That is the headline this morning on ESPN. I must say that brings back a ton of memories for a 96 zag such as myself. We were coming off the 93-94 season, which was an awesome, veteran team with seniors that included the likes of WCC player of the year Jeff Brown at center, an athletic slasher in forward Matt Stanford, and a solid and steady point guard Geoff Goss. A funny testament to the state of recruiting back then, our star player Jeff Brown was out of Mead and actually the son of my high school PE teacher at Shadle Park. To say we've come a long way since then would be an understatement. Anyway, these seniors were joined by junior guard John Rillie, an absolutely deadly shooter from Australia as most probably recall.
That 93-94 team, coached by Dan Fitzgerald, was really the start of it all for what GU basketball has become. So balanced and loaded I swear I thought I was watching the best team I would ever see at Gonzaga. It took well into the early 2000s before I would admit a GU team was better...when it finally became undeniably evident we had turned a corner on recruiting. That 93-94 team lead us to our first ever WCC regular season title and I remember the devastation I felt when that team failed to win the WCC tourney. It was my first experience with the grieving process we are all so familiar with managing our way through at some point each March. There were definitely no at-large bids for the WCC back then so it was off to the NIT where the 93-94 Zags picked up a win against Stanford before eventually succumbing to Kansas State.
So flash-forward to 94-95. All those seniors were gone. Frankly, I don't remember starting 8-0. It must have been a favorable schedule. We were a pretty good team, but nothing to write home about compared to the team a season earlier. Then came the WCC tourney where that all changed. Now a senior, John Rillie absolutely went off, playing as though his life depended on it. He almost single-handedly willed the Zags to their first ever NCAA appearance making absolutely everything he put up. It was a short-lived trip to the tourney with a first round loss to Maryland...but we had finally made it! A year late in my humble opinion.
That performance by Rillie began what became a zag tradition at tourney time. Seniors playing with urgency and as if there really was no tomorrow. This was the hallmark of our greatest teams. Santangelo...Frahm....Calvary....Spink. They all played almost outside themselves during the tournaments and when their career was on the line. This is what I have missed in recent tourneys. We unquestionably have had greater talent than in the past, but not that instinct to win when it matters most. We were robbed of the chance to see AMMO excel as a senior...Raivio certainly couldn't carry us. Heytvelt was never quite the same after the suspension..and let's be honest, Gray and Sacre both had solid but not outstanding senior seasons. After all, another part of being a senior leader is not allowing your team to lose games that should be victories (USF anyone?) that result in a lower seed and tougher draw come tourney time.
That's another reason I am so encouraged by the play of E this year. He is the first Zag star in a while that has come out as a senior looking like an improved player from his Junior year. He looks leaner...quicker...more mature and more in control of his game. He has the look like maybe he could be the guy, surrounded by a very strong supporting cast, that will restore that tradition for Zag senior leaders in March. Much like John Rillie did back in 94-95, maybe Elias can put us on his back and take the Gonzaga program once again to another level. Go Zags!