Before Gonzaga could get to March and earn its 13th consecutive NCAA Division I men's basketball tournament bid, it had to find a way through January.
The Zags lost three consecutive West Coast Conference games, including a 73-71 defeat to Saint Mary’s in Spokane on Jan. 27. They lacked defensive presence. Their decision-making on offense was suspect. They were in sore need of a spark to put their season back on track.
Coach Mark Few, trying everything to find the right lineup combination and rotation, found it with Marquise Carter.
When Carter’s minutes went up, so did the Zags’ performance, and they finished by winning 11 of their final 12 games, including the WCC tournament title game against the Gaels. The only blemish was a 62-58 loss to Memphis at Spokane Arena on Feb. 5.
“This is where I’d hoped we’d be in your positive-thinking moments but I have to admit, it was tested, definitely,” Few said. “Doubt begins to creep in every one in a while, and you just have to fight through it.”
A WCC assistant whose role is advance scouting was asked what singular move had the greatest impact on Gonzaga’s turnaround. He mentioned Sam Dower’s emergence in the low post off the bench. He pointed to the way backup point guard David Stockton had stabilized the offense.
But the best thing to happen to the Zags? Carter.
“He’s versatile, he shoots it well, and he’s a great slasher, so he gives them another scoring threat, which is tough,” said Saint Mary’s guard Mickey McConnell, the WCC’s Most Valuable player. “Defensively, I think he gives them a lift, which has probably helped them the best.”
Carter is a 6-foot-4 guard. He is a San Diego native who attended Three Rivers College in Missouri. A year ago, the NJCAA All-American was busy leading Three Rivers to a national runner-up finish.
Last spring, Carter chose to sign with guard-starved Gonzaga over Oklahoma and Wichita State.
Yet, for a recruit who was highly regarded coming in, Carter was slow to find consistent minutes off the bench.
“I thought I would come to the Division I level and be able to do the same things I did at the junior college level – go through things at half-speed, not really going hard,” Carter said. “I’ve learned, everything you do, you have to play hard to get better.”
Added Few: “We couldn’t get him out of second gear playing at our pace. He wasn’t very tough with the ball. He wasn’t very scrappy. He just needed to kind of getting used to playing with the big boys, and to his credit, he did.”
Effort was the first thing. Learning the nuances of Gonzaga’s offense was the important next step.
“I could say I was lost a little bit,” Carter said. “At our junior college, we ran three to four plays. Here, it’s three or four plays per zone (read).”
For the newcomers, a few of the Gonzaga staff members held late-night playbook study sessions in the gymnasium.
Most parties agree that Carter began elevating his play when Few decided to move him out of the point guard position and let him be an off guard.
“We’ve just sort of been waiting for him to come into his own,” Gonzaga guard Steven Gray said. “As a team, we had confidence in him, and we just had to let him know, ‘We are right behind you. We want to see you succeed. We are right there. We know what you’re capable of.’ ”
Carter moved into the starting lineup for the final 10 games and averaging 11.4 points per outing. Last week, his play not only was significant in leading the Zags to their 10th automatic bid to the NCAA tournament, he also was voted the WCC tournament MVP.
“My time came, and I ran away with it,” Carter said.
Todd Milles: 253-597-8442 firstname.lastname@example.org