The Gonzaga University men’s basketball team’s sustained excellence is one of the most remarkable stories in contemporary sports.
The Bulldogs are, well, a Pacific Northwest dynasty. And they are on the verge of their 21st straight — no, that’s not a misprint — NCAA Tournament appearance. What’s more, they’ve won 25 or more games in 11 straight seasons.
And for junior sensation Rui Hachimura and his team, the most meaningful stretch of the season is on the horizon.
The No. 1-seeded and nationally No. 1-ranked Bulldogs (29-2), winners of 20 straight, play a TBD foe in the West Coast Conference Tournament semifinals on Monday in Las Vegas.
This is likely Hachimura’s final time to shine on the collegiate level. After all, he is expected to forego his senior season and enter the NBA Draft. He is considered a top-15 draft pick by most experts, and a top-five selection by other pundits.
Being around this program can be mesmerizing, so Tom Hudson enjoys the joyride season after season. As the Voice of Gonzaga Basketball since 2002, Hudson sees every game. His voice captures the highs (lots of them) and lows of Bulldogs game for hundreds of thousands of listeners.
He’s a man of infectious enthusiasm and authoritative expertise about the Zags. And a recent conversation with Hudson provided a valuable primer on Gonzaga basketball in the 21st century, a window into the world that Hachimura entered as a college freshman in 2016.
“I would be shocked if he came back,” Hudson said of Hachimura.
Hudson, 50, also discussed the Toyama native’s growth into a player on the cusp of global recognition. It all started with limited playing time in the 2016-17 season (28 games, 128 total minutes for the NCAA championship runner-up squad), then increased as a crowd-pleasing sophomore (two starts in 37 games; 11.6 points per game).
Hachimura, now one of the premier stars in college basketball while playing for a coaching legend in Mark Few, who’s been at the helm since 1999, is the biggest story in Japanese basketball. (Did you know that Few entered the current season with a .819 career winning percentage — 535 wins, 118 losses — best among active college coaches?)
And though hard work and natural talent have combined to elevate Hachimura’s game, his improved offensive play has been striking this season.
“From 16 or 17 feet and in, you just are automatically accounting two points as soon as it leaves his hands,” Hudson said, adding that Hachimura possesses “a fantastic mid-range game.”
He scored a career-high 33 points in Gonzaga’s regular-season opener on Nov. 6 against Idaho State. He poured in 32 on Feb. 2 against San Diego, including 20 in the first half. In between those two games and throughout the season, he’s displayed a potent and thrilling offensive game, growing confidence and a swagger that would help transform any really good team into one with a potential for greatness.
Gaudy statistics define one critical aspect of Hachimura’s game, but his passion for the sport is what radiates every time he steps onto the court.
“You see that smile from him and you see his athleticism and the way he plays,” Hudson said, “and he seems to have just a pure joy for playing the game, and people really get excited about that, too.”
Photos and videos of his explosive dunks are routinely displayed on social media platforms, all of which highlight his growing fame and increase his fan base.
“Especially if he’s able to get out on a fast break or get running, you can feel the energy in the building,” said Hudson, who began his broadcasting career in Colorado before moving to Spokane, Washington, in 1996 and working in local television as a sports reporter for six years before becoming the Gonzaga play-by-play announcer. “People stand up and everybody’s holding their breath waiting for the dunking or waiting for the spectacular thing that he’s going to do.”
One recent online collage of images and Hudson’s play-by-play highlights encapsulates the 203-cm Hachimura’s boundless energy on the court. “Hachimura throws it down with two hands. Show time at the Kennel!” Hudson exclaimed at the end of one clip from McCarthey Athletic Center.
This much is also clear: The 21-year-old game’s is far from one-dimensional. He’s a gifted rebounder and tenacious defender, too.
This week, Hachimura was named West Coast Conference Player of the Year and a member of its all-conference first team for the second straight season. He’s also in the running for several individual awards on the national level. This includes being named one of 10 semifinalists for the prestigious Naismith College Player of the Year Award. Duke’s Zion Williamson, Kentucky’s P.J. Washington, Tennessee’s Grant Williams and Murray State’s Ja Morant are among the other semifinalists.
On March 19, four Naismith finalists will be revealed.
In addition, Hachimura is one of five finalists for the 2019 Julius Erving Small Forward of the Year Award, a candidate for the Oscar Robertson Trophy, which is selected by the U.S. Basketball Writers Association, and the John R. Wooden Award.
A model of consistency, Hachimura has reached double digits in points in all 31 of Gonzaga’s games this season. He is Gonzaga’s go-to scorer (20.6 points per game, No. 3 in the WCC). He shot 61.3 percent from the field in the regular season (sixth-best total) and snared 6.6 rebounds (No. 8).
Hudson told Hoop Scoop that “dynamic” is one of the first words that come to mind to describe Hachimura.
“I think every time he touches the ball you have an idea that something special can happen,” he said.
Since making his college debut in 2016, Hachimura has grown into a fiery performer. His confidence in his game has grown, too, as he’s become more accustomed to the spotlight.
“You see that smile from him and you see his athleticism and the way that he plays,” Hudson said, “and he seems to have just a pure joy for playing the game, and people really get excited about that, too.”
Sifting through a reservoir of images and memories from this season, Hudson pointed to then-No. 3 Gonzaga’s 89-87 victory over top-ranked Duke in the Maui Invitational final in November as a game that validated Hachimura’s place near the top of the college basketball pecking order.
Hachimura swatted a pair of shots in the final minute, and finished with team-best totals in points (20) and rebounds (seven) against the Blue Devils. He earned tourney MVP honors.
It was a statement win for Hachimura and Co., the program’s first-ever victory over an Associated Press No. 1-ranked team.
“Rui played really well against them in the championship game and didn’t show any fear,” recalled Hudson, who admitted without hesitation that he’s blessed to have this job. “He looked like he belonged and he looked like he had the attitude that he belonged. It just wasn’t physically, it was also mentally.
“From the opening tip in that game in Maui, he was ready to go and looked as good as anybody on the floor — and we’re talking about Duke supposedly having three top-10 picks (this year), and Rui was right there with those guys every step of the way, and at times he was every better than those guys.”
Intense media coverage
Because of the continuous success of the Bulldogs during Few’s reign, the team receives a ton of media coverage, and not just in eastern Washington.
“It’s a Gonzaga-dominated state,” Hudson mentioned.
He added: “From a local standpoint, the local media just eats Gonzaga up. It is the lead story every night on TV when we play. The newspaper (The Spokesman-Review) really goes all out covering Gonzaga, and if you’re a Gonzaga fan, you have to love it. We hear from fans sometimes from Eastern Washington or even Washington State, ‘Hey, where’s our coverage?,’ because Gonzaga dominates it so much. And then nationally, we’ve gotten to a point where you see feature stories and you see coverage on all of our guys.
“Probably in the last decade or so, you’ve seen a lot more stuff that’s come towards Gonzaga from a national perspective compared to some of the other schools.
“Washington is starting to win, so people are starting to pay attention to them a little bit more right now, but over this last 10 years or so as Gonzaga’s continued to rise, it is definitely Gonzaga that dominates the media scene.”
And naturally, Hachimura is frequently subjected to media inquiries. He’s learned to handle it.
“He’s done a fantastic job,” Hudson shared. “From the day he stepped foot on campus to where he is now, he wouldn’t do any TV stuff because he wasn’t comfortable, and he wouldn’t do any radio stuff because he wasn’t comfortable with his English. And now that you see he’s been around for a couple of years, he’s done a great job with the school and going through with the English as a second-language program and just being around his teammates and just being around a little bit, you really see a great growth in that area, for sure.”
At the same time, Hachimura has grown into a national icon. Playing for the perennial powerhouse Zags has broadened his appeal.
Sports Illustrated, SLAM magazine, Bleacher Report, ESPN.com and other prominent media outlets have published profiles of Hachimura this season.
In addition, Hachimura receives plenty of attention from Japanese media visiting Spokane, Washington, or wherever Gonzaga is playing. He’s become a well-known icon, following a similar trajectory as Yuzuru Hanyu.
From what he’s observed, Hudson believes Hachimura has a solid rapport with the Japanese press corps.
“I do think that it has intensified,” he said of media coverage. “And I think he handles it really well. I think he kind of understands what he means and people are following him and supporting him.”
Roland Lazenby, author of “Michael Jordan, The Life,” told Hoop Scoop he’s impressed with Hachimura’s development during his time at Gonzaga.
“He’s drawn a lot of comparisons to (Denver Nuggets forward) Paul Millsap, I would agree with that, although he’s shown so much new game in the past months, I hesitate to try to label him,” Lazenby commented on Tuesday. ” Late bloomers are like that. You don’t quite know how far they’ll take it. One way to judge is his nice, variable skill set. He’s definitely got some old school in him, knows how to play down low and just about everywhere else when necessary. I like him.”
Former New York Daily News college sports guru Dick “Hoop” Weiss, one of the leading experts on NCAA basketball, has kept a close eye on Hachimura for years. He’s also been awed by Rui’s development every step of the way.
“I first saw him at the 2017 FIBA U-19 Worlds in Cairo, where he averaged 20 and 11 and became a member of the Japanese national team for the 2019 World Cup and 2020 Olympics,” Weiss stated. “Was impressed when he got 25 against Iran in a World Cup qualifier.”
Weiss predicted that Hachimura could be selected in the top five in the 2019 NBA Draft on June 20 in New York.
“He has developed into a complete player.” Weiss said. He described Hachimura as an “exceptional shooter” and “deserving POY in the WCC for a top-ranked AP team. A perfect compliment to teammate Brandon Clarke.”
Longtime New Jersey-based college hoops scribe Jerry Carino, who writes for the Asbury Park Press, dished out lofty praise to Hachimura this week.
“A good comparison to a current NBA player would be (Orlando Magic forward) Aaron Gordon — great athlete and ultra-versatile,” Carino declared. “He’s an ideal specimen for the latest evolution of basketball — no position, tremendous in transition. He’s also a winner. Like all Gonzaga players, he’s fundamentally sound.
“The scary thing about Gonzaga is they surround him with talented pieces. That’s why they could win the NCAA Tournament. In fact, they are my pick to win it — over Duke. By the end of March Madness, people will be talking about Hachimura in a similar vein to Zion Williamson. There is only one Zion, but Rui is the second-most exciting player in the college game.”
So just how big a national story has Hachimura become?
Tuesday’s announcement that the Houston Rockets and Toronto Raptors would play a pair of preseason games at Saitama Super Arena in October — the NBA’s first games here since 2003 — will only upstage Hachimura for a short while.
This is his stage.
It’s Rui Hachimura’s time.
Enjoy the ride. Another journey will soon begin.