Gonzaga coach Mark Few says the annual match Thursday “obviously means a lot to” Washington State. Might even make the entire season and save a coaching job.
SPOKANE – DaVonte Lacy can’t say enough good things about Gary Bell Jr. Usually, that is.
This is not your usual week. Lacy and Bell could be guarding one another much of the way when Lacy’s Washington State Cougars square off against Bell and the 13th-ranked Gonzaga Bulldogs Thursday night at GU’s McCarthey Athletic Center.
“I’m glad he’s my friend,” Lacy said. “But at 7 o’clock Thursday, you don’t have no friends.”
That may be true, but one hopes that Lacy arrives at McCarthey in time for the 6 p.m. tip – not 7, DaVonte — on ROOT Sports. After all, Lacy leads the Cougars with 24.5 points per game, and the Cougars need his firepower to deal with a Gonzaga team that has five players averaging in double figures, led by Bell at 17.3.
“I’ve been watching him (Bell on TV), and he’s been playing really well,” Lacy said. “It’s just a testament to all the time he puts in.
“I see how hard he works in the off-season and stuff. It’s what he’s earned. He’s going to continue to be a great player, and he’s going to continue to be a great guy off the court.”
Bell, a junior guard out of Kentridge High School in Kent, said he played against Lacy “our whole lives” before they became friends as teammates in two high school all-star games. Lacy, also a junior guard, starred at Curtis High in University Place outside Tacoma.
Now Bell and Lacy are “enemies” once more in a spirited rivalry game. Despite Gonzaga’s rise to national prominence and WSU’s on-and-off success, recent games between the teams have often been memorable.
“It’s basically a fistfight,” Gonzaga forward-center Sam Dower Jr. said. “Guys are in there battling.”
“It’s really fun,” said Will DiIorio, WSU’s senior swingman out of Bainbridge High. “It’s what you play college basketball for: The atmosphere, playing against a really good team.”
The Cougars are 2-0, but they had to battle to win home games against underwhelming opponents Cal State Bakersfield and Lamar. Gonzaga (3-0) hasn’t played any powerhouses, but the Bulldogs have been impressive while averaging 91.7 points per game and shooting a sizzling 55.4 percent from the field (45.7 on 3-pointers).
“We have a lot of respect for them and what they’ve been able to do with their program,” WSU coach Ken Bone said. “It’s fun to challenge yourself in sports and go against the best.”
Gonzaga coach Mark Few returned the compliment to Bone’s Cougars.
“They always play us really, really hard,” Few said. “Obviously, the game means a lot to them.”
Obviously, a win would mean even more.
“It would give us a lot of respect that we think we deserve,” DiIorio said.
“We feel like we can compete with anybody,” Lacy said. “Being that they’re ranked and such, it’ll be a good win.”
Lacy, a third-year starter, has lost weight and – according to the WSU roster – gained an inch in height since last season. He’s now 6 feet, 4 inches.
“I tried to grow my hair out a little bit,” Lacy said, deadpanning.
Lacy and just about all the Cougars would have to wear beehive hairdos to approach the height of Gonzaga center Przemek Karnowski, a 7-1 sophomore who played on the Poland national team over the summer. He averages 10 points and 5.7 rebounds and forms an effective inside tandem with the 6-9 Dower (14.7 ppg, 10.3 rpg).
Dower, buried behind current NBA players Robert Sacre, Kelly Olynyk and Elias Harris the past three years, appears to be poised for a breakout season as a senior.
“It’s his time,” Bell said.
“It’s finally my turn to be the leader of this team rather than a follower,” Dower said.
The 6-1 Bell has started in the backcourt the first three games with 6-2 junior Kevin Pangos (16.0 ppg, 3.7 assists per game) and 5-11 senior David Stockton (7.0 ppg, 4.3 apg).
“Coach Few calls us ‘the little midgets,’” a grinning Pangos said.
Not that Gonzaga’s constant sellout crowds of 6,000 needed another reason to act semi-insane, but junior wing Gerard Coleman (11.7 ppg, 2.7 steals per game) has become an instant fan favorite with his athletic slashes to the basket. Coleman redshirted last season after transferring from Providence.
“We need Gerard to change the speed of the game . . . he’s given us a lift,” Few said.
Freshman point guard Ike Iroegbu (10.5 ppg, 2.0 apg, 1.0 spg) has provided the Cougars with a lift with his athleticism. Iroegbu spent the past two seasons at Virginia’s Oak Hill Academy, the national prep powerhouse that produced current NBA stars Kevin Durant, Rajon Rondo and Carmelo Anthony.
Bone said Oak Hill’s demanding schedule prepared Iroegbu well for collegiate competition.
“He has no fear, that’s for sure,” Bone said.
Combo guard Royce Woolridge, a Kansas transfer who emerged as a top scoring threat for the Cougars late last season, has started slowly (8.5 ppg, 28.6 percent shooting from the field) while dealing with a knee injury. Dexter Kernich-Drew (7.5 ppg) tends to run hot and cold with his 3-point shooting, but he can be a handful.
Senior forward D.J. Shelton (4.5 ppg, 6.5 rpg) is another Cougar who can be dangerous from 3-point range. However, the guard-oriented Cougars also need the 6-10, 250-pound Shelton to score inside and pound the glass.
“Making shots is just a bonus,” Shelton said. “I think if I’m doing things like (rebounding), we’re just a better team and opponents can’t stop us.”
Bone certainly hopes so, because speculation is rampant that he’ll be shown the door if the Cougars don’t show substantial improvement this season. Calls for Bone’s head grew louder last season when WSU lost a number of close games, including a 71-69 decision to a Gonzaga squad ranked 10th at the time.
The Bulldogs finished 32-3 to earn the first No. 1 national ranking in school history. The Cougars wound up last in the Pac-10/12 for the second time in Bone’s four years on the job.
Still, Bone wants to “go against the best.” He’ll get his chance Thursday.