The Gonzaga University men’s basketball team is having a remarkable season — one of the best seasons in U.S. college basketball history. And freshman reserve forward Rui Hachimura has been along for the magical ride.
It’s a taste of the big time early in the Toyama native’s collegiate career.
The No. 1 team in the Associated Press Top 25 poll, the Bulldogs (commonly called the Zags) improved to 27-0 with a 96-61 shellacking of visiting University of San Francisco, a West Coast Conference rival, on Thursday.
Gonzaga coach Mark Few’s team, which has amassed an impressive 10 straight 25-win campaigns, is a popular pick by pundits to reach the NCAA Tournament’s Final Four in early April in Phoenix.
There are 351 Division I college hoop programs in the United States, and Hachimura is a part of the team’s deep supporting cast, which includes fellow frosh Killian Tillie, a forward from France; bruising senior big man Przemek Karnowski, who hails from Poland; and junior guard Dustin Triano, a native of Vancouver, British Columbia.
Though he’s not playing major minutes, Hachimura goes through the rigors of practicing against elite talent in the Gonzaga frontcourt. He’s also being mentored by Karnowski, according to The Gonzaga Bulletin, a weekly student newspaper.
While at Meisei High School, Hachimura helped the Sendai-based school win three straight All-Japan High School Tournaments. At Gonzaga, the crown jewel of Spokane, Washington (pop: 208,000), Hachimura has appeared in 21 games, averaging 5.0 minutes, 2.4 points and 1.7 rebounds off the bench.
For a powerhouse team, the fact that the 203-cm Hachimura is even playing as a true freshman is a positive sign.
“I’m really enjoying my time here at Gonzaga,” Hachimura, whose father is originally from the West African nation of Benin, told The Japan Times earlier this week. “This has been a special team to be a part of this year. My teammates and I are like brothers. We’re all very close and I think that shows on the court. Every part of this program is special. The fans here in Spokane love us.
“I’m enjoying learning more about the game from the coaches and my teammates. I feel like my game just keeps getting better and I’m excited to see how much I can grow.”
The Zags have been a strong program for a long time, reaching the NCAA Tournament every year since 1999 and advancing to at least the Sweet 16 seven times in that span, including 2015 and ’16, and a pair of Elite Eight appearances in ’99 and 2015. Few, the team’s head coach since 1999, is recognized as one of the brilliant minds in college basketball. (In November 2015, when Hachimura officially signed his letter of intent with Gonzaga, Few issued this statement: “Rui Hachimura is a really interesting prospect with a high ceiling. We’re excited for him to be part of our future.”)
Gonzaga hasn’t played in the Final Four, though. Not yet. Maybe this is the year for the Zags.
The Spokesman Review’s John Blanchette, who has closely followed the program during his three-plus decades penning stories for the newspaper, has watched Hachimura’s development since his arrival in the Pacific Northwest. He is a gifted observer. In 2009, the Associated Press Sports Editors named Blanchette the nation’s top sports columnist for U.S. newspapers with 40,000-100,000 circulations.
Blachette sees the Zags making the most of the opportunity to maximize Hachimura’s talents while also juggling the pressure of being an elite team.
“I know the coaching staff has tried to get him minutes in competitive situations to hasten his development,” Blanchette told The Japan Times. “It’s just very hard with such an outstanding team with a solid eight-man player rotation — and especially now that they’re trying to protect an unbeaten record and their resume for NCAA seeding purposes.”
One downside to the sustained excellence of the Bulldogs program is limited media access. Few runs a tight ship, exerting tight control over who sees what.
“Coach Mark Few does not open practices to the public or media, so we’re not able to observe him in that setting,” Blanchette noted, referring to Hachimura. “And Rui has mostly deflected our requests for interviews, I think in part because he’s not completely comfortable communicating to us in English yet — though I’m told his progress in the language has been fine — and perhaps because his contributions in games have been limited and he doesn’t feel right about getting much attention yet. Hard to know since we don’t get to interview him.”
That’s only a part of the picture, though.
From conversations with Gonzaga players and coaches, it’s quite clear that Hachimura’s freshman season as a student-athlete has been a big adjustment for him.
“All his teammates and the coaches speak highly of him, both his attitude and, I think generally, his work in practice,” Blanchette revealed. “So much of his early practice time here was limited because he had conflicts with English classes, so his progress was slowed through the fall semester. That’s tough with Gonzaga’s system — the offense can be technical and complex by college standards, and without steady repetition can be difficult to pick up.
“There are many times when Rui looks a little lost in games — out of position, unsure of where he needs to be. But that hardly makes him alone among freshmen. I’ve seen that a lot over the years.”
And what impression has Hachimura made in games?
“From my view, he’s obviously incredibly athletic with a boatload of potential. His soaring dunks are immense crowd-pleasers — they anticipate one virtually every time he enters a game,” the longtime columnist stated. “And you can tell he’s most confident in the open court and when he can trust his physical gifts. His eyes do light up when he sees a path to the basket.”
Getting used to the physical brand of basketball played at the Division I level is another aspect of Hachimura’s growth as a player.
Or as Blanchette put it: “He’s learning to be a better rebounder with all the contact in the American game. And like most freshmen, he needs a lot of work on the defensive end. The adjustment to dealing with better players and athletes on the collegiate level is a climb for every young player, and he’s no exception.”
Off the court, Hachimura has quickly made his presence known, with his sense of humor and “prodigious eating habits” catching his teammates’ attention, Blanchette said.
In short, Hachimura has fit in and that’s not the easiest thing to do in a foreign country on a team with the legitimate potential to run the table and capture the national title.
“I’m sure it’s tough on him not playing more,” Blanchette stated. “But I get the impression he’s handling that well, understanding that he’s on a special team having unprecedented success.
“It’s clear that when he does get playing time, he’s eager to try to make his mark and sometimes forces things a little. But he also seems very caught up in the team success and enjoying it, and his teammates are enjoying him.”
The Zags wrap up the regular season with three more games: at home against the University of the Pacific (Saturday) at the University of San Diego (Feb. 23) and at home against Brigham Young (next Saturday), followed by the WCC tournament and the Big Dance.
Perfection is possible. The bigger target is that elusive title.
Every player has a role on this team. For now, Hachimura’s role is limited, but it’s one piece of the puzzle, one part of the team’s winning formula.