Gonzaga puts difficult season behind
SPOKANE, Wash. -- Gonzaga's basketball team was rocked by an astonishing series of highs and lows this season, and many questions will persist into next year.
What had been a rebuilding year turned bright when some surprising victories, including an early win over North Carolina, landed the Zags in the Top 25.
But a series of road losses during a ridiculously brutal December slate -- to Washington State, Georgia, Duke and Nevada -- dropped the Zags into a slump that carried into the West Coast Conference campaign.
A win at Stanford on Jan. 31 gave a ray of hope. But then the drug arrest of sophomore star Josh Heytvelt seemed to knock the wheels off the season. Gonzaga saw its 50-game home winning streak end, and lost its secure place at the top of the WCC standings.
Then, when all seemed lost, the Zags put together a late winning streak that carried them to victory through the WCC tournament and a ninth-straight trip to the NCAA tournament.
They lost to Indiana in the first round Thursday, the first time in five years the Zags did not advance to the second round.
"I'm as proud of these guys as any team we've had," Coach Mark Few said after the Indiana game. "It's amazing in spite of what we've been through."
Lost to graduation are point guard and leading scorer Derek Raivio, the leading free throw shooter in the nation, and front line stalwart Sean Mallon.
Through games of March 8, he was leading the NCAA in free throw shooting, connecting on 125-of-130 for 96.2 percent.
He is a career 92 percent (343-for-370) shooter from the line, currently first in NCAA history. Gary Buchanan of Villanova was the career leader heading into the season at 91.3 percent (324-for-355).
A great core of players is back, including guards Jeremy Pargo and Matt Bouldin, plus swingmen David Pendergraft and Micah Downs, whose late emergence as a scorer gave the team a lift. Also expected back are big men Abdullahi Kuso and David Burgess, plus Pierre Marie Altidor-Cespedes and David Burgess.
A big question is whether Heytvelt, 20, will return. He was the second-leading scorer (15 ppg) and leading rebounder (7 rpg) when he was suspended indefinitely after his arrest for felony possession of hallucinogenic mushrooms. He recently asked a judge to be placed in a diversion program that will clear his record if he stays clean for one year.
Heytvelt was arrested Feb. 9 in nearby Cheney. He and teammate Theo Davis, who was with him in the vehicle, were immediately suspended from the team.
Under the diversion program, Heytvelt would be required to serve 240 hours of community service, undergo random urinalysis and not commit any crimes for at least one year.
Gonzaga officials have said Heytvelt and Davis are still in school and moving through the campus disciplinary process as well.
A letter written by Few to the judge in the case regarding Heytvelt's character indicated the player may be allowed to return to the basketball team.
"Josh is a good person with a good heart and our program is willing to give him another chance to realize all his personal, academic and athletic goals," Few wrote in the letter, released by the court on Monday. "We do believe in another chance/forgiveness when someone states and demonstrates they are committed to going in the right direction."
The Zags are also expected to have a good recruiting class ready to play, the fruits of all their success in the past decade.
One thing that may change is the schedule. There has been some grumbling among fans that playing that many difficult teams, especially on the road, is too much. The Zags played nine teams that went to the NCAA tournament this year.
Copyright 2007 by The Associated Press
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