Gonzaga’s Kevin Pangos, eyeing a Final Four, on last season: ‘It just wasn’t fun, I was in pain the whole time’

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UNION, N.J. — Gonzaga’s basketball team is held up as the bastion of mid-major hoops, proof positive that the limits created by conference affiliation, television revenue and a football program that neither Jim Delany nor Mike Slive give a damn about cannot keep a hoops team from playing high-major basketball.

And forget about calling the Zags a mid-major program. Gonzaga recruits nationally and internationally. They battle it out with programs from the traditional power conferences for top 50 and top 100 recruits. Josh Perkins, a top 75 point guard in the Class of 2014, picked the Zags over UCLA and Minnesota, among others. Kyle Wiltjer, a former McDonald’s all-american, transferred to Gonzaga from Kentucky.

Gonzaga is a high-major program, one of the top 25 basketball schools in the country.

They have been since Dan Monson, Matt Santangelo and company took them to within one possession of knocking off eventual national champs UConn in the Elite 8 back in 1999.

But the Zags haven’t made it back to the Elite 8 in 15 years. They’ve been to the second weekend of the NCAA tournament just twice since 2001: In 2006, when an Adam Morrison-led team blew a 17-point lead to UCLA, and in 2009, when they beat a No. 13 and No. 12 seed to get through the weekend. Five times in the last 13 NCAA tournaments, the Zags have been upset by a lower-seeded team. Only once in that time frame — back in 2011, when they beat St. John’s as a No. 11 seed — have they pulled off a real upset.

Once known as giant-killers, the cinderella you always pick in your bracket, Gonzaga’s developed a new reputation: overrated and perennially overhyped. It came to a head back in the 2013 NCAA tournament, when Kelly Olynyk and company were given the No. 1 overall seed, a fairly-controversial decision, only to lose in the Round of 32 to Wichita State, who eventually made the Final Four.

And you better believe that Gonzaga players have picked up on that rep.

“I definitely notice,” Kevin Pangos told NBCSports.com at the Point Guard Skills Academy last week. “I don’t listen to what people say so much because sometimes we do play great teams and lose. Sometimes it’s a tough situation like that.”

Pangos would know as well as anyone.

He’s been the face of Gonzaga basketball for the better part of three years, ever since he exploded on the scene by scoring 33 points and hitting nine threes in a blowout win over Washington State during ESPN’s 24-hour college hoops marathon. It was his first nationally-televised game as a freshman, but it may have been the last time that Pangos was truly a major part of college basketball’s national conversation. As a sophomore, Pangos was overshadowed as the Zags rode front court work horses Kelly Olynyk and Elias Harris to the No. 1 overall seed. And this past season, Pangos was a shell of himself as he battled turf toe on one foot and a sprained ankle on the other.

“I was playing at 60%,” Pangos said. “It was so frustrating. I was just trying to help the team win and not make myself any worse. I was taped up and braced up, trying to stitch myself together.”

The issue, Pangos said, wasn’t just that those injuries cut down on his already limited explosiveness and lateral mobility. It killed his balance, making running off of screens and sprinting into open jumpers — his bread and butter — a painful endeavor.

“It just wasn’t fun,” he said. “I was in pain the whole time, because it was both feet. It wasn’t just one, both were hurt.”

The injuries were so bad that Pangos spent nearly three months after the season ended rehabbing, trying to get back to 100%. He would shoot, he said, but he wasn’t doing much running and didn’t even play live, 5-on-5 basketball until about a week before he left for the Point Guard Skills Academy.

“I’m better, but not quite 100%,” he said.

The health of their senior point guard will be key for the Zags next season, but Pangos won’t be forced to carry the entire load as the Zags will field a team that could find themselves in the top ten heading into the 2014-2015 season. Sam Dower graduates, as does David Stockton, but Mark Few has added more than enough pieces to reload. Four-star point guard Josh Perkins joins the program, as does Domantas Sabonis, a seven-foot Lithuanian that is the son of the great Arvydas Sabonis and would be a five-star recruit had he played his high school ball state-side. Kentucky transfer Kyle Wiltjer will be eligible to play, as will USC transfer Byron Wesley and Vanderbilt castoff Eric McClellan.

Throw in returnees Gary Bell Jr., Przemek Karnowski, Kyle Dranginis and Angel Nunez, and what you get is a team with plenty of size, shooting, lineup versatility and depth.

The only thing that they’ll be short on next season is expectations.

“I want to peak at the right time,” Pangos said. “We’ve had good seasons, but we haven’t had any great years. Even when we were ranked No. 1, we didn’t end the year strong. So I want to have an all-around, strong year from start to finish. We might lose a few games here or there. But no matter what, I want us to have a full year. I need to get somewhere I’ve never been before: the second weekend of the NCAA tournament.”

“But I want to make it as far as we can, to a Final Four,” he added. “To get that experience in my last year. I don’t want to say that if we don’t make it, it will be a failure, but it’s a once-in-a-lifetime experience that I don’t want to miss out on.”

No. 7 South Carolina upends No. 3 Baylor to advance to the Elite 8

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NEW YORK — It was with a whipping and a whimper that Baylor’s season can to an end on Friday night.

The final two minutes of the game wasn’t actually a game. No. 7 seed South Carolina dished out a 70-50 beatdown that wasn’t in doubt after the Gamecocks used an 18-0 run at the end of the first half to turn a rock fight into statement, and for the final two minutes of the game, the Gamecocks and, eventually, Baylor dribbled out the remaining seconds before joining arms at center court for a postgame prater.

It’s the third straight year that Baylor has been bounced from the NCAA tournament by a team seeded lower than them. In 2015, it was R.J. Hunter’s heroics that knocked his dad off of a stool and sent No. 14 seed Georgia State into the second round of the tournament. In 2016, the Bears fell in the first round to No. 12 seed Yale, prompting one of the most memorable press conference moments in NCAA tournament history.

And on Friday night, it was South Carolina that sent the Bears into offseason hibernation.

It was a disheartening end to a season, a loss that will surely provide fodder for the people that traffic in ‘Scott Drew can’t coach’ jokes, the irony being that the 2016-17 season was definitive proof that Scott Drew is almost certainly better at his job than you are at yours.

“When you coach for a while and you make Elite Eights and Sweet 16, you kind of start taking it for granted that you will always be successful in March,” Drew said. “But it’s a good reminder to be here and know how hard it is.”

No. 1 North Carolina handles No. 4 Butler en route to Elite Eight

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North Carolina, the top seed in the South Region, led by as many as 20 en route to a 92-80 win over No. 4 Butler in the Sweet 16 matchup on Friday night at the FedEx Forum in Memphis.

The Tar Heels were led by 26 points, off 8-of-13 shooting, from junior point guard Joel Berry II. The 6-foot floor general had been hampered by an ankle injury through the first weekend. While he still seemed to favor that same ankle at times, his play was a big improvement on his 3-of-21 shooting through the NCAA Tournament’s first two rounds. Justin Jackson nearly matched Berry’s game-high with 24 points.

Andrew Chrabascz, in the final game of his four-year career at Butler, finished with 21 points, seven rebounds and four assists.

North Carolina, the last of the ACC’s nine tournament bids, advances to the Elite Eight to face the winner of No. 3 UCLA and No. 2 Kentucky. The Wildcats own a win over North Carolina, defeating the Tar Heels, 103-100, on Dec. 17 behind 47 points from Malik Monk.

Missouri lands No. 1 player in Class of 2017 as Michael Porter Jr. commits

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Missouri and new head coach Cuonzo Martin have landed the No. 1 player in the Class of 2017 a week after he took the job as forward Michael Porter Jr. committed to the Tigers on Friday.

Formerly a Washington commit under now-fired head coach Lorenzo Romar, the 6-foot-9 Porter was released from his Letter of Intent this week and many believed he’d end up back at Missouri.

The Porter family lived in Columbia for many years as two of Michael’s older sisters play for the Missouri women’s team while Michael Porter Sr. was an assistant coach for the women’s team.

When Porter Sr. was hired to Missouri to be an assistant coach on Martin’s staff this week — after losing his assistant coaching job at Washington when Romar was fired — it all but sealed the deal that the Porters would return to Missouri and Michael Jr. would play for the Tigers.

Missouri might not be an NCAA Tournament team next season after struggling to an 8-24 finish and 2-16 record in the SEC. But Porter might be the most productive freshman entering college basketball next season as he has a chance to be dominant in the SEC.

Oklahoma State promotes assistant coach Mike Boynton to head coach

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Oklahoma State has decided to promote assistant coach Mike Boynton to head coach, the school announced on Friday.

Boynton was an assistant with the Cowboys under former head coach Brad Underwood, who left Oklahoma State to take the Illinois job last weekend. Also an assistant coach at Stephen F. Austin, South Carolina, Wofford and Coastal Carolina, Boynton is a native of New York City who played his college ball for the Gamecocks.

The hire of Boynton is surprising since he doesn’t have any head-coaching experience as it follows in the footsteps of Cal promoting assistant coach Wyking Jones earlier in the day. Boynton also notably won the job over broadcaster and former Oklahoma State guard Doug Gottlieb as Gottlieb interviewed for the job but wasn’t selected.

 

Rhode Island junior E.C. Matthews will return to school

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Rhode Island junior guard E.C. Matthews will return to school for his redshirt senior season, the school announced on Friday.

The 6-foot-5 Matthews led the Rams in scoring at 14.9 points per game this past season as he returned from a torn ACL and helped Rhode Island reach the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 1999.

Besides for being a talented scorer, Matthews is a good overall playmaker for the Rams as he also put up 4.3 rebounds and 1.4 assists per game.

With Matthews returning, it gives head coach Dan Hurley a huge weapon for next season as Rhode Island returns everyone besides the senior front court of Hassan Martin and Kuran Iverson.