Dave Boling: Call him what you will, this season 'little Ben Gregg' has grown into 'Mr. Zag'

Mar. 12—LAS VEGAS — Ben Gregg turned into a star Monday night.

For most of the last two seasons, he's been a somewhat unsung catalyst for the Gonzaga men's team, making the hustle plays, playing with attitude and energy, bringing some muscle when it was needed, along with surprisingly versatile offensive skills.

But in an 89-77 win over San Francisco in the semifinals of the West Coast Conference Tournament at the Orleans Arena, Gregg became The Man.

Not the Only Man, as five Zags scored in double figures, but The Man who not only gave his customary spark, but brought the whole explosive ordnance as well.

Making all four 3-point attempts in the second half, he finishing with 17 points and 11 rebounds.

"He's our Mr. Zag," GU coach Mark Few said. "He flies around and the guys feed off him. His positive energy is palpable and we feed off that."

For a moment, consider how hard and well one has to play for Mark Few to call somebody "Mr. Zag"? Given the parade of gifted players and selfless scrappers and bloody-knuckled battlers Few has coached, that's probably as huge a compliment as Gregg could get.

It was needed Monday night, too. For much of the first half, the Zags showed very little of the efficiency or urgency that characterized recent wins.

The Dons' defense was collapsing on center Graham Ike, and the Zags seemed content to allow USF to set the tempo. The Zags led by just one at halftime.

Gregg went to work early in the second half, with heavy board work and unerring shooting.

And in an eerie scene late in the game, when the outcome was probably already in hand, Gregg came flying off the left baseline and batted a rebound to the far sideline. Somehow, he got all the way over to the ball to save the possession before flying into the stands.

At that moment, with the GU fans on their feet cheering the hustle play, the gym was inexplicably filled with colorful, flashing disco lights. It seemed a celebration of Gregg's effort, spotlights hitting him as he ran down the floor.

I caught him on one side of the locker room after the game and told him that I was ready to proclaim him a star.

"I wouldn't go that far," he said.

But that second-half shooting was a real star-turn, especially for a 6-10 forward.

"My dad always coached me to have those guard skills," he said.

Who, then, does he want to emulate? Who does he want to be? Perhaps an unselfish and high-effort player like senior teammate Anton Watson.

"I've seen him grow in the program kind of how I am now," Gregg said. "I've seen him doing all the dirty work, and I've tried to model my game after that."

Gregg has the flair of a showman at times. Was that learned from departed icon Drew Timme?

"He's a showman, and when you play with that kind of energy and passion, it comes through every part of your game," he said.

At times, he does the celebratory muscle flex that Timme loved, although sometimes Timme's flexes seemed for ironic effect, as the guns were somewhat modest caliber.

Gregg, though, is well defined, and able to pop his triceps with some distinction.

"Yeah, J.P. (Batista, former player and current staffer) has got me doing dips," Gregg said. Batista, a granite monolith, walked by to support the claim that weight-room dilettantes pump the biceps while the real lifters pump the triceps.

"Curls are for girls," Batista offered.

"It's not a cocky or arrogant thing," Gregg said of his flexing. "I'm just having fun playing."

And while it might seem as if Gregg is trying to fashion his game after Timme and Watson, what he really wants to become, as a player, is a gold fish.

He explained: he's a fan of the Ted Lasso show, during which the soccer coach schools his athletes to be like a goldfish, because they lack institutional memory. Accordingly, Gregg forgot his 0-5 shooting in the first half and set the nets on fire in the second.

Asked of his biggest area of growth, as he's become a starter and key contributor, he pinpoints "confidence."

"I think I'm playing with confidence now," he said. "My coaches and teammates have trust in me, even when I wasn't shooting well, they were all behind me."

Tuesday evening, the Zags take on rival Saint Mary's in the tournament title game, with the league's automatic NCAA bid at stake.

Chances are, Saint Mary's will not make the mistake of leaving Gregg uncovered on the perimeter. Not once they see how he has emerged into a star.

But if he must, Gregg will find other ways to contribute, doing whatever it takes.

Nothing less would be accepted by somebody called "Mr. Zag."