With Gonzaga’s 72-54 rout of Pepperdine in Malibu this past weekend, the Bulldogs reasserted themselves after falling to unranked Loyola Marymount the game before. In fact, until the Lions were able to successfully upset the ‘Zags, their dominance has been unmatched in the West Coast Conference – including nine conference titles in a row. In what many outside of Spokane believed would be a rebuilding year – after losing Jeremy Pargo, Micah Downs, Josh Heytvelt and Austin Daye the prior season – Mark Few and Co. are right on track to make it ten straight WCC titles.
With junior wing Steven Gray and 6-7 stellar freshman forward Elias Harris (who’s averaging 15.3 points and 7.9 boards), the ‘Zags are hardly in rebuilding mode. However the real glue guy holding down the fort in eastern Washington is senior guard Matt Bouldin. The native of Colorado has been extremely solid this season – including an 18-point effort on 7-11 shooting against Pepperdine – and has put Gonzaga (10-2 conference, 22-5 overall) right in the thick of the national hunt come tournament time.
I caught up with Matt for the current issue of Dime to discuss his expectations and feelings about his final season as a ‘Zag.
It’s late November and you’re in the championship game at the famed Maui Invitational tournament in Lahaina, Hawaii. Forget that you’re Gonzaga’s best hope at bringing home the trophy over Cincinnati and try to recollect yourself after getting bodied by opposing superfrosh, Lance Stephenson, for 15 points. After lighting up both Colorado and the same Wisconsin team that dethroned top-5 Duke a week later with 19.5 buckets a game, you’re shooting 0-6 from the field—deep into the second half against the Bearcats. If you’re Gonzaga senior, Matt Bouldin, it means you have to find a different way to help your team beyond the basket.
After grabbing a team high 11 rebounds, the 6-5 guard sunk a critical three in crunch time en route to leading the ‘Zags to a 61-59 overtime win over Cincinnati and a share of the tourney MVP crown. Playing with a basketball intelligence well beyond his years, Bouldin has become the next model in a famed lineage of stellar Gonzaga guards.
Bouldin, 21, is the most experienced returnee and lone starter left from a team that marched its way to the Sweet 16 last year—before falling to the eventual champion UNC Tar Heels. On a team that featured Jeremy Pargo, Josh Heytvelt and current Piston, Austin Daye, Bouldin was arguably its best player throughout the season. Now that those players are gone, Bouldin is left to headline the West Coast Conference’s finest.
As a high schooler in Littleton, Colorado, Matt waded through the fray of older players receiving attention until his senior year, when he rose to become one of the top guards in the West. His situation at Gonzaga is eerily similar: having patiently waited in the wings for his chance to shine. It’s easy to have overlooked just how good Bouldin has been since arriving in the Northwest three years ago as a freshman. After leading the ’Zags in scoring his sophomore year—along with averaging 13.6 points and 3.4 helpers a game his junior year—he continued to be the fourth or even fifth ’Zag mentioned on the national scene. Having been constantly surrounded by All-American candidates at Gonzaga, credit to Bouldin’s play often got lost in translation.
“You obviously want as much (exposure) as you can get, but it’s not my main focus,” says a mellow Bouldin. “Ever since I’ve been in college, I’ve always kind of gone under the radar. It’s understandable.”
Mellow is a good descriptor of how Bouldin reacts to the game. He plays with a certain smoothness that allows him to slow down and process everything that is happening around the court. Whether he’s starting the offense on the wing or working through his natural position as floor general, Bouldin is most effective as a playmaker.
“I’m more of a 1-2 this year,” says Bouldin. “If I am not playing the point, I am getting the ball in situations where I can do something. I can bring it up the floor and start the offense or run it through the wing.”
His greatest assets are his vision, awareness and intelligence—all traits that are highly valued at the next level. Connecticut head coach Jim Calhoun once compared Bouldin to Pete Maravich when Matt was in high school; although Bouldin compares his game best to that of Deron Williams of the Utah Jazz: “He (Williams) would probably be my first pick (for comparison). I think we have similar games.” Williams, who moved to the point late in college, has now transformed himself into one of the NBA’s elite point guards.
Bouldin has played well so consistently, that he is finally being recognized on the national spotlight and is gaining respect across the country.
“Matt has a high intelligence and he’s a lot of fun to be around,” says Oregon Associate Head Coach Mike Dunlap, who has seen Bouldin play since he was a prep in Colorado. “He’s got a skill set that one-percent of the population has.”
This year, Bouldin has been named a candidate for the Wooden Award and Player of the Year trophy. The recent national attention may be new to Bouldin, but he is no stranger to media exposure in the Pacific Northwest.
Around Spokane, Bouldin is a bona fide rock star. He, along with the rest of the ’Zags, don’t have to venture too far off of campus before they are hounded by local fan support. In a city that “breathes basketball,” as Matt describes, the team’s future this season depends in large part to his potential breakout year. As of Friday, Bouldin is averaging 16.6 points a game, while also leading the top-25 ‘Zags in assists, steals and minutes.
While a pro check likely awaits Bouldin after he graduates—if not for having to share a backcourt with Pargo and Derek Raivio during his career, he might already be collecting some green from the League—he remains unfazed. Whether his future awaits him in the NBA or playing overseas, Bouldin is not taking anything for granted.
“Obviously everything comes from winning, so the more we win, the better chance I get at achieving goals and preparing myself for the next level,” says Bouldin. “I have a lot to work on, but I know [the NBA is] in my realm.”
Follow Jack on Twitter at @jensenjack.
Follow Dime on Twitter at @DIMEMag.
Become a fan of Dime Magazine on Facebook HERE.