by Matthew Snyder / @schnides14
When Gary Bell Jr was a freshman at Gonzaga, in 2011-12, he’d sometimes sleep in the McCarthey Athletic Center locker room.
After expending so much energy participating in extra drills and workouts alongside his fellow first-year players (they numbered five then), it was easier to plop down on the padded carpet than brave the sleety, slushy Spokane winter snow lining the campus paths and fields on the way back to his dorm room.
That insatiable desire to learn was not lost on the coaching staff, including director of basketball operations Jerry Krause, who credited Bell’s class with helping to bolster the program’s culture. With players so doggedly committed to self-betterment, how could it not?
Now a junior, Bell is helping lead the way to yet another banner season for the Zags, who as of February 19 stood two wins away from making it seven consecutive seasons with 25 or more victories. Only four teams in college basketball can lay claim to that feat.
When he spoke with SLAM a few weeks ago, Bell was standing outside the visitor’s locker room, just a few minutes removed from a hard-fought conference road victory over the University of San Francisco. Bell had chipped in 13 points on 4-7 shooting (2-3 from three) along with 3 rebounds and a steal.
Nothing eye-popping, but all the more noteworthy considering Gonzaga’s star guard Kevin Pangos, a junior and a gym rat like Bell, was nursing turf toe that had flared up during the team’s shootaround the previous day. To make matters worse, Pangos turned his left ankle just seconds into the game against the Dons. Normally a marksman, with a burgeoning scoring array, Pangos finished just 2-9 from the field.
So Bell wanted to help pick up the slack. “I try to stay aggressive, pick my spots and knock down shots when I’ve got them,” he’d say afterward.
Point taken. These days, there’s something to be said for simplicity.
The Dons’ War Memorial Gymnasium, which has seen two of the all-time great Bills (Russell and Cartwright) grace its court as members of USF teams, had been rollicking, raucous and packed to the brim—the recipe Bell and his teammates have become indelibly accustomed to when they head out on the road. As the top dogs in the West Coast Conference for more than a decade (they’ve won the regular-season title in 12 of the past 13 seasons,) they know they’ll get their opponents’ (and their opponents’ fans) best shot.
Aggressiveness provides an excellent check against all that. It’s something Bell has worked on since his freshman season, when he was inserted into the starting lineup after just seven games, remaining ever since. Those 13 points against the Dons gave a hint of what Bell can do on the offensive end. Sometimes he’s reluctant to pull the trigger, says Gonzaga head coach Mark Few, who’s met frequently with Bell over the years to try and induce him to create his own shot.
Bell has proven to be a reliable option on the perimeter (he’s a career 43 percent shooter from deep), and he’s adept at driving into the lane and exploring options, a necessity in Few’s motion offense, but he’s yet to match his long-range shooting with an ability to finish at the rim. But as Few will tell you, when ‘Gary’ gets going, the Zags inevitably seem to get rolling.
That was the case against USF, which ended as Gonzaga’s 20th victory of the season (Few has amassed at least that many wins in each of his 15 seasons at the helm in Spokane). In GU’s next two games, a close win at home over Portland and a non-conference road loss at Memphis, Bell mustered just five points on nine attempted shots.
It’s the ever-present give or take. Bell is one of the nation’s top on-ball defenders, and there is a sense that, at times, his incredible effect on that end of the court inevitably affects his production on the other. In the final minutes against the Pilots, Bell forced leading scorer Kevin Bailey into an off-balance jumper, falling away to his left. Bailey missed, and GU held on. He pocketed four steals in the Memphis game.
Even when he was a freshman, Gonzaga’s coaching staff had no qualms about sticking Bell onto their opponent’s top scorer. It’s hard to forget a home match-up against BYU, which boasted then-freshman sensation Matt Carlino, who was coming off a 30-point game against San Francisco. Bell hounded Carlino into 7-23 shooting during a 74-63 GU win.
Given the energy he expends on the defensive end, it’s a wonder sometimes Bell can even make it back up court. But fitness has long been a point of pride, ever since he ran sand dunes with his father while growing up in Seattle.
When his scoring dipped from 11.4 points as a freshman to 9.0 as a soph, critics wondered if Bell had regressed. Asked about that criticism, Bell says he wasn’t even aware of it. Besides, he notes, Gonzaga had a couple of pretty good scoring options in the low post last season.
Despite losing Kelly Olynyk (the 2013 WCC Player of the Year) and Elias Harris to the NBA, Gonzaga has remained the preeminent force in the conference. They are a much different team, stylistically, from a season ago, but these players are imbued with a similar sort of spirit. Prolonged success fosters that sense of self.
Dons coach Rex Walters said as much after watching his team fall short in that conference game. When Walters played at Kansas in the early ‘90s, he recalls former Jayhawks greats like Danny Manning coming back during the summer to play pick-up in Allen Fieldhouse.
So it goes with Gonzaga, which has continued to filter players into the NBA. Four of Few’s charges have been first-round picks, including Olynyk, who became the first lottery selection.
Long-standing success has coalesced with elite recruiting to the point where Gonzaga expects to make runs toward national titles. Last season, they earned the first No. 1 national ranking and NCAA Tournament seeding in school history. There’s rumblings that next season’s team, which welcomes a banner recruiting class alongside Kentucky transfer Kyle Wiltjer (currently redshirting), could be even better.
All of which lends a sense of intrigue to the 2013-14 edition. The Zags once again rank among the nation’s leaders in a host of offensive categories, including points and field-goal percentage, could very well produce yet another conference POTY (6-10 senior Sam Dower, who’s averaging 14.8 points and 6.8 rebounds or Pangos, with 15.2 points, 3.5 rebounds and 4.0 assists, are likely candidates).
In 7-1 soph Przemek Karnowski, they have a player with one of the highest ceilings in the country. Guards Kyle Dranginis and David Stockton, like Dower, are former redshirts who have morphed into key complementary producers. Angel Nunez, a 6-8 sophomore transfer from Louisville, who became eligible in midseason, is a trendy pick for an X-factor as the postseason nears.
Bell, however, might be considered the glue. When he went down with a foot injury during last season’s NCAA tournament Round of 32 game against Wichita State, the game seemed to shift palpably. (The Shockers stunned the Bulldogs 76-70.) When Bell missed six games with a broken hand, Gonzaga dropped a road game to Portland—their lone setback in conference play to date.
His defense will continue to be his hallmark, similar to what might be said of Pangos’s shooting. Yet like his good friend, Bell is working to change that narrative. He wants to become more dangerous off the dribble, and he wants to continue showcasing an improved offensive arsenal.
Bell’s production has resurfaced. He’s averaging a career-best 11.5 points on 47.6 percent shooting (44.3 percent from three and 84.3 percent from the foul line.) Through Gonzaga’s first three games this season, Bell led the team in scoring. As of February 19, he ranked third. He realizes that with defenses expending ever-more energy into stopping Pangos, he needs to up his scoring.
Gonzaga’s chances of cracking the NCAA Tournament’s second weekend for the first time since 2009 could depend upon it.