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Originally published March 22, 2005 at 12:00 AM | Page modified March 22, 2005 at 1:44 PM

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Bud Withers

Whoa: Zags need a boost on defense

Back when Gonzaga's basketball season was robust and bright, coach Mark Few was bemoaning some small deficiencies to ESPN analyst Fran Fraschilla...

Seattle Times colleges reporter

Back when Gonzaga's basketball season was robust and bright, coach Mark Few was bemoaning some small deficiencies to ESPN analyst Fran Fraschilla.

"You know," said Fraschilla, "there are about 320 coaches that would trade places with you, just to coach these kinds of kids and not knuckleheads."

Today, like roughly 320 Division I coaches, Few has a team that's done playing, excised from the NCAA tournament Saturday by Texas Tech. As always, Few's players got along, won 26 games when maybe 18 would have meant house money. In six years, he hasn't won fewer than 24 games, and he's never known 10 losses.

Still ...

Few is something of a visionary. He has to be, or he wouldn't have hung around Gonzaga this long while waving away potential suitors. Right or wrong, his surmise is that Gonzaga can win as big as anybody.

So deep down, the big picture may be eluding him right now, as it is many Zags fans. He's likely to be forgetting that his team lost more scoring from last season than it returned for this one, and he's fixating on what-ifs related to Texas Tech.

Taking that inventory likely will lead him to this conclusion: To get to where he wants to take the Zags — which, contrary to recent seasons, is farther than the second round — they've got to get better on defense.

They began the season allowing Portland State to shoot 68 percent in the first half. They finished it with their fourth-worst defensive half of the year, surrendering 57 percent to the Raiders.

A lot of good things happened in between. But by the end Saturday, the Zags were hanging on, counting on their offense to outscore Tech rather than lock down the Raiders at the other end. Some of the same things happened when Gonzaga was bounced by Nevada in the second round a year ago.

Few will tell you up front: He has built Gonzaga with offensive threats. In college basketball, it's mostly the other way around; coaches recruit athletic ability, presume the quickness can translate to defense, and trust that a modicum of offense accompanies the package.

Gonzaga does it differently, making shooting ability a prerequisite. Now it appears the Zags have most of the parts, except quickness in the backcourt.

Here's one ex-coach's take on the Zags: "They just have to get more athletic in the backcourt. Even when you play zone (as GU did against Tech), if your zone is not as quick as the guy trying to get into the gap and penetrate, you're still in trouble. Tech got into that lane at will."

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The next big push at Gonzaga may be to scratch that itch.

Already on hand is a player who could help in Pierre Marie Altidor-Cespedes. He averaged about 15 minutes but labored within the demands of offensive structure. His coaches are counting on the freshman-to-sophomore improvement they've often seen.

Help could also come from 6-2 Jeremy Pargo, a Chicago guard Few has called one of the best talents ever signed at Gonzaga. He's a street-smart type of which the Zags haven't had, but he hasn't yet qualified academically.

Erroll Knight, the 6-6 Washington transfer, has the frame and defensive skills, but can't always contain a smaller player. As the Zags build toward what could be their best team ever in 2005-06, their coaches hope the oft-injured Knight can stay healthy and gain confidence from a 14-point outing against Texas Tech.

Unlike this year, Few and his staff won't be starting from ground zero on Oct. 15. While the Zags lose West Coast Conference player of the year Ronny Turiaf, they return some serious foundation in Adam Morrison, Derek Raivio and J.P. Batista and complementary players Sean Mallon and David Pendergraft.

Morrison, a sophomore, likely will take advice from National Basketball Association brass, but he appears unlikely to leave for at least a year. If he stays, he's probably a preseason All-American and might be a national player-of-the-year candidate.

Mallon will have to take Turiaf's place in Gonzaga's two-bigs system, and he'll be joined by 6-11 Josh Heytvelt, the Clarkston product who had an excellent redshirt season as a freshman.

"He's got a chance to be special," said Gonzaga assistant Leon Rice. "There's probably not a team west of the Mississippi he couldn't have started on."

The schedule is only, well, ridiculous — front-loaded as always to insure against a collective meek year by WCC colleagues.

Think about this tentative field for the Maui Classic during Thanksgiving week — Connecticut, Arizona, Arkansas, Michigan State, Kansas, Maryland, Gonzaga and Chaminade. If it holds up, that's six former national champions.

The Zags meet Oklahoma State in the Battle of Seattle, visit Washington and have home games against Saint Joseph's, Virginia and Washington State. They travel to Massachusetts and Saint Louis.

It was a demanding schedule that put Gonzaga in position to catch a No. 3 seed in the NCAA tournament. Wins over Washington, Georgia Tech and Oklahoma State made it the Zags' most productive non-conference month in history.

But that was December, this is March. For Gonzaga, it must seem like a long time until next season.

Bud Withers: 206-464-8281 or bwithers@seattletimes.com

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About Bud Withers

Bud Withers gives his take on college sports, with the latest from the Huskies, Cougs, and the rest of the Pac-10.
bwithers@seattletimes.com | 206-464-8281

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