SALT LAKE CITY — There is a page in Gonzaga’s basketball media guide dedicated to the program’s history of standout guards, and even that doesn’t fully encompass the impact they’ve had on the team the last 15 years and beyond.
Backcourt players from the late 1990s and early 2000s, such as Matt Santangelo, Richie Frahm and Blake Stepp, were the foundation for what the Bulldogs have become as they play in their 15th straight NCAA Tournament.
The tradition continues with sophomores Gary Bell and Kevin Pangos, who have been integral in helping Gonzaga reach a No. 1 overall ranking and a No. 1 seed in the tournament, where the Bulldogs face No. 9-seed Wichita State in a third-round game Saturday night.
"We’ve had a tremendous run of guards at Gonzaga," said Mark Few, a Bulldogs assistant for 10 years before he became coach in 1999. "I think (recruits) see our style of play and they see we develop them."
Gonzaga’s greatest guard was John Stockton, who laid the groundwork for a Hall of Fame career in Spokane before playing 19 seasons with the Utah Jazz. Stockton’s son, David, is a reserve for the Bulldogs.
As great as John Stockton was at Gonzaga during the 1980s, more recent players have exceeded him in some areas, though Stockton remains the career steals leader.
The Bulldogs have featured every kind of guard, from electric scorers such as Dan Dickau to selfless facilitators such as Santangelo, Stepp, Jeremy Pargo and Matt Bouldin, to steady leaders such as Derek Raivio.
Guards who played at Gonzaga since the late 1990s occupy eight of the top 28 spots on the school’s career scoring list. Dickau, perhaps the best pure scorer of the group, is 28th with 1,125 points in two seasons. That recent history resonates with current players.
"When you’re looking at a school, you always want to see if they’ve had people like you in the past," Pangos said. "Then when you get there, they know how to work with you and get the best out of you.
"The guards in the past at Gonzaga were great. They were about my size (6-foot-2), Dan Dickau, Derek Raivio and the list goes on. They’re around the program, so I can speak to them about the game and they help me out all the time."
Gonzaga’s guards have succeeded in so many facets because Few and the coaching staff have learned to play to their strengths, to give them time to develop and to allow their leadership skills to flourish. Seven players coached by Few — three guards — have reached the NBA.
"We put them in a system where they’re going to get to run, play fast," Few said. “But also the freedom to make decisions on their own. If you look at our track record (you’ll see) our ability to move them on to the next level."
Bell has averaged nearly 12 points in his last five games while making 14 three-pointers, and Pangos is Gonzaga's most relied-upon player. He has missed a total of 11 minutes in the last three games and averages 11.6 points and 3.3 assists.
Pangos and Bell were easily sold on being part of that lineage, and they’ve done nothing in their first two years to veer off the path.
Though center Kelly Olynyk is stealing headlines as a potential national player of the year, Pangos and Bell have been just as valuable while progressing more quickly than Few expected.
"They’ve been remarkable with their consistency," Few said. "Everybody kept thinking they were going to hit a freshman wall last year and they never did. Now here they are (in) their sophomore year, and they have really improved as far as their development. ...They’re much farther ahead than they were last year at this juncture."