How Gonzaga's Matt Santangelo recovered from a trying NCAA loss
Just a few days after Gonzaga's 67-62 loss to Connecticut in the NCAA West Regional final on March 20, the Bulldogs' 6'1" junior guard, Matt Santangelo, was back in the gym trying to erase his bad memories of that game. Santangelo had become a hero while spearheading Gonzaga's improbable run to the brink of the Final Four, but his joyride had ended miserably when he scored only two points (on 1-of-9 shooting) against the Huskies. Santangelo went to the Martin Center that day for a casual workout, but after missing his first few shots he started having flashbacks to the Connecticut game. He left after 10 minutes. "I could feel myself tensing up, and I just had to get out of there," Santangelo recalls. "Kind of like Maverick in Top Gun, I wasn't ready to be in the cockpit again."
It may have taken a little time, but now Santangelo's career is airborne again. He was one of 31 college-age invitees to the USA Basketball men's national team trials in Colorado Springs over Memorial Day weekend, and he excelled there. He was chosen as one of 16 finalists from which a 12-man team will be named to represent the U.S. at the World University Games in Spain, starting on July 3. Santangelo made 44% of his three-point attempts in four games at the trials and had 16 assists to just five turnovers. "He's better than I thought he was," Dayton coach Oliver Purnell, who will coach the U.S. in Spain, said of Santangelo. "He has a great basketball IQ, and he can really shoot."
Santangelo's performance in Colorado Springs did wonders for his confidence, which was battered by a season that hadn't always gone well for him. His numbers dropped considerably from his sophomore year—his scoring average falling from 16.2 to 12.7, and his shooting accuracy slipping from 43.5% to 37.5%—largely because he played out of position at shooting guard to allow senior Quentin Hall to run the point. As a result Santangelo went to the trials with nagging doubts about whether he belonged with the likes of Ed Cota and Scoonie Perm. After the first session, Gonzaga coach Dan Monson, a U.S. team assistant, took Santangelo aside and said, "Don't show these guys too much respect."
"If Matt has one fault, it's that he's a perfectionist," Monson says. "He doesn't dwell on the positives enough."
Indeed, after Gonzaga was eliminated from the NCAAs, Santangelo cut out a newspaper photograph that showed him being smothered by UConn guard Ricky Moore and tacked it to the bulletin board in his bedroom. "That game isn't out of my system yet, and I don't want it to be," he says. That motivation bodes well for the Bulldogs next season. Now that Hall has used up his eligibility, Santangelo will be at the point for a team that has seven of its top 10 players back.
Santangelo stops short of predicting a Final Four appearance for Gonzaga, but he's clearly looking forward to the season. "I think we'll be at least as good as we were last year," he says. "The NCAA tournament is all about who gets hot at the right time. We proved to the world it can happen to anybody."
Ohio State's Loss
NCAA Tells Yugo: No Go
When 7'3" Aleksandar Radojevic left Yugoslavia for the U.S. in May 1997, he had two goals. The first was to develop his basketball skills, which is why he headed to Barton County ( Kans.) Community College. His other aim was to get a college degree, which is why he signed a letter of intent with Ohio State last November, even though NBA scouts were already projecting him as a potential first-round pick. "My father's dream was for me to finish school," says Radojevic, "because I'm not going to play basketball all my life."
The death of his father, Krsto, last September isn't something Aleksandar talks about easily. He couldn't go home for the funeral because he feared he would be drafted into the Yugoslav Army. "Going home would have jeopardized everything I've done," he says. As it turns out, Radojevic unwittingly jeopardized his father's dream three years ago, when he signed a contract to play with the Buducnost club in the Basketball Federation of Yugoslavia. The discovery of that contract, which paid Radojevic roughly $13,000, prompted the NCAA in April to rule him ineligible to play college basketball. Ohio State's appeal of the ruling was rejected last month.