Gonzaga’s Kevin Pangos: Culture reason for Zags’ constant success

Feb 13, 2015, 4:54 PM | Updated: 5:04 pm
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Kevin Pangos, Gonzaga's career 3-point leader, said experience will help the No. 3 Zags go deep into the NCAA Tournament in March. (AP)
(AP)

Gonzaga’s rise from unknown mid-major to perennial March Madness participant is certainly unprecedented, and the biggest reason why is location.

Eastern Washington isn’t known as a hub for basketball prospects – only Spokane’s own Adam Morrison can lay claim to being a true homegrown star for the Zags during their 16-year streak of NCAA Tournament appearances – so coach Mark Few has had to get creative with recruiting over his tenure. And that’s precisely why Gonzaga was able to turn its Cinderella run to the Elite Eight in 1999 into near-constant Top 25 status.

While bigger in-state schools Washington and Washington State have failed to capitalize on their own intermittent success with mostly west coast-based rosters, Gonzaga has made the most of international recruits and transfers to keep themselves in the national picture. Some of the biggest names in the program’s history have come from those routes, from Kelly Olynyk (Canada) and Ronny Turiaf (Martinique/France) to Dan Dickau (transfer from Washington) and J.P. Batista (Brazil and community college transfer).

The 2014-15 incarnation of the Zags is no different. Led by Canadian senior point guard Kevin Pangos, Polish center Przemek Karnowski and transfers Kyle Wiltjer and Byron Wesley, Gonzaga is ranked third in the country with a 25-1 record and in good shape to take a No. 1 seed in the tournament for the second time in three years.

Fresh off an 80-51 blowout of Loyola Marymount on Thursday night, Pangos joined 710 ESPN Seattle’s “Brock and Salk” on Friday to explain just what it is about Gonzaga that attracts players like himself to Spokane year after year. As it turns out, there’s a lot more that goes into selling a player on the Zags than referencing their constant success.

“Once (assistant coach) Tommy Lloyd and Coach Few came to visit at me, at first I was like, ‘Yeah, what are the chances I’m gonna go out there, right?’ And then I learned about it and learned about the school and then just grew to love it after that,” said Pangos, an Ontario native. “The culture’s almost second-to-none … Once I got out here and saw what they had here, whether it’s the basketball, the fan base, how they’re in March Madness every single year, and then obviously the opportunity to play was a big factor, everything kinda pieced together and it was the perfect fit.”

That culture is responsible for one of the best built teams in the country. Gonzaga has perhaps its deepest bench yet, and the recruiting style of Few has also provided it with a boost in experience – even though starters Wiltjer and Wesley are in their first year with the Zags, they’re both upperclassmen who transferred from bigger programs (Kentucky and USC, respectively). That’s something that gives the Bulldogs confidence heading into the postseason, where they’ve somewhat plateaued considering their last Sweet 16 appearance was in 2009.

“There’s been a bunch of us that have been there before, been ranked high and not succeeded, and so we know what it takes a bit more this year,” Pangos said of the tournament. “And then we’ve got transfers coming in who have experience elsewhere. That’s big when it comes March, because as much as the tournament is another game, it’s different. It’s a different feeling, it’s different expectations and there is that pressure. So I’d say the experience is gonna take us further.”

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