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Gonzaga Basketball
Sports >  Gonzaga basketball

Zags mix and match: Dreaming up the most unique Gonzaga lineups from the Mark Few era

By Justin Reed The Spokesman-Review

Imagine some of the best Gonzaga players of the last two decades in a lineup together.

From the best shooters to the top international players, the Bulldogs have had many star players under Mark Few.

The challenge here is to construct eight starting fives and create lineups of some of the most talented players who have donned a Bulldog uniform.

The categories are all-shooting, all-defense, all-assist, all-transfer, all-Washington, all-athlete, all-international and all-sixth man.

Now, it would be easy to put together teams of five to fit those categories, but to make it more difficult, let’s make sure none of the five players were ever on the roster together.

With 127 players having stepped inside the Kennel since 1999, the options should have been endless.

But this exercise proved almost futile with a third of Few’s players needing to be squeezed into eight lineups with no players appearing twice.

It eventually came together – almost perfectly – with a few tough choices needing to be made.

Some players may have fit better on one team or another, but that could have conflicted with somebody else with whom they had played .

All-shooting team

Starting with the shooters, the starting five consists of Blake Stepp, Matt Bouldin, Kevin Pangos, Jordan Mathews, and Zach Norvell Jr.

First up is Stepp, who came to GU in Few’s second season.

He battled knee trouble his entire career, but that didn’t stop him from finishing atop GU’s record book for made 3-pointers when he graduated.

A dangerous shooter, Stepp was a threat behind the arc and off the dribble.

He was probably the first player under Few who could create his own shot with ease.

Bouldin wasn’t a consistent threat from long range, but he finished his career with 1,683 points and 564 made field goals, sixth and seventh, respectively, all-time at graduation.

His mid-range ability was tough to defend, and his 52% shooting inside the arc was one of the top percentages for a guard.

Next, Pangos was an easy choice.

The Canadian drained 322 3-pointers in his Zag career, most all-time. Every season, he averaged better than two made 3’s a game.

Add on an 84% free throw percentage and Pangos finds his home on this team.

The next player on the list could have made it based on one shot alone.

Mathews hit one of the most important and memorable shots in Bulldog history when he knocked down a 3-pointer with under a minute left against West Virginia in the Sweet 16 in 2017.

“If you guys see me, I’m going to put it home,” Mathews said after that game. “They have faith in me and Nigel (Williams-Goss) found me and I knocked it down.”

He only played one year for the Zags, but his smooth stroke will always be a staple in the minds of GU fans.

Norvell Jr. came to Spokane the same year as Mathews, but he redshirted and never played with him.

The Chicago-native was a fearless shooter who once he got hot from the floor, there was no stopping him.

His talented shooting led to one of the more prolific seasons from 3 for any Bulldog. In the 2018-19 season, Norvell Jr. made 78 from deep, third all-time in one season.

All-defense team

Following up the shooters, here are the all-time defenders: Mike Nilson, Erroll Knight, Austin Daye, Przemek Karnowski and Geno Crandall.

Only Nilson (2000) and Knight (’05) earned the WCC defensive player of the year award.

Nilson was the original bulldog-like defender under Few.

“He is going to guard the best player and they’re not going to get a shot, that is how good Mike Nilson on at defense,” Fred Crowell, founder of NBC Basketball Camps said in a documentary done on Nilson.

He didn’t rack up steals or defensive rebounds, but he was tasked with the difficult assignment every game.

Knight transferred from Washington and instantly made his mark on the defensive end. Never a scoring machine, Knight was an athletic specimen.

He used that and an unrivaled intensity to frustrate opposing offenses.

Dan Dickau called him one of the best defenders in the history of the WCC.

Next up, Daye was a lanky forward who had next-level ability.

His unique size led him to the NBA after only two seasons and loads of blocked shots.

In his time at GU, Daye blocked 124 shots, third all-time when he left. His 70 blocks in his sophomore season was the best in school history before Brandon Clarke topped it in 2019.

Karnowski, the stereotypical lane-clogging big, forced offenses to the perimeter. Nobody wanted to face the bearded Pole in the paint.

He blocked shots (152, third all-time), grabbed rebounds (819, sixth all-time) and was just a beast to deal with.

His defensive effort helped the Bulldogs to their best defensive season in history – the 2017 national runners-up.

Finally, Crandall upped the Zags’ intensity on defense when he came to Spokane two years ago as a graduate transfer.

Kispert said he was a problem during practice, pointing out his quick hands.

If GU needed a stop, Crandall was expected to get it. He could have won WCC defensive player of the year had Brandon Clarke not had a block party the same season.

All-assist team

Matt Santangelo, Derek Raivio, David Stockton, Josh Perkins and Ryan Woolridge were not afraid to dish out a slick pass anywhere on the court.

The first four on the list all are top 10 in Bulldog history for assists.

The original guard in Few’s long tenure, Santangelo was the stereotypical point guard. He didn’t score a ton but he ran a beautiful offense.

Never averaging below four assists per game in his four season, Santangelo finished as the all-time leader in assists when he graduated with 668.

Raivio was a small guard for a top team like GU. He probably fit better on a different all-time team, but he finds himself on the all-assist team.

He was the director for a few dominating offenses in the early 2000’s, doing a solid job at finding Adam Morrison a time or two for easy shots.

Raivio averaged 4.6 assists per game in the 2004-05 season.

Could there be an all-assist team without a Stockton on it?

Not quite the passer his dad was, Stockton put together solid seasons as a backup guard before starting every game in the 2013-14 season.

He increased his assists output every year as he found more minutes on the floor. Stockton finished seventh all-time in assists when he left GU.

Next, Perkins had a pointed career for the Zags. An oft-discussed player, Perkins is unarguably one of the top players in GU history.

His 712 assists are the most all-time, easily clearing Santangelo’s mark.

In his senior year, he dished out 234 assists, most in a single season as well.

His 408 points and the points that came from assists in 2018-19 led to almost 1,000 total points for the Bulldogs.

Woolridge was part of the 2019-20 team whose season was canceled with the COVID-19 pandemic, but he made a strong impact in his only year in Spokane.

He ran a difficult Bulldog offense after transferring in, impressive enough alone.

His 2.03 assist-to-turnover ratio last season proved that Woolridge was a precise passer.

All-transfer team

The Bulldogs have tapped into the transfer market arguably better than most teams this century.

This transfer starting five features Dan Dickau, Kyle Wiltjer, Nigel Williams-Goss, Brandon Clarke, Andrew Nembhard.

In 2017, transfer players had made up nearly 25% of GU’s roster since 2000. That trend seemingly has continued.

GU has been considered one of the top transfer definitions because of how the program molds players both physically and mentally.

Dickau was Few’s first transfer after floundering at UW. His time at GU was a different story.

After averaging under five points a game his two seasons in Seattle, he exploded to 19 and 21 during his junior and senior seasons in Spokane.

He became a star overnight and went on to earn All-American honors and was drafted 28th overall in the 2002 NBA draft to the Atlanta Hawks.

Wiltjer was an interesting project for the Bulldogs.

A McDonald’s All-American in high school, Wiltjer was part of a new wave of big men who had buttery shots from anywhere on the court.

He was stuck behind now-NBA star Anthony Davis at Kentucky. He played only 11 minutes his freshman season, then was named Southeastern Conference’s sixth-man of the year.

But he broke out at GU, averaging almost 17 points his redshirt junior year and over 20 his senior year.

Strength and conditioning coach Travis Knight should be someone Bulldog fans should thank for his work with the redshirt transfers.

Almost every transfer who has sat out a year before playing has mentioned Knight as a reason to their improvement.

This is what Williams-Goss had to say about him in 2016: “I sat down with Trav, our strength coach, and he went through a whole plan. I think what stood out more than any other school was their plan for our redshirt year.”

Williams-Goss became one of the most loved Zags in his only season, leading the charge to the program’s first Final Four in school history.

His stats didn’t take a huge jump when he came to GU – he already was a star at UW – but his leadership and efficiency spiked and led him to the pros.

A freak athlete, Clarke took the Knight program to heart.

His single season at GU was one of the most impressive college basketball seasons in history in terms of efficiency. That has transferred very well to the NBA.

Clarke’s vertical was mind-boggling and made up for his smaller size.

His 117 blocks in the 2019 season is far and away tops in Bulldog history.

He shot almost 69% from the field, also the best mark for the Zags.

Finally, a guy who wasn’t expected to be on this list in early November, Nembhard was granted eligibility two days before the season tipped off.

Nembhard has been one of the most important players for the Zags this season, keeping the team organized and running an offense that he only had five COVID-19 months to master.

With the results of the season still to be determined, Nembhard has plenty of time to cement his legacy for the Zags.

All-Washington team

These are the guys who either call Washington their home state or who spent a majority of their life in the Evergreen State: Richie Frahm, Adam Morrison, Steven Gray, Gary Bell Jr. and Corey Kispert.

Similar to Santangelo, Frahm only had one season under Few.

From Battle Ground, Wash., Frahm and Santangelo formed an impressive backcourt in the 1999-00 season. He averaged almost 17 points a game and 2.5 assists.

Frahm helped start the streak of NCAA Tournament appearances for the Zags.

Next, the most obvious choice here, Morrison is from Spokane, where he was a star at Mead.

A natural-born scorer, Morrison was an absolute stud his junior year when he shared co-player of the year honors with Duke’s J.J. Redick.

Morrison finished his junior year averaging 28.1 points a game, tops in the country.

He was drafted third overall in the 2006 NBA Draft to the Charlotte Bobcats.

Gray was born in Irondale, but went to Bainbridge High School.

He was a big guard, standing at 6-foot-5 and had 205 pounds to throw around.

Gray did that well, not afraid of contact and still had the silky handles to run dominate the perimeter as well. He helped lead the Bulldogs to the Sweet 16 in 2009.

He finished in the top-10 in Zag history in steals, assists and 3-point field goals.

Bell Jr. came into the program with Pangos and the two ran the backcourt for four seasons, forming a prolific pair.

Born in Kent, Washington, the guard went to Kentridge High School where he was named Mr. Basketball – given to the best high school player each season. Four Bulldogs have won that award: Erroll Knight, David Pendergraft, Bell Jr. and Anton Watson.

Bell Jr. was second in wins in GU history when he graduated, providing strong shooting, impressive defense and quiet leadership.

Lastly, Kispert – one of four current Zags on these teams – has been groomed at GU.

From Edmonds, Washington, Kispert was the fifth-best player in the state’s recruiting class in 2017 out of King’s High School.

After coming off the bench a majority of his freshman season, Kispert was handed the keys to the starting lineup in 2018 and hasn’t looked back.

This year, he is a semifinalist for the Naismith Player of the Year award while averaging almost 20 points a game and making almost three 3-pointers a game.

He has improved his draft stock immensely this season, regularly featuring in the top-20 picks in most mock drafts.

All-athlete team

The Bulldogs have always had an athlete or two capable of a stunning dunk or with next-level quickness. This team comprises Casey Calvary, Jeremy Pargo, Elias Harris, Silas Melson, Jalen Suggs.

If a player breaks a backboard in his career because of a powerful dunk, he automatically makes this list. That is why Calvary is here.

His high-flying and no-nonsense dunks are a staple of classic GU highlights.

Next, Pargo was the first guard who consistently posterized opposing players. He became must-see TV with a springy vertical.

It was a spectacle every time he stepped onto the court.

Harris was another player who stood out every time he played.

Fully able to dunk over somebody, Harris impressed more with his ability to maneuver around defenders and make the difficult look easy.

He had the ability to score and defend all areas of the basketball court once he stepped on campus and that translated to an overseas professional career.

Maybe one of the more vertically impressive players was Melson who was well-known for his 40-inch-plus verticals.

Always a fun player during pregame warmups, Melson used his athleticism to dominate on the defensive end.

He finished his GU career with 143 wins, good for second in program history at his graduation.

Lastly, Suggs plays at a different speed than everyone else he has played against this season.

GU’s top-ranked prospect in program history, Suggs is a joy to watch on the basketball court.

He is fluid, as he glides down the court in and around every player.

He can do more at his size than any player the Zags have ever had.

All-international team

The Bulldogs have shined on the international recruiting trail thanks to assist coach Tommy Lloyd. He has been directly responsible for this lineup: Ronny Turiaf, Robert Sacre, Kelly Olynyk, Domantas Sabonis, Rui Hachimura.

Turiaf was the first big international get for the Zags.

From Fort-de-France, Martinique in France, Turiaf’s personality was as large as his size.

The 6-foot-10 forward was feared for his power and domination in the paint.

He holds the record for most free throws made in school history.

Drafted in the second round by the Los Angeles Lakers, Turiaf played his entire professional career after open heart surgery his rookie season.

Sacre was born in Baton Rouge, La, but moved to Canada – his mother’s nationality – at age seven.

Boasting a big smile, Sacre was a fixture down low for the Zags, starting every game but one after his freshman season.

He finished seventh in rebounds in GU history when he graduated.

Sacre, in 2012, was also drafted by the Lakers in the second round.

Olynyk was born in Toronto and has settled into a role in the NBA.

Before he was drafted, Olynyk was a mismatch at GU.

It took two years and a redshirt season for the Canadian to learn how to utilize his body, but once he did, he took off.

He averaged 18 points a game his junior year, using powerful drives to the basket to dominate opposing teams.

Sabonis was a well-known prospect in 2014 considering his dad Arvydas was a successful player for Portland Trail Blazers.

He was born in Portland, but is Lithuanian and spent his formative basketball years overseas.

Using fundamental footwork and strong basketball IQ, he left the Zags after only two years and has become an NBA All-Star.

Finally, Hachimura is the most international player the Zags have ever had.

He had minimal English when he left Toyama, Japan, but followed a special three-year plan at GU that turned him into a juicy NBA prospect.

All-sixth man team

Every team needs a sixth man. The Bulldogs have been lucky to have strong benches over the years. The sixth-man team consists of Kyle Bankhead, David Pendergraft, Mike Hart, Zach Collins and Joel Ayayi.

A Washington-native, Bankhead is one of the more underrated Zags. He did most of his damage doing things that didn’t show up on box score.

He was here during the first few years of Few’s tenure and singlehandedly wrote the sixth man playbook for GU.

Pendergraft, from Brewster, Wash., stood out for more ways than his red hair.

Never excelling on the stat sheet, “Pendo” averaged 20 minutes a game his final three seasons in a Zag uniform. Consistently around the ball and doing everything Few needed, Pendo was an important cog on popular Bulldog teams.

Next, Hart didn’t play a lot of minutes in his GU career, averaging around 10 his four years in Spokane.

But, he was the first to hit the floor for a ball and earned a scholarship after being a walk-on.

Hart truly showed heart every time he slipped on his uniform.

Previously the top-ranked recruit in Bulldog history, Collins didn’t start one game of the 37 the Zags played in their Final Four season.

But his combination of size, skill and attitude earned him a lottery pick in the NBA by Portland.

And finally, he may not be a sixth-man considering he has started all but two game the past two season for the Zags, but Ayayi plays like one.

He is the hustle guy, the rebounder, the scorer and the assist guy – he does it all.

Ayayi is the first Bulldog to record a triple-double, doing it earlier this season against the Portland Pilots.

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