Friday, March 27

Is This The Best Gonzaga Team Ever?

It is a tough question, and the answers to such questions are not always found by listening to Joe Esposito. Many are saying yes, and I tend to agree, but before the Zags take on top-seeded North Carolina tonight, let's look at their history going dating back to the run to the Elite 8 that began it all in 1999, SHALL WE?!!


This was the last season of the Dan Monson era in Spokane, but it may be the most memorable run the Zags had and it was the one that put them on the map. The team was 22-6 going into the tournament where they were a 10 seed. They destroyed Minnesota in the first round and apparently the Gophers were so impressed they would hire Monson to coach them the next year. They then beat Stanford who was ranked 7th in the country and the number 2 seed in the West Region. The Sweet 16 game against the 6 seed Florida was one of the most memorable for the ending and the Gus Johnson call.

The slipper stopped fittin in the Elite 8 against UCONN. The game was close, and I remember being a Husky fan sweating it out as the Zags fought to the end but lost 67-62 win. In terms of distance in the tournament, this team was the best. No other Gonzaga team has ever reached the Elite 8, and they came close to pulling the George Mason 7 years early.

This team was led by Quentin Hall, the gritty point guard from the Bahamas. The other starters were Richie Frahm, Casey Calvary, Jeremy Eaton, and one of my all-time name guys, Matt Santangelo. Calvary had the tip-in against Florida and would go on to be a second team all-Wooden player as a senior in 2001.


Mark Few took over for Monson this season and few could argue that he built upon the foundation that Monson laid. See what I did there? Frahm, Calvary, and Santagelo all returned from the previous year and the Zags again were a ten seed. They began their pre-conference tradition of playing tough teams, including that year #1 Cincinnati, #19 Temple, and beating #11 UCLA. They finished 22-8 and they made another run in the tourney. Beating Louisville and 2 seed St. John's before finally bowing out to Purdue in the Sweet 16.

Other contributors to the team were Axel Dench from Austrailia, Ryan Floyd, and Mike Nilson. The team was still considered cinderellas at this point, but it was the springboard for the future continued success of the program.


Following the act of the two previous teams would be difficult for the Zags, but with Blake Stepp coming in as a freshman and contributing and the arrival of Dan Dickau from Canada, the Zags had one of their most formidable teams ever.

At this point, Gonzaga did not have the reputation they did now and had to win the West Coast Conference tournament in order to get to the big dance. Since they did not have any marquee wins out of conference, they were a 12 seed despite their 24-6 record. Once again the Zags proved their proficiency as they beat the 5 seed Virginia and then leveled Indiana State to make their 3rd consecutive Sweet 16. Once again they could not advance as they lost to Michigan State by 15. The Zags had proven they could play with the big boys and the momentum began continued to build.


Dickau and Stepp returned and two key additions infused into the lineup. Corey Violette and Ronny Turiaf gave the Zags more balance and an inside presence. Zach Gourde also improved in this his junior season. Dickau averaged 21 ppg and had a season high of 39. In the regular season they went 29-3 with their only losses to #3 Illinois, Marquette and Pepperdine. They earned a 6 seed and figured to make a deep run in the tournament. However, this time they were on the wrong end of the upset. Wyoming beat the Zags 73-66 in probably the most dissapointing of their tournament history. This team is at the very least a finalist for their all-time best team and it was a tough way for Dickau to go out.


Blake Stepped up (I'm on fiya!) for the Zags this year and so did Turiaf, averaging 18 and 15.6 ppg respectively. The 7 losses they suffered and the failure to win the WCC tournament were considered horrible for their new standards. This led to them getting the always tough 9 seed in the tournament. They beat Cincinnati in the first round and then lost to Arizona in heartbreaking fashion. A double overtime loss to the 1 seed 96-95 in which Stepp had a shot to win but it went just off the rim. This would start a string of dissapointing tourney runs for Gonzaga.


Once again the Zags came back with a dynamite squad. Two freshmen arrived that would eventually go down as two of the best players in the school's history. Adam Morrison and Derek Ravio combined with Stepp, Violette, as seniors and an experienced Ronny Turiaf. Ravio did not quite emerge yet on this team, which may have hindered them, but Stepp, Violette, Morrison, and Turiaf all averaged in double figures.

The team lost to St. Joe's to open the year, but beat #3 Mizzou and won 21 consecutive games during the season. The team was 27-2 and a 2 seed going into the tournament. Many (including myself) thought this would be the year the Zags finally made it. They however tripped up in the second round by Nevada. Well tripped up is an understatement they got handled 91-72.


The team lost Stepp, but Ravio would fill the void as a sophmore and Morrison began to assert himself. J.P Batista and David Pendergraft also joined the squad. With Turiaf down low and Morrison averaging 19 per game, the Zags again had a great season. They beat Washington, Georgia Tech, and Oklahoma State in pre-conference and earned a 3 seed in the tournament. After dispatching Winthrop though, they fell to Texas Tech by 2. It was a tough loss to swallow and the Zags saw another season fall short and would then lose Turiaf to graduation.


Morrison became the unquestioned leader and All-American for the Zags. They had impressive wins over Maryland and Michigan State in triple overtime in Maui, followed by tough losses to UCONN, Washington, and Memphis but railed off 16 straight wins to get a 3 seed in the tourney. They squeaked by Xavier and Indiana to reach their first Sweet 16 since 2001. In of course a memorable affair the Zags had a 17 point lead but let UCLA comeback and the game ended with UCLA overwhelmed, Gus Johnson screaming, and Morrison in tears. Witness the insanity:

It was another crushing defeat and Morrison would leave for the NBA shortly after the season ended (to the delight of Bobcats fans everywhere!). Ravio would lead the team the next year and the stars of this year's team would continue to develop but in the next two seasons the Zags struggled to find an identity and lost in consecutive years in the first round of the tournament, the latter a loss to Steph Curry and Davidson last year.


The Zags started 7-0 this year, but after an overtime loss to UCONN in Seattle they faltered. They fell to Memphis at home by 18, but after that finished off an undefeated season in the WCC and won the conference tournament by blowing out St. Mary's. The team is experienced and all the players who suffered through the previous two seasons: Pargo, Downs, Heytfelt, and Boldin are now much more matured. Pargo has moved off the point in the offense, Boldin has handled a lot more and Heytfelt has been terrific of late. Sophmore Austin Daye has also been a big contributor. The Zags have 6 players averaging 9 ppg or more, so this is probably the most balanced attack they have ever had.

But are they the best team they have ever had? I suppose it depends on the criteria. If you use how deep they go in the tournament as the mark, then the 1999 team that got it started would be the choice as they are the only Gonzaga team to go that far. If star players are the choice, then it would be a tough call between the Dickau/Stepp teams, the Morrison/Turiaf teams, and the Morrison team of 05-06. Mark Few deserves an incredible amount of credit by taking what Monson sparked in 1999 and turning that into a perennial basketball power. There were rumblings though that Few could not get Gonzaga over the hump in the tourney, especially after some of the early exits. Goodson saved their bacon against Western Kentucky, but the Zags will need their best effort of all-time to get to the Final Four. Their challenge tonight against North Carolina will require all their parts to be working in rhythm together and the shots going down. If they pull the unlikely tonight, either Oklahoma or Syracuse will be waiting. If they make it to Detroit there is no question they will be labeled as the Zags best team ever, but since that probably will not happen, the answer to the question is open to interpretation.

Since I cannot leave it at that if I were forced to choose, right now I would say the 2003-2004 team with Stepp, Turiaf, and the young Morrison was the best squad they sent out on the court. That team had definite Final Four potential, they just seemed to get crushed under the weight of the expectations. This current incarnation of Gonzaga has a chance to change my mind this weekend.

Special props to Statsheet for help with the info.


Anonymous said...

I recently came accross your blog and have been reading along. I thought I would leave my first comment. I dont know what to say except that I have enjoyed reading. Nice blog. I will keep visiting this blog very often.


Cleet said...

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