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John Blanchette: As Gonzaga keeps winning, 5-star recruits are picking the Bulldogs over the blue bloods

UPDATED: Fri., March 26, 2021

By John Blanchette For The Spokesman-Review

INDIANAPOLIS – Nothing like a splash of grain alcohol on the old campfire.

The NCAA Tournament resumes with the Sweet 16 this weekend and the Gonzaga Bulldogs have a rendezvous with Creighton on Sunday, which naturally ranks as the single preoccupation of the Zags’ many constituents.

Until they were given an opportunity to lose their minds.

Call it the f

lip side of the old Friday news dump – diverting attention, rather than using the impending weekend to distract from a bombshell.

Hunter Sallis chose the occasion of his 18th birthday to declare his commitment to play at Gonzaga next season – the highest-ranked recruit to throw in with the Zags. He’s considered the No. 2 guard in the high school class of 2021 and No. 6 overall among the three major evaluation mills.

And the Zags landed him out of Omaha, Nebraska … home of Creighton University … which Sallis had included among his final options.

Hey, all’s fair in love and recruiting. Except maybe at Arizona or Auburn, where they don’t even presume themselves innocent until proven guilty.

It’s not that the Bluejays need the extra motivation from the burn of having one spirited out of their backyard. Keeping March’s dream alive is plenty. But if they can pull off the shocker of all tournament shockers on Sunday, it might add a little edge to the celebration.

At Gonzaga, meanwhile, the beat doesn’t just go on. It’s vivacissimo.

Being ranked No. 1 since before Thanksgiving and now trying to finish of an unbeaten season, the Zags haven’t been coy with the examples that their program is at a place it’s never been before. Whether it’s the Final Four appearance in 2017 or the open-ended lease they seem to have in the Sweet 16, the Bulldogs have been keeping company with the best for a good while now – on the scoreboard, always the final authority.

Where they hadn’t quite arrived with college basketball’s heralded blue bloods is in talent procurement, at least not in the measurable ways available to us.

But that was fun, too.

After all, that’s how the Zags broke into this business: sending Team Chip-on-the-Shoulder, full of guys with maybe one other – or none other – Division I offer, to befuddle the Big Ten, ACC and SEC schools that thought they had a walkover to the second weekend. Ten-to-12 years into this run, the narrative was no longer so extreme, Gonzaga having found other ways – casting its line overseas, the well-vetted transfer – to narrow the gap with the teams thick with five-star recruits.

Now the five-stars are finding their way to Gonzaga.

Jalen Suggs – ESPN’s No. 6 recruit in the class of 2020 – picked Gonzaga last year, and if it was a watershed moment it may have been no more so than seeing how seamlessly he blended into the Zag way.

“That’s why I wanted to watch this season,” Sallis told The Spokesman-Review’s Jim Meehan, “to see how well he fit.”

Now comes the real intrigue – whether Gonzaga can bring in Suggs’ former teammate, 7-footer Chet Holmgren – not just the nation’s consensus No. 1 high school player but a “unicorn,” as described by many, a one-of-a-kind talent.

This part of the Gonzaga story might have been two decades in the making, but it’s just five years in the realization.

Not until 2016 did the Zags have a recruiting class ranked in the top 25. Zach Collins, the school’s first McDonald’s All-American to sign out of high school, was part of that group – Zach Norvell Jr., Rui Hachimura and Killian Tillie being the other freshmen. Even then, Austin Daye – signed way back in 2007 – was still the program’s highest-ranked signee.

A year later, the Bulldogs were in the national championship game which, oddly enough, did not open five-star doors. That next class netted Corey Kispert and Joel Ayayi – you may have heard of them. But Andrew Nembhard went to Florida – and since rethought that choice – and the Zags missed on a number of targeted transfers.

But they kept on winning, well into March.

“It doesn’t just help,” said Donny Daniels, a former GU assistant coach. “It’s what it is. There are other things, too – a style of play that’s attractive, getting guys to the pros. But those deep runs in the tournament are what kids are watching.”

In 2019, Drew Timme and Anton Watson headed a class that was ranked 13th nationally. Suggs’ group was sixth.

So here’s to the evolution – the Matt Santangelos and Casey Calvarys who broke the barrier. Ronny Turiaf, who ushered in the international era. Zach Collins for the Mickey D’s cred. And Jalen Suggs and now Hunter Sallis, who seem to have it OK to turn down a North Carolina in favor of Gonzaga.

Zags out there will want to toast that with something a little finer than grain alcohol.

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