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Thursday, March 16, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Bud Withers

Gonzaga starts its run, Morrison feels the fun

Seattle Times colleges reporter

SALT LAKE CITY — Adam Morrison takes a seat at the interview podium alongside J.P. Batista. Throats are cleared, name tags are rearranged.

First question, from a fellow in a lime-green sweater:

"Adam, your mustache has received so much attention this year. Just curious: Have you considered joining any mustache or beard clubs?"

So this is what it's like to be Adam Morrison.

"No," answered Morrison, the Gonzaga All-American, "because mine is pretty adolescent, I guess you'd say."

The long and winding road — from the 43-point performance in triple overtime against Michigan State in Maui to the 37-point second half at Loyola to another grinding joust against San Diego's Cory Belser — has led Morrison to this: An NCAA first-round game this afternoon against Xavier, and another interrogation about his mustache.

He has been dissected by ESPN.com, splashed on the cover of Sports Illustrated and The Sporting News. Answered questions from Stephen A. Smith, Jim Rome, Chris Myers and Roy Firestone. Been prodded by the studio guys at CBS Sports and, recently, "ABC World News Tonight" for a piece to come on diabetes.

On the podium, he dutifully takes it all on, from Xavier's defensive specialist, Justin Cage, to his relationship with his teammates, to the team's interaction with its most famous athletic alum, John Stockton.

Lime Green Sweater has a followup.

"Adam, getting back to the mustache ... how do you feel about the attention that has gotten, and would you consider taking vitamin B supplements that have been suggested to improve the growth?"

Morrison looks amused. He says he hasn't. He says he's just going with what he's got.

"I'm from Spokane," Morrison concludes playfully, "so a mustache is all right."

You wonder about how Morrison's bold charge onto the national stage this year, the whole back-and-forth with Duke's J.J. Redick, might have affected his teammates, whether that might have created some distance. And you conclude that it probably hasn't, simply because Morrison drops 28 points on opponents night in and night out, and they can't.

"I think it's great," the Brazilian Batista says cheerfully to the assembled press. "All you guys make me nervous. I don't mind him getting all the attention. Sometimes when I get really nervous, my English kind of messes up.

"Whatever he says, I agree with him."

Or, as Erroll Knight put it, "We know Adam is a team guy. If I'm on the ground, he's on the ground. Each game, he brings it."

Morrison says he'd like to share the face time.

"The big fella [Batista] next to me is averaging 20 and 9," Morrison says, "and nobody really knows about it."

The 15 minutes on the podium are up. Now Morrison, toting the book "Confessions of an Economic Hit Man," is walking down a steep ramp to the Gonzaga locker room, accompanied by a radio reporter who informs him he has just made another All-America team.

The radio man asks as he begins a walking interview, "Am I the first to tell you? On behalf of the civilized world, congratulations."

Lime Green Sweater has trailed him to the locker room, still fixated on the mustache.

"I think it's just the genes," Morrison says. "My dad was a late-bloomer, and so was I."

Outside the Zags locker room, assistant coach Bill Grier mulled this whole rock-star element that has enveloped Gonzaga because of Morrison.

"When we go on the road, there's the — for a lack of a better term — the eBay guys," Grier says. "They want balls signed. They hunt down our motel. When we left Loyola, I'll bet there were 40 people following him. We snuck out the back of the locker room to the bus.

"They've physically gone on the bus, trying to get him to sign something, to get his picture taken. That's probably been harder than the media."

All this came so quickly. At this time a year ago, he was merely a player who had shaken a midseason funk (remember him being benched once in January?) and finished strongly. Then he went national on that November afternoon against Michigan State, and he hasn't come back since.

Over in a corner of the locker room, Morrison says some of it has been wearisome. He'd prefer kicking back in a hot tub with his buddies in Spokane, not being hunted down for interviews. He didn't spend a lot of time watching the barrage of conference tournaments on TV last weekend.

But Morrison doesn't look tired. He could hang 40 on Xavier, a team that held opponents to 35.4 percent shooting last weekend in the Atlantic 10 tournament. He's like the possibility of a no-hitter when Randy Johnson took the mound for the Mariners. You never know.

"This is the time of year when it's the best," he says, a gleam in his eye. "This is where you lay it on the line."

Enjoy the show. It's something to behold, both on the floor and in the interview room.

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

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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