Tuesday March 10th, 2015

SPOKANE—From Matt Santangelo, he learned leadership. From Derek Raivio, the importance of repeated trips to the free throw line. Dan Dickau taught him it’s O.K. to pull for deep threes, and how to keep defenses off balance. From Blake Stepp, he knows the value of relentless attack, and pushing tempo the entire time.

Above all else, Kevin Pangos is a student of the game. Pangos, Gonzaga’s point guard, is the son of a coach and a basketball junkie with a high hoops IQ, and he likes to take whatever he can from whomever he talks to. And in Spokane, the home of the Bulldogs, there are lots of voices to hear.

On Tuesday night, Pangos will lead the No. 7 Zags in the West Coast Conference tournament championship game against BYU, one of only two schools to beat them this season. (Arizona, winner of a 66-63 overtime game on Dec. 6, is the other.) Then comes a nine-day break, before what Pangos hopes is the beginning of Gonzaga’s deepest ever run in the NCAA tournament. A likely No. 2 seed, this year’s Bulldogs look like they finally have the pieces to reach the school’s first Final Four. And while much of the attention has rightfully gone to Kentucky transfer Kyle Wiltjer, the WCC newcomer of the year, the catalyst for Zags’ success will be Pangos, a 6’2” senior from Ontario who wanted to be part of the school known around Spokane as “Guard U.”

[daily_cut.college basketball]Sixteen years ago, Matt Santangelo, a 6’1” point guard, led a group of nobodies all the way to the Elite Eight, introducing college basketball to a little catholic school tucked into the corner of eastern Washington. The Zags haven’t advanced past the Sweet 16 since. Five years ago, Pangos was a senior at Dr. Denison Secondary School in Holland Landing, Ontario, being recruited by a school he knew little about. Then coach Mark Few, a 26-year GU staple, had Pangos watch a video touting Gonzaga’s “decade of excellence.” It featured highlights from Gonzaga’s long pipeline of standout point guards like Santangelo (1996-2000), Dickau (2000-02), Stepp (2000-04) and Raivio (2003-07). Pangos wanted in.

“I could see myself as a part of that tradition,” he says now.

Stepp, now 33 and a medical device rep, recalls the first he saw Pangos play.

“I was there on Kevin’s official visit, and I remember talking with our weight trainer,” Stepp says. “[After] just an hour of watching him and I said, ‘If he comes here, he’s gonna be the next great one.’”

It didn’t take long for others to brand Pangos that way, too. The skinny freshman came off the bench in his first collegiate game, draining nine of 10 threes on his way to 33 points (he missed all three of his two-point field goal attempts but was perfect at the line) in an 89-81 win over Washington State. He’s started every game since.

Gonzaga has a long history of stellar guard play, dating back to one of the best in the history of the game, John Stockton. Multiple former Zags have stayed in Spokane including Santangelo (age 37) and Dickau (36). They’re peppered throughout the stands at McCarthey Athletic Center, and regulars at Stockton’s Sunday night, invite-only pickup games.

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“I do think there’s a sense of responsibility from the old dogs to help (mentor) guys,” Santangelo says. “We all have a ton of pride in the program and we want to see them find a way to get through that wall in March. Even after all these years, there’s a sense of belonging, of togetherness.”

Pangos wants input from everyone, talking game strategy and team building. Whenever Stockton, a season-ticket holder, stops by, he shares stories from his 19-year NBA career. Through so many conversations with veterans, Pangos has become adept at identifying his own weaknesses.

Hampered by turf toe on his right foot last season, Pangos played most of last season in horrific pain. At the memory of it, he sighs loudly. “Awful,” he says, describing it as the worst he’s ever felt physically. Forget about stepping into a jump shot; just walking was excruciating. When the Zags’ season ended in the round of 32, Pangos sidelined himself for three months. “I don’t think I was too fun to be around,” he says. “I was very grumpy. But I had to let it heal.”

He swam to stay in shape and studied film. What he saw was a point guard who needed to take over. Great players, he realized, recognize situations they must control. He needed to take ownership.

Last fall Pangos interned at Hoopfest, the world’s largest 3-on-3 basketball tournament hosted each summer in Spokane (and run, fittingly, by Santangelo). As they folded T-shirts and stuffed envelopes in the Hoopfest offices, Santangelo and Pangos talked about how Pangos looking for his own shot was an important part of leading.

“I thought a lot in the offseason about scoring a bunch of different ways,” Pangos says. “I knew I needed to be more aggressive, but I also wanted to have that confidence that I could get my own shot off at any time.”

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He settled into that rhythm early. On Nov. 17 against then-No. 22 SMU, Pangos scored a quick 11 points, helping the Bulldogs build a double-digit first-half lead in a 72-56 win, signaling to all of college hoops he’s lethal when healthy. He looked smooth and at-ease. Those characteristics have carried him all season. On Feb. 21, Gonzaga trailed rival St. Mary’s on the road by 17 in the first half. The Bulldogs battled back, led by the always steady Pangos, who scored 14, handed out seven assists and snagged a steal while committing no turnovers. The Bulldogs won 70-60. Past Gonzaga teams might have wilted in that situation, Pangos says. The fact that this group didn’t says something about them—and him.

Dickau, a former NBA scout now working as a radio host, thinks it’s incorrect to peg Pangos as a point guard. Technically he plays the position but he’s more of a two guard than pure point. He doesn’t create for teammates but manages them (his 3.7 assist-to-turnover ratio is second-best in the nation).

“He’s as good at anybody in the country at figuring out what his team needs and then doing exactly that,” Dickau says. “A lot of college kids aren’t mature enough to do that. They think ‘dominating’ a game means scoring 25 points.”

Because backup point guard Josh Perkins broke his jaw before Thanksgiving, Pangos hasn’t been able to play as much off the ball this year as Gonzaga would have preferred. Still, he managed to get his share of shots. On Jan. 29, he broke Stepp’s career three-point record of 288. Going into the WCC championship game, Pangos has nailed 311 treys.  

He also understands that just taking the shot makes a difference, even if he misses it. Though Wiltjer leads the team in scoring, Pangos last week was named the conference player of the year, capping four seasons as an All-WCC selection. He plays with uncommon poise. And when he looks rattled, Santangelo likes it.

Santangelo recalls an early season game, he can’t remember which, where Pangos got “into it” with a young guard from an opposing team. He doesn’t know what was said but recalls Pangos’ body language changing. “He got mad,” Santangelo says. “And you don’t really see that from him. But for the next three possessions, it was good night, game over.”

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Afterward, Santangelo pulled Pangos aside and told him to remember whatever that trigger was, and find it again in the postseason. “In March, you have to have this emotional rise,” Santangelo told him. “It’s no longer about having the best field goal percentage, or all these great efficiencies. You have to throw out all the metrics.”

Those who know Pangos say one of his best qualities is a hunger for more information: He wants to know why different guys were good at different things. He’s grown as a player because of his willingness to ask questions. He’s also a bit cocky when necessary: He’s not sure who the best guard in modern era of Gonzaga basketball is, but says confidently he could beat any of them one-on-one. No doubt the lessons they’ve taught him would prove useful.

As he prepares for the NCAA tournament, Pangos thinks about being “in attack mode all the time.” Coaches always bring up former Gonzaga greats at practice, mixing history lessons with constructive criticism. They want current players to understand how the Bulldogs got here, and that this rise was built on the backs of great guards. Pangos is just the latest in a long pipeline. And once he finds out how high he can climb in his final year, it’ll be his turn to tutor the next crop.

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