In no space since Mark Few has taken Gonzaga from the hidden depths of the mid-major circuit, up to arguably the Nation’s finest small program, has his Bulldogs’ team faced such a rebuilding battle.
With a Sweet Sixteen appearance and another plus-25 win season a year ago now behind them, Gonzaga wasn’t even ranked coming into this season. Jeremy Pargo, Micah Downs, Josh Heytvelt and Austin Daye had all departed from Spokane and a new wave of potential Gonzaga greats were ready to rise from the wings.
Entering the 2009-10 season, Few and company were only able to boast four upperclassmen — two of which were deemed contributors. With eight freshmen inserted into the 15-man ‘Zag nucleus — and depended on for major minutes — the Bulldogs were understandably not expected to do much national damage.
Somebody forgot to forward the memo on to Gonzaga’s lone junior, Steven Gray, who has his school in line for yet another NCAA tourney appearance. The 6-5 shooting guard is averaging nearly 14 and 4 on the year for the 11-3 Bulldogs and has come up big in consecutive wins against both Oklahoma and at Illinois. In short part, he has become Few’s go-to slinger in big-game situations. Most recently, his 20 points and five assists on the road against Illinois, pushed the ‘Zags over the threshold to capture an 85-83 resume-worthy win. Gray, a green-lighted shooter who’s deadly from deep, is being heavily relied upon to contribute at both ends of the floor.
The only losses thus far for Gonzaga, who have never been one to shy away from strong competition, have come against Michigan State, Wake Forest and Duke. In late November, they secured the Maui Tournament crown with a win over Cincinnati; Gray garnered co-MVP honors along with backcourt mate Matt Bouldin. For Gray, the accolades are nice but not enough to derive the fact that his team is playing inspired basketball. He’s not your typical star-studded student-athlete — who’s more interested in catching Z’s during foreign politics class than becoming a viable member of his university’s community — he seeks out new experiences.
Dime: Coming into this season, the general consensus was that this Gonzaga team was going to become more of a rebuilding project – it’s clear that’s not the case. You guys have had your bumps, but how surprised are you at your overall success?
Steven Gray: You know, I’m not all that surprised just because coming in early in the season, we got a good feel of how hard this team’s going to work and how they’re going to battle. With such a young team, we were going to have a few rough go’s at it, but overall the fact that we just play so hard is going to take care of it you know.
Dime: What was the team atmosphere like after the Illinois win?
SG: It was pretty exciting, I mean everyone was just happy to come out of there [Illinois] — in such a tough environment and playing a good opponent — and get away with a win. It was sort of the last game of the non-conference (schedule), just to have that all taken care of was just a big relief I guess.
Dime: How were you guys able to regroup and refocus after the Duke game [A 76-41 loss at Madison Square Garden in New York City] and beat both Oklahoma and Illinois?
SG: A lot of us, the players, were able to put it behind us. We got back from New York and that was in the past. The coaches were really good about stressing to put it behind you, but we have to correct these things. They did a good job at getting us ready for the next three games.
Dime: Do you like the front-loaded, tough non-conference schedules that Gonzaga has become accustomed too making?
SG: Absolutely. I mean that’s one of the reasons why I think people come here and really enjoy watching this team play because [they know] we will play a tough non-conference schedule. We only have four years of this and you want to go out and play against the best.
Dime: Now what’s the vibe heading into conference play – do you see more contenders than in years past?
SG: Definitely, I mean the WCC [West Coast Conference] had an overall really solid non-conference [record]. Portland was ranked at one time, you have LMU [Loyola Marymount] that won their last like five games — beat Notre Dame at Notre Dame — and St. Mary’s is always going to be tough. So there are a lot of teams that are going to surprise some people.
Dime: Gonzaga’s success in large part depends on the play of you and Bouldin. What is your guys’ connection like?
SG: Oh, you know I love Matty. We get along great and just cause I feel like we’re such good friends off the court, that on the court, we kind of know where each other is going to be at and what to kind of expect from each other. It’s great to go out there and play with Matt.
Dime: When it’s all said and done, what will accomplish your goals for the year?
SG: As long as we can look back on this season and not have any regrets. I feel if we can come out here and play as hard as we can every game and take what the coaches say, and execute, it will be a special year for this group no matter how deep we go. Just as long as we come out and play hard and compete, at the end of everything, everyone [will talk] about how that Gonzaga team: they played really hard. That’s the one thing I’d like people to say about this young group.
Dime: Do you model your game after anyone?
SG: Not really. I mean if I had to pick, maybe Richard Hamilton I’d like to think of, just because he moves so well without the ball and that’s something I’d like to try and do more. But no, I’m just sort of out there doing my own, my own little version of what basketball is.
Dime: I’ve heard that you involved yourself in the university’s acting program and were able to perform live on stage [Gray starred in a University drama production in the fall]. In a climate where student-athlete’s rarely venture outside of athletics while in school, why was it important for you to broaden your horizon?
SG: You know just to have different experiences. I mean I’m all about trying new things at least one time. You know acting was something that, opportunity presented itself and I thought it’s not going to hurt to do it so why not and it was a great experience. Just doing things like that is something that I really like to do in my life.
Dime: What if Dime made a movie – you down to play a role?
SG: Absolute…depending (laughs), I mean why not, why not? I’d be down.
Follow Jack on Twitter at @jensenjack.
Follow Dime on Twitter at @DIMEMag.
Become a fan of Dime Magazine on Facebook HERE.