Team preview: Gonzaga

Blue Ribbon Illustrated previews the 2004-05 college basketball season, exclusively on Insider.

Updated: October 20, 2004, 4:55 PM ET
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COACH AND PROGRAM

It's a new era at Gonzaga.

Say good-bye to the cozy, bandbox of a field house, The Kennel (no self-respecting diehard would refer to it by its stuffy, official moniker, the Martin Centre), and welcome the equally cozy, but thoroughly modern McCarthey Center.

And while the din in the new arena will be just as ear-splitting and the homecourt advantage still among the toughest in the West Coast Conference, the aesthetic changes to the face of Gonzaga basketball go much deeper than a new state-of-the-art facility.

It goes right through to the roster, where the Bulldogs will be missing a group of seniors that were the most successful in school history.

But this is Gonzaga we're talking about, and this isn't a program that built itself from the little Jesuit school that could to one of the nation's top programs by simple luck and moxie.

"For the last three years, we've been getting ready to lose those guys," Gonzaga assistant coach Leon Rice said. "That was quite a group. The thing is we had time to prepare and get ready for it."

As if the "guys" were rec league players in a 40-and-over league.

No, instead that group featured a back-to-back league player of the year, a three-time all-league post player, the Bulldogs' best outside shooter, a solid reserve center and an athletic wing player.

Two-time WCC Player-of-the-Year Blake Stepp provided leadership, outside shooting and a player unafraid to take the big shot.

Center Cory Violette was a gritty, hard-nosed post player whose contributions did not go unnoticed, as his trio of selections to the all-conference team attests.

Guard Kyle Bankhead walked on, earned a scholarship, a starting job and turned into the one of the league's best outside shooters.

Two transfers, center Richard Fox and guard Tony Skinner, were also major contributors.

Fox transferred from Colorado, and despite two injury-plagued seasons, provided solid leadership and a large presence in the post.

Skinner transferred from Northeastern Junior College and quickly provided the Bulldogs with a sorely needed infusion of athleticism on the wing.

"They were the cornerstone of our program for the last four years," Rice said. "They won more games than any group of basketball players in Gonzaga history. When you think of us and the games we've been in and all those guys who played in them and have gone away, you have to give the credit-they set a consistent example."

It was, then, an unfortunate way for that class to go out in such a resoundingly unsatisfying way.

After going undefeated in league play, winning the conference tournament and scoring major non-conference wins against Washington, Maryland, Missouri and Georgia, Gonzaga cruised into the NCAA Tournament as every mailroom guy in America's trendy Final Four pick.

Unfortunately, Nevada decided to play Cinderella, rolling the favored Bulldogs 91-72 in the second round of the NCAA Tournament.

It was exactly the same blitzkrieg performance Gonzaga used to pull on higher seeded opponents with bigger reputations.

"It was tough," Rice said. "We played an opponent that played us tough, that came out aggressive and took it to us. You have to applaud them, they came ready to play and took it to us."

Still, even after the tournament disappointment and the loss of a stellar senior class, it's tough to feel too much sympathy for the Bulldogs.


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