HARD AS it is to imagine now, Gonzaga forward Austin Daye was once so small that he could fit into one of his father's size-13 sneakers. He came into the world nine weeks prematurely, weighing just five pounds, five ounces. Twenty years later he's 6'10", with a 90-inch wingspan and a shoe size (16) bigger than that of his dad, former UCLA and NBA forward Darren Daye. And thanks in part to a partially torn right ACL—suffered at the LeBron James Skills Academy in July—that kept him off the court and in the weight room this summer, Daye is reaching even greater proportions.
Though he has added 16 pounds since last season, bringing his weight to 206, the hyperflexible, double-jointed Daye won't be the same kind of ferocious post defender that departed starters David Pendergraft and Abdullahi Kuso were. But the sophomore forward is an apt symbol for this very promising Gonzaga team. He's battle-tested and highly skilled, he can score from all over the court, and he's ready for a breakout year.
Though the Zags lack a true low-post presence, this could be their most talented team ever. The perennial NCAA tournament darlings went 25--7 last season before they themselves were upset in the first round by 10th-seeded Davidson. Along the way they endured a slew of injuries that gave their reserves and freshmen valuable experience that will pay off in increased depth this year. Joining Daye in the frontcourt is Josh Heytvelt, a senior forward who missed time with a stress fracture. Sophomore sharpshooter Steven Gray, who was also hurt for 10 games but made seven three-pointers in the Davidson loss, will be part of one of the best backcourts in the nation, teaming with senior Jeremy Pargo, the reigning West Coast Conference Player of the Year. Also back is junior Matt Bouldin, the team's leading scorer a year ago.
Daye, who blocked 54 shots last season, will occasionally join them on the perimeter: Last year he hit 41.3% from the three-point line. "The guy can just make baskets," says Few, who would like to see Daye get more physical inside and go to the line more.
Daye credits his dad with making him the multidimensional player he is. "He had me work on all sorts of skills, like handling the ball and playing guard," says Daye. "I'm not the best three-point shooter in the country, but I want to be. I'm not the best free throw shooter in the country, but I'm going to strive to be."
Daye's expectations for this team are likewise lofty. "We have enough talent and chemistry to do good things," he says. "I think we can make the Final Four. If we don't make at least the Elite Eight, it will be a really disappointing season."
Indiana (in Indianapolis)
at Washington State
Arizona (in Phoenix)
Connecticut (in Seattle)
South Carolina Upstate
*Old Spice Classic in Orlando (also Georgetown, Maryland, Michigan State, Siena, Tennessee, Wichita State)
This year's Battle in Seattle pits the Zags against UConn, with whom they have some history. They beat the Huskies in Boston last year, but it was UConn that kept Gonzaga from going to the Final Four in 1999.
Mark Few (10th year)
Where does Gonzaga, long the smaller-conference standard-bearer, rank in Bill Trocchi's latest mid-major power rankings?
LIGHTS OUT With his 90-inch wingspan, the hyperflexible Daye swatted 54 shots last year.