Don’t worry, Gonzaga University guards Eric McClellan and Josh Perkins are long past being sullen.
They know the same scouting report will be used by Seton Hall for the NCAA Tournament’s round of 64 that has been out there for months:
To beat the Zags, pressure their backcourt.
To beat the West Coast Conference powerhouse, let the guards shoot.
To move on in the tournament, let McClellan and Perkins … self-destruct.
“When you hear things like that, you take it personally,” McClellan said. “But at the same time, if you’re solely focused on that, you are doing it for the wrong reasons.”
Part of the issue is who this current starting backcourt is following.
Just look at the names of the great guards who have come through the Gonzaga program: NBA Hall of Famer John Stockton; All-Americans Dan Dickau, Blake Stepp, Derek Raivio, and Jeremy Pargo; even last year’s standouts of Kevin Pangos and Gary Bell Jr.
“I sat down with all of the (guards) … and said, ‘Don’t try and be those guys (Pangos and Bell), but just be ourselves,’ ” McClellan said. “I have been able to be in college basketball to see a lot of things, and adapt to certain situations. The most important thing I told them was to stay away from that noise.”
Easier said than done. Sometimes the noise follows you.
In McClellan’s case, it did. A former impact guard at Vanderbilt, he was dismissed from the team in 2014 for violating the school’s academic policy. He transferred to Gonzaga shortly thereafter.
Both guards played in reserve roles last season. The 6-foot-4 McClellan was cleared to compete in January, and played in 18 games. Meanwhile, the 6-3 Perkins, a freshman, saw his season come to an end after five games from a fractured jaw sustained against Georgia.
Nobody knew what the Zags had this season with their new starting backcourt — especially with opponents geared to stop Kyle Wiltjer and Domantas Sabonis on the inside.
In nonconference play, McClellan and Perkins were inconsistent scorers and troublesome decision-makers. Between them, they averaged 17.6 points and 4.7 turnovers per game.
It was an especially rough start for Perkins, who averaged 3.1 turnovers per game at point guard.
“People who have the personnel to speed them up had success,” one WCC assistant coach said. “Perkins, at times, falls into the temptation of making a flashy play, which can cause them trouble. And he just does not change pace very well — he plays at one speed.”
During WCC play, McClellan’s and Perkins’ scoring output went up (21.0 ppg) and the turnovers went down (3.2 tpg).
And in last week’s WCC tournament in Las Vegas, McClellan and Perkins came up huge as the Zags knocked out Portland, BYU and, in the title game, regular-season co-champion St. Mary’s.
McClellan averaged 20.3 points per game and committed one turnover. Perkins added 14.0 points per game and hit crucial 3-pointers.
“One of the main things that impresses me about coach (Mark) Few is that he has had guys in the past who have not shot it well from the 3-point line at times early in the season, but their staff gets them to shoot it better and build their confidence,” the WCC assistant said. “They have done it again with McClellan and Perkins.
“Pangos would just hit dagger 3s all the time, and you could not leave him open. I don’t think those two guys are at that level, but they are on an upward trend.”
Few said McClellan and Perkins have played their best basketball over the past few weeks — and at the right time.
“Through it all, they stayed confident,” Few said.
Perkins admitted that at times it wasn’t easy, especially early on.
“I mean, as an athlete when you care so much, the (criticism) obviously hurts. You hear it. It sucks when it happens,” Perkins said. “But we didn’t let it stop us. We dug deep. We found a way.”