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Freshmen growing pains haven't stopped Gonzaga's Dusty Stromer, Braden Huff from contributing

Mar. 19—It's been an interesting season for Gonzaga freshmen Dusty Stromer and Braden Huff.

Stromer was projected to come off the bench until Steele Venters suffered a season-ending knee injury one day before the season opener. Stromer started the first half of the season and came off the bench for the second. He had good stretches and bad stretches in both roles, not uncommon for a college freshman.

"I was just talking to coach (Stephen) Gentry about it," Stromer said recently. "This year I've learned more than I've ever learned in my entire life about basketball. Being a high school senior, you think you know so much about basketball and you get to college you realize, 'Oh, I don't know anything, I've got a lot to learn.'

"It's been a huge learning curve, but I'm so grateful for it. It's only going to help me be more successful in the future."

Huff can certainly relate. The 6-foot-10 forward, who had the advantage of a redshirt year, has been a productive scorer off the bench but tended to struggle against higher-level competition before putting that to rest with 12 clutch points in just 16 minutes in a huge road win over Kentucky.

He admits defense isn't his strong suit, but he's made strides in that area. He's blocked nine shots in the last seven games, despite a decline in minutes during Graham Ike's recent seven-game streak with at least 20 points.

It's all part of the growing pains that every Zag in the rotation has experienced — either earlier in their careers, this season or more likely both.

"I wouldn't necessarily call it a low point, but kind of figuring out your role," Huff said. "I think that can be hard because minutes change and obviously the way you play is going to change. Just trying to figure out how to stay level-headed and not get too high or too down is a big thing for me.

"You're going to have good games, you're going to have bad games, it's part of it. That's what I've learned from some of the older guys. The high points have just been this past month or two. Ever since Kentucky, as a unit we've really come together, started clicking and we're playing well at the right time."

Stromer and Huff, the first two subs in Gonzaga's typical seven-man rotation, both described junior guard Nolan Hickman, no stranger to peaks and valleys during a season, as invaluable with advice when times get tough.

"He's a good role model for the ups and downs," said Huff, who averages 9.5 points in 13.3 minutes. "What's really great about him, he's been really relatable to the younger guys. He talked about his mistakes in the past and used that as an example and showed us things do get better. No matter if you're up or in a slump, you put in the work, which he does every day, things are going to work out for you."

"I'd say Nolan has been a huge help for me throughout the season," added Stromer, who chips in 4.8 points and 3.5 boards per game. "Just a great vet to have, especially being another guard and sharing his experiences. He's done a great job of showing me the ropes."

That's become one of the hallmarks of the program, upperclassmen taking younger players under their wing. Junior forward Ben Gregg frequently credits former Zag standout Drew Timme for assisting his development. Huff has noted that facing Timme and Anton Watson last season in practice was challenging but beneficial in the long run.

Head coach Mark Few has witnessed Hickman's emergence as a leader.

"I'm hearing his voice more and more when we're walking out of the locker room or at practice," said Few, whose team faces 12th-seeded McNeese State in an NCAA Tournament opener Thursday in Salt Lake City. "That kind triggers we're gaining some ground with him. I was calling his number almost exclusively for the first 10 minutes of the second half (vs. San Francisco) and he made the right basketball play.

"Those are the moments that make you proud as a coach. He's very much stepped it up in a variety of ways."

As have other Zags. Ryan Nembhard's shooting percentages and assists have soared while his turnovers have dropped after a few rough patches in the nonconference. Hickman has followed a similar trajectory. Both are shooting above 45% from behind the arc in conference.

Graham Ike has become more consistent in the paint, despite some bouts with foul trouble. Watson has hit over 40% of his 3-point attempts and Gregg is second on the team with 36 made 3s.

"We don't really care what everybody has to say," Nembhard said. "We just stay within us as a group. We stayed working and we knew we were going to figure it out eventually. We knew how good this group of guys in this (locker) room is.

"We're all young kids, but I feel we're super strong-minded. We just trust what we have in this room."

Confidence can be hard to come by for any player, especially freshmen who don't have a lengthy body of work to fall back on after enduring a couple of tough outings or a shooting slump. Stromer also had to adjust to coming off the bench after routinely logging 25-plus minutes for the first two months.

"When you're starting it's easy to get in a rhythm," he said. "Coming off the bench you have to watch the game a little bit. Both (roles) have ups and both have downs. You kind of have to figure out each situation."

All while lining up against quality opposing players.

"Every single player on a roster is probably the best player on their high school team all on one team," Stromer said. "Being thrown into the fire and seeing all these great players has definitely been surprising. You don't know how good these guys are until you get to touch and feel and then you figure it out."

The Southern California native's on-the-fly adjustments included Spokane's winter weather.

"It's been freezing," Stromer said before the recent climb in temperatures. "I didn't even know it could get this cold. A couple days it was like negative 7 or something crazy like that, I was like this is insane. Guys were telling me this wasn't even a bad winter in Spokane, which is crazy to me. But no, it's been cool to see the seasons change for the first time ever."

Ike believes Gonzaga is capable of an extended run in March Madness after the team elevated its play over the last two months.

"A lot of satisfaction," Ike said. "We got tested by the fire. We saw what we were made of honestly. For us to come out on the other side feeling better, it just makes us better as a collective."