Knight starting over as Zag
At the cash register of a Starbucks near the University of Washington in January of 2002:
Employee: "What size?"
Employee: "Here you go, and did you hear about Coach Bender?"
Back then, the whispers were more muffled screams around the Seattle campus. The job status of then-basketball coach Bob Bender became a daily topic of gossip, and Erroll Knight heard it all while nearing the end of his initial collegiate season.
"Coach Bender knew he was going to be fired and so did everyone else," said Knight. "We were all disappointed. He was the one we signed to play with. It made playing pretty frustrating. I knew before the end of the season it would be best to leave."
As it is with most despondent players, Knight embraced familiarity when deciding his next move. He transferred to Gonzaga, which he had turned down when signing with Washington. As it is with most content players, he now says this was the best fit all along.
Knight is a 6-foot-6 guard who when healthy offers as much athleticism as any name nationally. But his medical woes since arriving in Spokane -- mononucleosis, broken finger, back spasms, sprained ankle -- reduced his ability to learn Gonzaga's system while sitting out a transfer season.
Just now, in the team's past four games, Knight is offering noticeable contribution.
"At this point, Erroll has really only scratched the surface in terms of what we think he can do," said Zags coach Mark Few. "He pretty much went through the Trials of Job with all the injuries. He missed a lot of time on the court.
"Once he can combine his athleticism with a feel for how to play, and gets his level of conditioning on par, he'll be able to have an impact at both ends of the floor for long periods of time."
Few owns no specific philosophy when deciding whether to accept a transfer into his top 25 program. One thing for certain: the player who expects a similar recruitment from his prep days has downed one too many triple espressos.
"The second time around, it's about reality over the hype," said Few. "You want to make sure the player realizes what it takes to play college basketball, that they are here to practice 2-3 hours a day and lift and go to school. As a coach, you want to have good interaction with him and really talk instead of just another 48-hour recruiting visit where everything seems great."
The best part for Knight: It's not as if Gonzaga's hope for another West Coast Conference title and deep NCAA run rests on his shoulders.
The Zags -- who put their seven-game win streak on the line against Stanford in one game of the Pete Newell Classic on Saturday -- are led by four senior starters and one of the nation's more relentless post players in junior Ronny Turiaf. The sophomore Knight has played in seven of the team's eight games, averaging 14.6 minutes, 7.0 points and 2.7 rebounds.
"I'm really just now understanding everything (Few) and the other coaches want," said Knight, who averaged 7.1 points and 2.6 boards at Washington. "With the starters we have, I don't have to try to do too much. I can continue learning and help the team any want it needs me to.
"I'm from Seattle. I'm the last child (of five). My mom really wanted me to stay close to home when coming out of high school. But she also understood when I had to leave. It was time to grow up."
And escape the morning coffee rumors.
San Diego State coach Steve Fisher offers one of the country's better examples of building a program via junior-college and high major transfers. And in five years, the most important could be a 5-11 point guard known as much for his hair nationally as his game.
Wesley Stokes is running the point for SDSU this season after sitting out a transfer year from Missouri. The junior is averaging 13.8 points (second to true freshman Brandon Heath's 19.1) and 5.1 assists, but is shooting just 36 percent.
The Aztecs are 5-3 entering a home game Thursday against up-start Cal Poly.
Stokes lost his starting role at Missouri during his sophomore season, when the Tigers fell to Oklahoma in the Elite Eight. Missouri then signed JUCO All-America point guard Ricky Clemons (yeah, him), and Stokes was told he would begin the following season a step behind on the depth chart.
"I didn't feel that was right, so I left," Stokes said. "(Missouri coach Quin Snyder) didn't push me out. It just wasn't the place for me as far as school and basketball. ... He is a great coach. He taught me a lot about being a point guard."
SDSU has hardly produced countless great lead guards. The most productive, like Stokes, attended Long Beach Poly High. Tony Gwynn played for the Aztecs from 1978-81 and remains the school's leader in assists for a career (590), season (221) and game (18).
"I am capable of being the best point guard ever (at SDSU)," Stokes said. "I have the talent and the heart to do it. It all starts inside. If you want it bad enough, you can get it. And I want it."
Said assistant head coach Brian Dutcher: "Wesley is just at a different level than anyone we have had at point guard. I want him to do whatever it takes for us to win this year. If that means score 25, then score 25. If that means score two and help someone else get 25, do that.
"He is a guy you give the ball to and have absolute faith he will do the right thing. And the decisions he makes will play a large part determining what kind of season we have."
|Games to Watch|
Pete Newell Classic, Saturday
Three ranked teams participate in Oakland when No. 11 Stanford plays. No. 15 Gonzaga and No. 12 St. Joseph's meets Cal. Stanford is winning by an average of 11 points, while the Zags are coming off an overtime victory against Missouri. Cal coach Ben Brain has shook things up, making senior A.J. Diggs his starting point guard again, moving freshman Ayinde Ubaka to shooting guard and bringing an inconsistent Richard Midgley off the bench. Diggs is likely a better matchup than Ubaka against St. Joe's standout Jameer Nelson.
Las Vegas Showdown, Saturday
Alabama meets Oregon and Auburn plays UNLV in this event. The Rebels are 5-2 with losses to Nevada and Stanford, and now entertain an Auburn team that is 7-0 and winning by an average of 25 points. It marks the fifth time in the last 10 years that Auburn and Alabama have been part of a regular-season double-header. Oregon is 4-1 and coming off a 94-71 win against Santa Clara.
Michigan State at UCLA, Saturday
The Bruins follow a loss to UC Santa Barbara with a game against the up-and-down Spartans, now 4-4 and ranked No. 25. The Bruins have now defeated Vermont by one, beat Loyola Marymount by three in overtime, lost to Kentucky by two and fell to UCSB by one.
Also, Arizona (which escaped St. Mary's 84-78 in Tucson on Wednesday) will beef up its thin roster with the addition of 6-9 forward Ivan Radenovic from Serbia. Radenovic is 19 and worked all summer to gain admittance to the university and secure his NCAA eligibility. There is also a chance the Wildcats might get forward Chris Dunn back after he attended a community college this semester for academic problems.
The Mountain West, meanwhile, entered the week joining the ACC and Pac-10 as the only conferences where all member teams offer records of .500 or better.
"He didn't act the way I wanted. I wanted him to realize and the other guys to know I mean business. We can't have guys not focused."
-- USC coach Henry Bibby on why he removed senior Desmon Farmer from the starting lineup against Cal State-Fullerton. The Trojans -- who continue to struggle at 3-3 -- play at Fresno State on Friday.
Ed Graney of the San Diego Union-Tribune is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at email@example.com.