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John Blanchette: Zach Norvell Jr.’s transformation into complete player has been key to Gonzaga’s success

UPDATED: Wed., March 27, 2019, 9:52 p.m.

ANAHEIM, Calif. – As a freshman experiencing his first NCAA Tournament game, Zach Norvell Jr. was accorded an honor that really isn’t an honor but still kind of is.

A trip to the postgame interview room and a seat at a microphone.

It’s not a trophy that’ll still be collecting dust in your den when you’re 50, or even a few seconds on CBS with Tracy Wolfson. But it means you had an impact on a game and people want to hear about it.

It also means you might have to explain the palm-to-forehead moments as well as the heroics, as Norvell did after Gonzaga’s opening-round escape last year over UNC Greensboro.

“I don’t know how many shots I missed tonight,” said Norvell – who, as it happened, missed six 3-pointers in row.

“A lot,” said coach Mark Few, with a stand-up’s timing.

Shooters, they say, have to have short memories. Coaches never do.

But Norvell’s memory of that 2018 NCAA Tournament is neither short nor hazy.

He remembers well the 3-pointer with 21.3 seconds left – after all those misses – that finally put down Greensboro, or did after a couple of more late saves. He remembers, too, the 28-point, 12-rebound monster he threw at Ohio State that sent the Zags to another Sweet 16.

And, yes, he remembers the 4-of-16 struggle and the loss to Florida State that ended Gonzaga’s season, made even more vivid by the fact that the Seminoles and Zags are being thrown together again on Thursday in the same round – and nearly the same town.

Where there is the sense that perhaps Norvell holds the key to Gonzaga’s life span in the 2019 tournament.

That comes with a lot of caveats, of course – Josh Perkins’ play at the point sets a tone, and Brandon Clarke, Rui Hachimura and Killian Tillie must be stout with FSU’s tall, stretchy and deep front line. But as the games get bigger and the stakes grow, it becomes clear how much the Zags need Norvell to get his fill.

He has not had to be Big Shot Snacks in quite the same way he was a year ago, when he performed one-stroke heart surgery on BYU, San Diego and Greensboro. The games, mostly, haven’t been that close, and the swings between his empty first halves and sensational second halves not nearly as pronounced.

Norvell has also become a more complete player – an underrated playmaker and passer with a point guard’s assist-to-turnover ratio and, especially in this tournament, a willing and capable defender.

“It’s nice to know that you’re not a one-trick pony,” he said, “and that you can take it out of everybody’s minds that you’re just a shooter.”

Except if it’s a choice between a stop and a shot …

“Anytime you can make a basket to get your team over the hump,” he smiled, “it’s pretty cool.”

And welcome.

“We need his gunslinger mentality,” assistant coach Brian Michaelson said, “and the ability to make big shots.”

But this remains the finest of lines. Norvell has come up big in some of GU’s signature moments this season – Duke, Creighton, the home finale against BYU, even the loss to North Carolina. He was also 6 of 25 in three cracks at Saint Mary’s, and his choices in the West Coast Conference Tournament loss often seemed less about confidence and more about angst.

“It’s about context,” assistant coach Donny Daniels said. “He has to have a governor, because even if he misses a few, you just don’t yank him. We rely on those shots, and we can’t have him be afraid. But if he takes six 3s in a game, we need four of them to be really good. We can’t have him take nine and have four be really bad.”

And it can’t, Daniels insisted, be about the 3 and nothing but the 3.

“His second shot of the game last year against Florida State, he drove it and gave a shot fake – and they actually jumped over his head and got a foul,” Daniels recalled. “And he never did that again.

“He needs to get to the foul line. Sometimes that’s a way to get yourself going when the shot isn’t falling, but in those games when you’re 4 for 17, how do you get the rest? You get to the foul line. I don’t think he’s completely comfortable with that yet.”

It’s difficult to think of Norvell being uncomfortable in any fashion. His game has been big-city since he arrived at GU from Chicago.

“He’s like a Kyle Wiltjer,” Michaelson said. “He thinks every shot is going in, and all teams need a guy like that. But you try to help him: We believe in it, you believe in it, but make sure they’re the right shots.”

Chances are, then, your memory won’t have to be as short.

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