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Thursday, November 18, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.
By Bud Withers
Blake Stepp is gone, and so is Cory Violette. So, too, Kyle Bankhead, Tony Skinner and Richard Fox.
The temptation is to think that the loud thud of Gonzaga's 91-72 second-round NCAA loss to Nevada at KeyArena last March meant the end of an era, possibly even the passing of elite-level basketball at the school.
Then, there's this: What plans do the Zags have for David Pendergraft and Josh Heytvelt, two recruits from eastern Washington who made some top-100 lists nationally?
They're likely to redshirt this season.
"Maybe they're (otherwise) playing eight to 10 minutes or less," said Tommy Lloyd, a Gonzaga assistant coach. "We always tell ourselves, 'This kid is going to be better at 22 or 23 than when he's 18.' "
The corollary to that, of course, is that the kid is at Gonzaga when he's 22 or 23, not in the NBA or Europe after having left early. In this case, that's 6-foot-10, 245-pound senior Ronny Turiaf, who mulled half-heartedly making himself available for the NBA draft last spring.
"For a lot of kids, that would be a tough decision, because they want to leave," said Lloyd. "Ronny, in his heart of hearts, didn't want to leave."
Now Turiaf returns as a trimmer, fitter leading light on a team that, despite the attrition, will still be the source of considerable indigestion among rival coaches.
Consider the Gonzaga front line: There's Turiaf; Sean Mallon, a skilled 6-9 forward who shot 60 percent last year and can step out to the three-point line; and 6-8 fellow sophomore Adam Morrison, a born scorer who was one of the best freshmen in the country last year.
The big questions reside in the backcourt. Can Erroll Knight, the athletic Washington transfer, contribute more offense than his six points a game last year? Can sophomore Derek Raivio be heady and steady, something the Zags came to expect with Stepp, a four-year starter?
What won't be different is the Zags testing themselves through a demanding preconference schedule, including Illinois, Washington, Georgia Tech, Oklahoma State and Missouri.
A year ago, the Zags rose to No. 2 nationally, winning 21 in a row. Then they ran into a quick Nevada team, Turiaf got in foul trouble and the season crashed down on Gonzaga and five seniors.
Turiaf, among others, suffered. He blamed himself for a self-described lack of focus, resulting in at least one of the fouls.
Turiaf played only 15 minutes, four in a telling first half when he didn't take a shot. He said he carried the loss with him for "a good two or three weeks. I took it really personal."
He said it weighed on his decision to return for his senior year, although Gonzaga got advice from the NBA that he likely would have gone from the middle-to-late first round.
"I wanted to pay back the university and the community," Turiaf said. "I felt I really let people down."
Since then, Turiaf has worked hard on conditioning. In the offseason last year, he was slowed by a stress fracture of the foot.
"He probably played at 255 to 260," Lloyd said. "Now he's at 245. He's in the best physical condition he's ever been in."
The decision to redshirt the 6-11 Heytvelt could change if the Zags don't get a favorable NCAA ruling on 6-9, 270-pound Joao Paul Batista of Brazil, who averaged 20 points and nine rebounds at Barton County (Kan.) JC last season. Batista's eligibility is being held up while the NCAA looks at possible irregularities in two junior-college stops
"Offensively, he's more efficient than Cory," Lloyd said. "But he's not the athlete and doesn't rebound like Cory."
Said Raivio, "He's a body-banger. When he gets the ball, it's either a bucket or he's going to get fouled."
Heytvelt and the 6-6 Pendergraft, who led Brewster to a pair of 2A state titles, could help, Lloyd said, but rather than battle a "minutes crunch," probably will only practice this year, barring injuries.
Two others figure prominently in the backcourt. Texas Tech transfer Nathan Doudney (6-4) is newly eligible, and Pierre-Marie Altidor-Cespedes, a 6-foot freshman guard, arrives from Montreal.
But the backcourt key is Raivio who played 350 minutes last year and shot 50 percent on threes.
"I get challenged every day by the coaches in practice," said Raivio. "Especially coach (Mark) Few. He wants that position to be perfect."
Not only the roster is revamped. The Zags are playing in the $25 million, 6,000-seat McCarthey Athletic Center, moving from the 3,200-seat "Kennel" next door. At the new venue, they hope to duplicate not only the noise but the success.
Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company
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