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Stepp ready for a giant leap to the Final Four

South Eugene product thinks Gonzaga has what it takes this year

You play at Gonzaga, you can dream of anything. The plucky team from Spokane, which once struggled just to make the NCAA Tournament, can realistically dream of a Final Four this season.

'I think about it. I don't think I would talk about it, though,' says guard Blake Stepp. 'Too many things can happen. It's how you're playing at that time, too.'

But Stepp doesn't downplay how good Gonzaga can be in his senior season.

'We definitely have the weapons to be the best Gonzaga team,' the former South Eugene High star says. 'We're 10 deep, and we have a lot of guys who can do a lot of different things.

'Last year, I had to average 18 points. This year, I'm averaging 13. It's not a big deal now; I don't have to lead our team through a dry spell. I really don't need to shoot.'

Still, shoot he does, and quite well. Stepp is .432 on 3-pointers and averaging 13.6 points, 4.9 rebounds and 7.0 assists.

The Bulldogs, who will play the Portland Pilots on Jan. 23 at the Chiles Center, shoot .506, average 83.4 points and have a plus-8.5 rebounding margin.

Ten players average 11 or more minutes played, all the way down to true freshman Derek Raivio, the skinny kid from Vancouver, Wash., and the son of former Pilot Rick Raivio. Derek Raivio, Stepp's backup at point guard, hit two 3-pointers right away when he got into both West Coast Conference games last week.

For Stepp, the next, er, step in college basketball would be the Final Four. He has experienced virtually everything else. The Bulldogs made the Sweet 16 in his freshman year. In his sophomore season, Gonzaga went 29-4 and earned an NCAA No. 6 seed before losing to Wyoming. Last year, the Bulldogs played Arizona in the second round, losing 96-95 in overtime in maybe the season's best NCAA game.

This season, Gonzaga played maybe the toughest nonleague schedule ever in an attempt to further enhance its stature. The goal: Regardless of whether Gonzaga wins the WCC again, the Bulldogs want and will demand a high tournament seed.

Gonzaga (12-2) has lost only to ranked teams Ñ73-66 to St. Joseph's and 87-80 to Stanford. In a four-game stretch, the Bulldogs won at Washington, Maryland and George Washington, and beat then-No. 4 Missouri in Seattle.

Recently, Gonzaga beat upstart Washington State 96-58. No doubt the Bulldogs own the state of Washington.

The Bulldogs are 91-22 since Stepp starting playing at Gonzaga. Sure, he would liked to have played at Oregon ÑDuck coach Ernie Kent didn't show much interest in him during recruitingÑbut he thinks his career has turned out OK.

'I came in when we were right on the verge of reaching the top echelon in the country,' he says. 'It's been great to see. We're playing a national schedule. We're recruiting nationally now. People know us.'

And next year, maybe Stepp gets his chance to play in the NBA, like former Zags Richie Frahm and Dan Dickau.

'It's weird to think about,' he says. 'Four years ago, I was wondering if I could ever play in the NBA. Now it could be a reality.'

Stepp played alongside Dickau for two years as the shooting guard, then took over the point guard job last year. He prefers the point. At 6-4 and 192 pounds, 'I'm bigger (than Dickau), and I maybe drive to the basket and pass a little more,' Stepp says. 'Most people know I can shoot, but they are watching my ballhandling. I could have better quickness.'

Gonzaga should get much more exposure in the NCAA Tournament.

To the credit of coach Mark Few and his staff, the Bulldogs have evolved from the free-shooting bunch of the late 1990s, when Gonzaga had the Cinderella label, to a team dominant on the inside with veterans Ronny Turiaf and Cory Violette. 'No reason to go anywhere but inside,' Stepp says.

Gonzaga's rebounding has been great the last four years. The Bulldogs led the country in rebounding margin in Stepp's freshman year. But, whereas they used to slow down games, they now rely on their rebounding and fast-break systems to control games.

In the NCAAs, 'you need a lot of things, but a big front line is definitely key,' Stepp says. 'Games get more physical.'

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