga’s point guards.
Watching it manifest on the court has easily been the best part.
“It’s kind of cool, because it’s kind of one of those things where as soon as Josh comes out, Geno goes in, or Geno’s playing with Josh, so it’s all just a cool situation,” said Bernstine, who’s been to about a dozen games in person this season and often goes back and forth between his friends for player tickets. “Seeing them play together is crazy, honestly.”
It’s a union that’s worked wonders for the national-title-contending Zags.
“All the time, I’m aware of where No. 0 is,” Perkins said, sitting adjacent to Crandall on the podium Wednesday afternoon. “He is another guard out there who can handle the ball. Take me off the ball. Give me some open looks. And defensively, he is as solid as it gets. We play off each other, and I truly believe that. Our chemistry was there from the get-go, and it gets better every game.”
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