Mark Few felt uneasy all fall.
"I was extremely apprehensive," said Few, Gonzaga's coach. "All the way through fall practice, through the exhibition games, they just weren't grasping some of the concepts."
Something certainly took hold.
After a wild week in the state of Washington that saw Gonzaga lose to unheralded Washington State by 10 and then crush then-No. 13 Washington by 20, the 9-2 Bulldogs are ranked No. 16 in the Associated Press poll.
Their lows have been ... surprising, with that loss to Washington State in front of a rare and raucous full house in Pullman, and a loss to now-No. 18 Butler in the NIT Season Tip-Off title game on the heels of the North Carolina upset.
"So far, so good, for the most part," Few said. "A bad stretch in Pullman and a bad stretch in the Butler game, but other than that...."
Morrison and Batista took a combined 48 points and 15 rebounds a game with them when they left, but Gonzaga has recovered nicely.
"We realized we needed to meet them halfway," Few said of his players. "We were trying to plug in offenses and defenses we used in the past, but this is a different team. This team moves the ball really well and can spread out. You don't have to direct the ball as much to certain areas or certain players."
Guard Derek Raivio, who still looks like a ball boy as a senior, is averaging 20 points and shooting 47%, a season after making only 39% of his shots and averaging 11 points.
Josh Heytvelt has been a bigger surprise. After overcoming last season's injury problems, the 6-foot-11 sophomore outplayed Tyler Hansbrough in the North Carolina game and is averaging 17 points and eight rebounds.
Jeremy Pargo, a supremely springy sophomore who can play the point and let Raivio move to shooting guard, has thrived as a starter.
But the best addition to the lineup might be savvy 6-5 freshman Matt Bouldin, who started for the first time against Washington and scored 21 points.
"He's going to be a good one, a very complete guard," Few said. "He can shoot, pass and drive. He has moxie and a high basketball IQ. We had a lot of competition on him and had to beat UConn, Notre Dame and a lot of Big 12 teams to get him."
That's an impressive lineup -- about as imposing a lineup as Gonzaga's next stretch on a schedule ranked among the 10 most difficult in the country before West Coast Conference play begins.
The Zags play at Georgia on Saturday, then face Duke at Madison Square Garden on Dec. 21, return to the West Coast to play No. 25 Nevada in Seattle and then go east again to play Virginia Jan. 3.
Gonzaga, attempting a sweep of North Carolina and Duke in the same season?
"We're trying," Few said. "I don't know if a whole lot of people have done that before. It's definitely not easy."
Alford wants to be there
Iowa Coach Steve Alford, the former Indiana player whose relationship with Bob Knight was strained for a time but has since been patched up, said he was eager to be on hand when Knight breaks Dean Smith's record of 879 victories.
Knight is two victories behind Smith, and could break the record as soon as Texas Tech's Dec. 28 home game against Nevada Las Vegas, though some peg the most likely date as a Jan. 1 home game against New Mexico.
"I can tell you I've been looking at the schedule and trying to predict when it might happen just to see if there's any way I can get down there," Alford said. "Just so I could be a part of it because of how much I respect him and how much he's meant to my career, not just as a player and coach but as a human being.
"What he got out of me as a player, I'll never be able to thank him enough for that," Alford said. "Getting into coaching, no one has spent more time trying to help me, whether it's breaking down my practice tapes, breaking down my game tapes or always being a phone call away."
Another freshman debut
Greg Oden's much-anticipated career is underway at Ohio State after his recovery from wrist surgery, and the 7-footer was a perfect eight for eight against Cleveland State in his second game.
Now 6-6 Kansas State freshman Bill Walker -- a teammate of USC recruit O.J. Mayo last season at Cincinnati North College Hill High -- is poised for his debut.
Walker, whose high school career ended when Ohio officials ruled he already had used up his eligibility, hurriedly completed high school requirements and began attending class at Kansas State as a part-time student during the fall semester.
He becomes eligible Saturday at the semester break and is expected to play Sunday against Kennesaw (Ga.) State.
"I think he's going to have a big impact," said Bob Huggins, the former Cincinnati coach in his first season at Kansas State. "We're not very athletic, and I think he brings a degree of athleticism that we really need.... We don't have anybody that can make the plays that he's going to make."
Walker has been watching Kansas State practice but was not allowed to participate.
"He's going to have to play himself into shape, and he's got an awful lot to learn in a very short period of time," Huggins said. "But I think he's got good basketball IQ. I think we're going to be able to teach him things quicker than what we would maybe some other people."
Not too quickly, USC hopes. Walker will be playing his third game when USC faces Kansas State on Dec. 22 in Las Vegas.
All 10 conference teams are .500 or better. And bolstered by a 61-18 nonconference record, the MVC is second at the moment in the Ratings Percentage Index conference rankings as compiled by CollegeRPI.com, trailing only the Atlantic Coast Conference and just ahead of the Pacific 10.
The human polls agree, with Wichita State ranked in the top 10 of both the Associated Press and the ESPN/USA Today poll, and Missouri State and Southern Illinois lurking just outside the top 25 among teams receiving votes.