'Dos and Don'ts at Gonzaga

Times Staff Writer

The secret to understanding the cast of characters on Gonzaga's front line is in their hair.

At least that's the theory of center Richard Fox.

Consider forward Cory Violette, with his preppy haircut and solid all-around game.

"Cory's the straight arrow of all of us," Fox said.

There's forward Zach Gourde, the quirky intellectual who likes to espouse the benefits of green tea, echinacea and grape-seed extract.

"Zach's out there," Fox said. "His hair changes day to day. You never know if he'll come with it chopped off or in dreadlocks."

Then there's Ronny Turiaf, the forward from Martinique, whose flying braids are as expressive as his emotional athleticism.

And don't forget Fox, who hardly withholds judgment on himself.

"Me, I'm going gray and losing my hair, and I play old school," he said.

Or, as he put it to Coach Mark Few, "I've got hair like a 40-year-old and my game's like a 40-year-old's too."

Gonzaga's big men haven't yet lived up to their preseason hype as one of the best front lines in the country.

Nor have the Bulldogs, who started the season in the top 25 but have slipped to 10-5, more losses than last season when they went 29-4 and were ranked as high as sixth in the nation.

They lost close games to Indiana and Kentucky in the Maui Invitational, have lost to Georgia, Stanford and St. Joseph's and needed overtime to beat Washington and Washington State. Their best victories were over Utah and North Carolina State.

Now their focus is on the West Coast Conference, with their first meeting with rival Pepperdine -- a once-promising team set back by injuries and health problems -- set for today in Spokane.

It hasn't simply been the loss of first-round NBA pick Dan Dickau that has hurt Gonzaga so much. (Blake Stepp has been a solid replacement.)

The new players are still finding their way, and the usually reliable front line has yet to play consistently well.

"This team is still on a growth curve, still learning," Few said. "I see room for growth, whereas before, we were trying to maintain."

One of the more confounding aspects of the situation has been the play of Gourde, a senior who was the team's second-leading scorer last season but has fallen out of the starting lineup, his shooting percentage having tumbled from 53.5% to 42.9% and his scoring average from 13.2 to 4.5.

"Paralysis by analysis," Few said. "But through it all, he's been a wonderful teammate and leader.

"He's an interesting kid, and for one reason or another he put a little more pressure on himself than he needed to. He has a tendency to over-analyze at times. He got off to a slow start, maybe due to his perceived expectations for himself.

"It kind of sapped his confidence, but we're working through it."

Fox, a transfer from Colorado, has taken Gourde's place in the lineup, but it's Turiaf who has picked up his scoring role, with a career-high 25 points against Loyola Marymount on Thursday.

Turiaf is an interesting character in his own right, a player who speaks five languages.

"Four and a half," Turiaf said, giving himself only partial credit for English, along with Spanish, Italian, French and Creole.

It was the language of basketball that gave him trouble when he arrived at Gonzaga as a freshman last season.

"It was the euphemisms," Gourde said. "He didn't pick up on all the American vernacular. His queen's English is very good."

For a while, Few had trouble making points to Turiaf in practice.

"He had trouble with 'crisp,' like crisp passes," Few said. "He would say, 'Crisp, I don't understand.' But he's Americanized now. He went to see the Eminem movie."

Another way Turiaf has blended in is his sensitivity to his role in the tight-knit foursome on the front line.

"I don't think he realizes how good he could be," Few said. "He wants to come off the bench. He feels like it's those other guys' time. He's kind of sensitive about that. He said, 'Coach, I don't want to start. I would feel really bad starting ahead of Zach.' "

Few is pulling for Gourde to settle back into his game, not only because Gourde is a senior, but because he's such an appealing fellow of many interests.

"He's got me trying this stuff right here, green tea. He's a big green tea guy," Few said. "He runs 10Ks, does ultra bike deals, and probably in all seriousness could hack into a CIA computer if he wanted to."

Gourde's bike fetish has taken him on rides of a hundred miles and beyond, and on his custom-built bike with its oversized frame, he tends to get noticed.

"The 6-8 kid on the bright yellow bike? Yeah," he said.

But the focus is on this season now, and for the Zags to do as well as they're used to, they need Gourde to play the way he has in the past.

"We're trying to just work through it, trying to get him to relax," Few said.

Maybe a change is coming. The other day, Gourde cut his long locks again.

"It was getting a little scraggly," Few said of Gourde's hair.

"At least it's out of his eyes."

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