There are two players with a first name of Kyle on Gonzaga’s roster this season, and Bulldogs coach Mark Few had begun to address the impact of one of them when he noticed the other intently using his phone beneath the post-game press conference table on Tuesday night.
“Are you on your phone right now? That is so lame,” Few said to Kyle Wiltjer, feigning exasperation. After a brief meditation on the inseparability of kids with their technological gadgets these days, Few turned his attention toward Kyle Dranginis, a 6-5, 202-pound redshirt junior guard who had averaged 22.7 minutes, 8 points and 4.3 rebounds during the Zags’ three-game run to yet another West Coast Conference tournament title.
Dranginis wasn’t named to the All-Tournament team. Unlike teammates Wiltjer and Kevin Pangos, he is not a semifinalist for the Naismith Player of the Year. He is a substitute for a Gonzaga team that, after sweeping toward the conference regular season title, racked up every individual award.
And yet, few played a more significant role in Gonzaga’s charge toward their third straight conference tournament title. Dranginis played 16 minutes in the second half of the championship game against BYU, deputizing superbly for Gary Bell Jr, a senior starter who suffered from cramps.
One of Dranginis’s foremost tasks: chasing BYU senior and scorer supreme Tyler Haws, among the nation’s leaders in that department, this way and that. Dranginis helped limit Haws to 15 points—seven below his season average. He blocked two jump shots. Gonzaga retained possession both times.
“I don’t really know what my role is, but I just go in and try to make plays happen,” Dranginis said, taking a break from the celebrations in Gonzaga’s post-game locker room at the Orleans Arena. “I just get in there and fly around and give it my all, basically.”
Asked about those two blocked shots, one of the 6-5 Haws, the other of the 6-3 Chase Fischer, Dranginis shrugged. “I’m tall, and I’m a little longer than some guards. I may not have the quickest feet, so I learned to give a little space, but at the same time, I’m able to contest those shots. I just use that to my advantage.”
Gonzaga was eventually able to separate from the Cougars for a 91-75 win thanks in large part to a sensational sequence from Dranginis. In the span of two minutes in the latter stages of the second half, Dranginis swooped gracefully for a left-handed layup (he’s a righty), blocked Fischer’s mid-range jumper and, on the ensuing defensive possession, nabbed a steal. Then, he did just enough to put Haws off yet another shot.
It was a key ingredient to the recipe Few often refers to. That’s when this team is at its best. Locking down defensively, tough as nails, getting energy going.
“If you follow our team, there are stretches where Kyle has changed how the game has been going,” Few said after the championship, before rattling off the guard’s greatest attributes.
Swiss Army knife, problem solver, gap-puncher, timely shooter, really good on the glass.
But what really stood out to Few in the championship game was Dranginis’s ability to chase opponents off screens—namely, Haws. “He’s done as good a job of that as anybody on this team over the years,” Few said of Dranginis.
Seven players have led Gonzaga in scoring this season. Only six times has it been Kevin Pangos, who was named the WCC Player of the Year. Three different Zags led the team in scoring in three games at the WCC tournament, but it was most telling that in the championship game, six posted double digits. It is a vein of sacrifice coursing through, but these players wouldn’t refer to it as that. It’s simply the culture in place.
Dranginis remembers visiting Spokane as a high school recruit. He was a two-time Gatorade Player of the Year in Idaho. But all he wanted to do was win. “It’s kind of like a family here—and I know a lot of people say that, but it really is. Everyone cares, and they want the best out of you,” Dranginis said. “They’ll get on you if they know you’re not giving your all, because it’s for the best of the team and to get the best out of you.”
Few has referred to three of Gonzaga’s posts, the 6-10 Wiltjer, the 7-1 Przemek Karnowski and 6-10 Domantas Sabonis, as separating them at the national level. Each possesses a different skill set. Wiltjer’s all-around savvy, Sabonis’s polish, and Karnowski, who scored 24 points against San Francisco in the WCC quarters: power.
Though they might be referred to as stars, Dranginis sees the same selfless thread. “They’re such great teammates. They don’t want to be too selfish,” he said. “Sometimes you have to get on Przemek to be a little bit more aggressive, because he’s so powerful down there. You have to let him know, like, ‘Come on, you can dominate those guys!'”
Gonzaga played the first of the two semifinals on Monday evening, which allowed a BYU assistant to watch most of their win over Pepperdine before heading to prep. He had Byron Wesley’s number highlighted, starred and circled on his scouting report. After finishing with a game-high 25 points against the Waves, Wesley finished with three against BYU. Gonzaga still won by 16. “That’s the beauty of this year’s team,” Few said. “A different player can step up every night.”
Wesley led USC in scoring last season before transferring to Gonzaga this past spring. He’s become another versatile defender, and stat-sheet stuffer. He calls this season the best in his life. There are a number of transfers on this season’s roster, but they all share Wesley’s sentiment. Rather than rock the boat, they took the Dranginis approach: when your number is called, do whatever it takes to help this team win. “If you look at the history of this program, this stuff works,” said Dranginis. “[The transfers] realized that, they saw what we were capable of, and they bought in right away. It’s been fun so far.”
Angel Nunez, one of those transfers, alternated poses with the championship trophy in the locker room. Another, Eric McClellan, engaged in a boisterous FaceTime conversation on his phone, to which Dranginis occasionally joined in. On the bill of their championship-commemorating caps was a sticker, which read: Top of the World, The World is Yours.