'Zags losing ground as WCC improves

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No one ever said winning was easy.

Not at least during this college basketball season.

It's just that Gonzaga coach Mark Few has made it look easy the past nine years.

It's equaled nine straight regular-season championships in the West Coast Conference, 11 consecutive trips to the NCAA tournament and four Sweet 16 appearances.

And besides a 1999 run to the Elite Eight during Dan Monson's final season in Spokane (Few was serving as associate head coach at the time), it's been the 47-year-old Oregonian who has turned a once little-known program into a national power year in and year out.

From Ronny Turiaf to Adam Morrison to Derek Raivio, Few has had his fair share of hardwood stars at the college level.

Last season was no different.

The 'Zags boasted a veteran roster that featured talented seniors Jeremy Pargo, Josh Heytvelt and Micah Downs, along with junior sharpshooter Matt Bouldin and sophomore sensation Austin Daye.

"They set the bar," Loyola Marymount coach Max Good said of Gonzaga's recruits.

But with having those highly touted stars comes the reality that some won't stick around for all four years like Pargo or Heytvelt did, and that was the case with Daye, who bolted for the NBA after posting 12.7 points, 6.9 rebounds and 2.1 blocks per game in his second season.

That's not the only change Few has had to endure this season, though.

The Bulldogs' roster is littered with freshmen -- eight in total -- while sophomores Demetri Goodson and Robert Sacre have had to fill the shoes of Pargo and Heytvelt after seeing limited minutes last season.

In the end, it's left Few with the job of reloading in a year in which the WCC appears to be as strong as ever.

That was clear after Loyola Marymount's 74-66 stunner over the No. 13 'Zags Thursday night at Gersten Pavilion, but it wasn't the first signs of such parity developing around the conference.

Portland, in fact, was one of the nation's biggest surprises back in November, upsetting UCLA and Minnesota in the 76 Classic to quickly put Eric Reveno's team on the national radar.

And Saint Mary's did its own work early on to garner some national attention, winning nonconference games over San Diego State, Utah State, Oregon and Pacific.

"This league's a lot better," Few said. "It's got some really good teams now."

The conference might be better as a whole, but there's no question that the 'Zags don't possess the same kind of firepower that they've had in the past.

It starts up top, where Goodson is averaging only 7.0 points and 1.7 assists, compared with Pargo's 10.2 points and 4.9 assists from a year ago.

The Bulldogs, in the meantime, are also averaging two more turnovers per game and shooting three percentage points lower from beyond the arc.

"Like a lot of teams out there in college basketball, we have our holes," Few said. "And sometimes, those get exposed.

"The goal is to not let them get exposed too often."

Against LMU, those holes definitely got exposed, as the 'Zags shot just 34.4 percent from the field, including Bouldin's 3-for-12 performance.

"Their big problem this year is they don't go through every game thinking that they're going to kill people," LMU sophomore Drew Viney said after putting up 16 points and 10 rebounds on the Bulldogs.

Bouldin, for one, has done an admirable job in leading the team with 16.5 points per game, although Gonzaga has also shown its flaws at times this season, starting with a 27.8 percent shooting effort in a 35-point loss to Duke in December at Madison Square Garden.

"It's just a matter of playing hard," junior guard Steven Gray said. "And when we don't, we're awful."

If "playing hard" means shooting well collectively, then Gonzaga has done that for the most part this season.

The Bulldogs are averaging almost 49 percent from the field so far as a team, in large part due to the play of freshman Elias Harris.

The 6-foot-8 forward, who came to Gonzaga after growing up playing basketball in Germany, has flown under the radar as one of the country's most underrated freshmen, in fact.

"My hat goes off to them," Good said. "They lose Austin Daye, and they turn right around and get a kid like (Harris). I'm not sure anyone else in our league can do that at this point."

Harris didn't have one of his best games against the Lions, finishing with 13 points (4-for-11 shooting) and 11 rebounds, but he's still averaging 15.3 points and 7.9 rebounds while shooting over 50 percent from the field.

"He's been pretty darn consistent for us all year," Few said of Harris. "For the most part, he's performed really, really well as a freshman on some of the biggest stages in college basketball."

So has Sacre (10.0 ppg, 5.5 rpg), who has been a nice surprise for Few's team, too.

Yet with so many new pieces on this team and West Coast college hoops suffering more than ever, it's unfair to put it all the pressure on Gonzaga's shoulders -- especially this team.

"We've done it in the past," Few said, referring to the type of national attention that his teams with Turiaf and Morrison garnered.

"But I don't think we're the juggernaut that everyone expects us to be."

That's just what the 'Zags were in the WCC last season, bullying their way to a undefeated mark in the conference play and reaching the Sweet 16 before losing to eventual national champion North Carolina.

Gray, however, sees this Gonzaga team being ahead of the others, even with the two league losses on its resume.

"Our goal is to play hard every night," he said. "It's just a matter of getting the message across to this young group."

Against LMU, it only took a few mental lapses on the defensive end for things to turn south down the stretch, much like things did at San Francisco on Jan. 30 in an 81-77 defeat.

"We've done amazingly well," Few maintained. "Now, we just need to finish strong."

Because if the 'Zags want to have any hope of playing the first weekend of the NCAA tournament at the Spokane site with a top-four seed, they can't afford any more slip-ups over the next three weeks.

"It would be nice, but either way, we're going to have to come out and play," Gray said about the possibility of starting the NCAA tournament in Gonzaga's hometown. "And if we don't come out hard, it won't matter if we're in Spokane or anywhere else."

"It's in somebody else's hands," Few added. "There's nothing we can do about that."

Actually, there may be something the Bulldogs can still do about it.

And it means winning their last four regular-season games and claiming the WCC tournament crown next month.

"We just need to try to win a league championship and try to do well in our conference tournament," Few said. "Our team has performed admirably all year."

With victories in Maui over Colorado, Wisconsin and Cincinnati, along with road wins against Illinois and Memphis, the Bulldogs have proven this season that they can play with the big boys.

As Good simply said about the 'Zags: "They're good."

But unfortunately for Few, good just might not be good enough anymore.