SPOKANE — The second-ranked Gonzaga Bulldogs have proven they can hang with the big boys of college basketball on the court, but it’s not always easy for the Zags to succeed off the court.
Lest we forget, Gonzaga is a smaller college with a somewhat undersized arena in a fairly isolated city. Obviously, recruiting can be challenging.
And yet, when USC’s leading scorer and rebounder opted to sell his wares to the highest bidder – well, the most attractive bidder – last spring, Gonzaga trumped everyone. Essentially, the Bulldogs convinced Byron Wesley to trade Hollywood for Hillyard.
Wesley invited coaches from Gonzaga and four other schools to visit his family’s Rancho Cucamonga, CA., home to meet with him, his parents and Keith Howard, his former AAU coach.
“It was quite the show,” Gonzaga coach Mark Few recalled. “They invited everybody in in one day. It was crazy. We each got an hour.
“It was a unique way to do it. You kind of had to cut through all the stuff, just get down to the nuts and bolts.”
Gonzaga’s competition consisted of Indiana, Oklahoma State, Baylor and Pittsburgh. Few and GU assistant coach Donny Daniels had to bring their “A” games.
“I want to say when Donny and I pulled up, (Pittsburgh’s) Jamie Dixon was coming out,” Few said. “When we came out, (Baylor’s) Scott Drew was pulling up in a limo. After him, I think, was (Indiana’s) Tom Crean.”
Wesley cut the list of finalists to Oklahoma State, Pittsburgh and Gonzaga. The senior guard planned visits to all three schools, but after making his way to Oklahoma State and then Gonzaga, Wesley decided there was no need to look elsewhere.
“Gonzaga is usually one of the top basketball teams on the West Coast, one of the winningest schools (in the nation),” Wesley said. “Coach Few is one of the best coaches in the country, if not the best.
“When I came on my visit, the guys were really welcoming, which I know can be tough for most teams – to have a guy coming up for one year.”
If anyone figured to be bitter about Wesley’s arrival, it was Kyle Dranginis. A redshirt junior, Dranginis’s playing time figured to be – and has been – cut the most due to Wesley’s presence.
Suffice to say, Dranginis’s reputation as a devoted team player remains intact.
“It’s awesome that he can just come in here right away and be productive. I’m all for it,” Dranginis said.
“I’ve always been about winning, you know? Throughout my whole career, I’ve been on winning teams, so I understand what it takes.
“He’s done a great job for us.”
After averaging 17.8 points and 6.4 rebounds per game at USC last season, the 6-4, 204-pound Wesley – who did not have to sit out a year after transferring because he graduated from USC last summer – is averaging 10.5 points and 5.0 rebounds as Gonzaga’s starting “3” guard. He plays fewer minutes and shoots less than at USC due to Gonzaga’s superior depth and talent, but he’s certainly not complaining.
“It’s everything I wanted,” Wesley said. “I think it’s got to be better than I expected.”
Wesley said he left USC because he grew frustrated with the losing and did not believe he received enough recognition for his strong play. Wesley says USC will “always have a special place in my heart,” and the same can be said about Gonzaga.
“The people in Spokane are great,” Wesley said. “The fans here are phenomenal.”
So is their basketball team. The Bulldogs, 22-1 overall and 10-0 in the West Coast Conference, have won 15 consecutive games since losing 66-63 in overtime at then-No. 3 Arizona on Dec. 6. They play at Santa Clara (11-12) at 8 p.m. Thursday (ESPN2).
Pick a stat – almost any stat – and chances are the Bulldogs rank among the national leaders. They’ve led the nation most of the season in field-goal shooting percentage (currently 52.8), and they also rank high in points per game (80.9), rebound margin (8.1), assist-turnover ratio (1.6), 3-point shooting percentage (39.9), etc. Five players score in double figures, and Gonzaga’s defense can be suffocating.
“We’re so deep and have so many talented players,” Wesley said. “Like Coach Few told us at the beginning of the year, it can be anybody’s night any game.”