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Best year in Gonzaga basketball history? One could make a case for it. In the days, weeks and months leading up to the first day of official practice on October 15, 2004, alums, fans and rivals wondered how on earth Mark Few could possibly bid farewell to two-time WCC Player of the Year (point guard) Blake Stepp, three-time All-WCC Cory Violette, and honorable mentions Kyle Bankhead, Richard Fox and Tony Skinner, and expect to keep the success going at a high level. We're talking five prominent seniors, three of whom having won more games than any class before them at Gonzaga, in part due to the gawdy 28-3 record they accomplished, along with a #3 ranking in the final AP Poll. Over 50% of all the scoring power had just graduated.
And here Zag fans were, looking at three sophomore reserves thrust into early season starting roles, plus two true freshman from Montreal and Brewster, and transfers from Barton County Community College, Washington and Texas Tech, and finally, one lone returning senior starter. You could hear the doubters loud and clear, from coast to coast, from various media gurus to plenty of Zag faithful themselves. NIT was predicted by some. Even more figured these new Zags would likely finish 2nd in the WCC behind a senior-laden St. Mary's team. Nonconference-wise, the general consensus was two wins at most against the five big BCS foes on the schedule.
The first three home games (Portland State, Montana, Idaho) were convincing wins but the trained eye could tell that this young group had a few important things to learn. A morning game in Indianapolis against an ultra-talented, veteran Illinois team taught this Gonzaga squad everything they needed to know, how to play hard and just how key playing all-out is to beating quality, elite teams, and in turn becoming a quality, elite team. Just a few days later the Bulldogs met then-unbeaten Washington that was fresh off a sweep of Utah, Oklahoma and Alabama in the Great Alaska Shootout. It was a 12-point pounding of the Huskies, the Zags showing just what they were capable of, even when the opposition was seniors and juniors. Gonzaga whipped UMass in Seattle's KeyArena then fought through adversity to hold off the WSU Cougars in Pullman before the largest Cougar crowd in seven years.
But it was a costly game in Pullman. Ace shooter Nathan Doudney tore his ACL on a hustle play and Ronny Turiaf severely sprained an ankle. Doudney was lost for the season and that would put more pressure on Gonzaga's only other 3-point shooting star Derek Raivio. But these Zags, even younger now with junior Doudney out, would persevere.
The winning ways continued in December. In a Las Vegas Showdown match with 2004 National Championship runner-up Georgia Tech, the Bulldogs blasted the talented, veteran Yellow Jackets and thoroughly ran roughshod over the ACC power, winning by 12. Suddenly those humble expectations in October were being elevated across the country. With a win over regional rival Eastern Washington under their belts, and a brief Christmas Break, Gonzaga flew to Oklahoma City to play 2004 Final Four contestant Oklahoma State, a team returning their entire roster save for one, Tony Allen. With Turiaf now hobbled with both ankles sprained, the Zags jumped all over Eddie Sutton's team, going up by 16 before a sea of 18,000 hostile orange-clad Cowboys fans. But J.P. Batista had his breakout game and Ronny gutted out a fine effort to help Adam Morrison, Derek Raivio and the rest of the team to win by 3. Two nights later and the Zags lost by 2 in Missouri's new arena. Tiger fans stormed the court. Translation: These Zags had arrived to the point of being the biggest win of the season for other schools.
A week later and the Bulldogs began conference play, opening with a win at Santa Clara, featuring a 32 point outburst by Raivio, but lost two nights after, to St. Mary's, unable to counter a Gaels record 16 3-pointers. After five games in WCC play, Gonzaga was 3-2 and sitting third in conference standings. The pressure was on. So all this 2005 edition of the Bulldogs did was run the table the rest of the season and earn yet another conference championship at 12-2, one game ahead of St. Mary's. Turiaf earned WCC Player of the Year honors, as voted on by the coaches, J.P. Batista was voted WCC Newcomer of the Year, Erroll Knight was awarded WCC Defensive Player of the Year, Mark Few was rewarded with WCC Coach of the Year honors, and Raivio and Morrison joined Turiaf on the WCC's First Team. David Pendergraft made the All Freshman team.
With nationwide expectations now reaching critical mass, the team with one senior who played any minutes blasted its way through the WCC Tournament, winning both games by double-digits, including NCAA-bound (10 seed) St. Mary's for a 2-1 series edge after the initial early-January road loss. Adam Morrison scored 55 points in the two games, earning tournament MVP.
In 2004 Gonzaga only lost to Stanford and St. Joe's (both 1 seeds after losing one game each all season) for a 27-2 record, and was given a 2 seed by the Selection Committee, but this younger edition was slightly less consistent early and ended at 25-4 overall, with two of its losses to teams with weak RPI's. Despite one of its losses to #1 and once-beaten Illinois, and with wins over top-10 teams (2 seed) Oklahoma State and (1 seed) Washington, and top-25 (5 seed) Georgia Tech, the Zags came away with a 3 seed for the NCAA Tourney. Hardly skipping a beat.
All of this in a year many called a "rebuilding year" or "reloading year." All of this in a year that saw the West Coast Conference a #7 in the RPI, well ahead of C-USA, MWC, A-10, WAC and others. Only the six BCS conferences ranked higher than the WCC.
In Tucson, in the NCAA Tournament, Mark Few equaled Roy Williams for 2nd all-time in NCAA history in wins for 6th-year coaches with 159. The milestone victory came in Round 1 against a vastly under-rated 27-4 Winthrop squad where the Zags scored a 10 point win to advance to Round 2, the Round of 32. Morrison continued his hot shooting, leading Gonzaga with 27 points.
Bobby Knight's Texas Tech Red Raiders were next. The Big-12 team finished third in conference behind Kansas, Oklahoma State and Oklahoma. Tech had beaten Oklahoma two out of three games, but lost to Gonzaga victim Oklahoma State all three meetings. Nevertheless, Tech was a big target, and had just finished dominating UCLA in wire-to-wire fashion. The Bulldogs took a lead and stretched it to nine by halftime, playing well and clearly being the better team. Erroll Knight and Morrison led the first-half charge. After halftime, GU jumped out to a 13 point margin, but efficient offense and defense by the Raiders led to a gradual closing of the gap, and as Tech tied it with 10:00 remaining, the Zags appeared to tighten up a bit while the Raiders snatched away all momentum and built their confidence to new levels. It was a seasaw battle all the way now, with Gonzaga up by a deuce with 63 seconds to go, but Tech buried a clutch trifecta from the corner and the Zags couldn't convert free-throws or critical shots at the end, and Gonzaga lost 71-69, two points away from their first Sweet Sixteen in four years.
The Bulldogs were no longer inexperienced after 31 games, however their youth was undeniable and it showed a few too many times in such an unforgiving tournament of no second-chances.
So close. Not many outside of the team and the people who knew this team expected a 3 seed in Tucson and to be favored to return to the second weekend. Not at the very beginning in November. But nearly everybody expected it come March. Such are the expectations at Gonzaga nowadays. That's part of why it's so crushing to lose in the one-loss-and-you're-out Big Dance. The finality of it comes quickly, suddenly, unexpectedly. Unforgiving
And, unfairly, the final game in March (a tough loss) is the bitter taste that lingers in the mouths of players, coaches and fans, not, unfortunately, the sweetness of all the big wins and big accomplishments of November, December, January and February—otherwise known as the entire body of work or the Big Picture, epitomized by the lofty 26-5 final record.
Fans of Kansas, Syracuse, UConn, Wake Forest and Oklahoma were all crushed and disappointed by Round 1 or Round 2 upset losses, but none more hurt than Gonzaga fans for their team and the two seniors, Ronny Turiaf and Brian Michaelson.
GU Nation says goodbye, Brian and Ronny, and thanks for the success, memories and for keeping the proud tradition alive and well at the little Jesuit school in Spokane. There will never be anyone at Gonzaga like you again. Thanks to you, the best is yet to come, or, as they say, we ain't seen nothin' yet.
"To be continued…"