Kent’s Bell helps fuel No. 1 Gonzaga’s run to the Big Dance

No longer David, Gonzaga is a Goliath in college basketball. Gary Bell Jr. and his teammates know as much. They are fully aware of their lofty position as the top-ranked Bulldogs head into the Big Dance with a bull's-eye squarely placed on their chests.

Gary Bell Jr.

Gary Bell Jr.

No longer David, Gonzaga is a Goliath in college basketball.

Gary Bell Jr. and his teammates know as much. They are fully aware of their lofty position as the top-ranked Bulldogs head into the Big Dance with a bull’s-eye squarely placed on their chests.

“Especially with us being the No. 1 team (in both major polls),” said Bell, a sophomore guard for the Zags and a former top recruit out of Kentridge High School. “We’re definitely going to have that target on our back. We’ve had that pressure for a while. I mean, coming from the WCC (West Coast Conference) a lot of teams target us all the time. We definitely know how that feels. We just have to keep it rolling. We’re playing really well.”

With Bell doing his thing in the backcourt, Gonzaga rolled to a 31-2 season, completing an unbeaten run in conference play and earning an unprecedented top seed in the West Region of the NCAA Tournament. The streaking Bulldogs, who have won 14 straight, open the tournament against No. 16 seed Southern University (23-9) – the alma mater of Bell’s father – on Thursday in Salt Lake City, Utah.

“He’s going for the Zags, obviously,” Bell said of his dad. “Blood is thicker than water.”

Gary Bell Sr. went to grade school in Louisiana and attended Southern briefly before enlisting in the Navy. Today he works for the Seattle Housing Authority.

Dad couldn’t be prouder of his son. He told him to be ready. Get past the Jaguars from Baton Rouge, La., and the Zags will face a difficult road in a bracket that includes second-seeded Ohio State, Kansas State, New Mexico and Arizona, the No. 6 seed out of the Pac-12 Conference.

Bell and his teammates have responded well to that added attention. They are ready to give it their best shot. No Gonzaga team has entered the tournament so heralded and with such high expectations. The Zags were a No. 2 seed back in 2004 and lost to Nevada in the second round.

Magical run

“We’re continuing to make history,” Bell said. “It’s crazy. I mean, I never would have thought this would happen. We’re right in the middle of it all. We can’t get too high off it, though. We have to continue to keep playing like we have been.

“We’ll definitely be ready.”

Bell has done his part on a balanced team of good size, speed and strength. In 32 games, 31 of which were starts, the 6-foot-1, 205-pound Bell has averaged 9.2 points, 2.2 rebounds and 2.8 assists per game. At Kentridge, where he flourished in coach Dave Jamison’s system, Bell scored 55 points in a regular-season game against Auburn Riverside in 2009.

Gonzaga is by far Bell’s best team he’s played on since he helped lead the Chargers to a third-place finish in the Class 4A state tournament as a sophomore. As a senior, he led the state Class 4A tournament in total points (128), guiding Kentridge to a sixth-place finish.

“It’s definitely No. 1,” Bell said. “No. 2 is my sophomore year at Kentridge, but this is the best team I ever played on. We have so much talent, and we all get along.”

The Zags, with a blend of solid guard play and big play underneath, often ask Bell to defend the opponent’s sharpshooter. In other games, he is relied upon to pick it up on the offensive end of the floor.

“Whatever the coaches want me to do, I will do,” Bell said. “If it means guarding their best player, that’s what I will do. I just try to give it my all every game. I never take a possession off.”

Best fit for him

For Bell, who had scholarship offers from Washington, UCLA and other big schools, the quieter confines of the Jesuit school in Spokane have fit him well.

“For a small school here, we get a lot of attention,” he said. “But for a small school, it was a great opportunity for me. We’re getting a lot of media, we’re playing on ESPN, playing against the best teams. Just getting the opportunity to come to Spokane … not too far from home … getting national exposure has been great.”

Mark Few has turned out to be everything in a coach for Bell.

“I love playing for him. He’s helped develop a lot of my game,” Bell said. “He’s a player’s coach. He’s one of the best in the country. … I love my time here.”

While he hasn’t declared a major, Bell means business at Gonzaga. He is taking accounting and computer classes, the backbone to a possible career in commerce one day.

“I want to own my own business,” he said. “I want to work for nobody else.”

Except for the teammates he loves. They all belong to a close Gonzaga family.

“We all get along so well,” he said. “We all play for each other.”

“The good part about it is he’s getting an education,” the elder Bell added. “He has something to fall back on.”

Growing up, dad taught son some important lessons: pay attention, obey the rules, work hard and have fun.

“I wouldn’t say we were strict but we just tried to tell him to stay out of trouble,” the father said. “He pretty much listened.”

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