Updated Tuesday, January 22, 2013 at 10:22 PM
SPOKANE — In the anguished hours after Butler's pulsating 64-63 defeat of Gonzaga on Saturday night, Zags message boards crackled over two issues:
One was the aborted inbounds play that cost Gonzaga the game. The other, simply stated, was, what's up with Gary Bell Jr.?
Is he hurt? Has he lost confidence? And how can Gonzaga possibly fulfill the burgeoning national expectation of a bold run in March when Bell is taking one shot, as he did against Butler — the first time he has been held scoreless in a Gonzaga uniform?
Gonzaga coaches have been staunchly supportive of Bell, the versatile sophomore from Kentridge High, because he quietly does so much at both ends of the floor and practices hard with admirable consistency.
Yet recently, there's been little resemblance offensively between Bell and the player who scored 18 points last season in a third-round NCAA game against seventh-ranked Ohio State, giving his team a chance to win in the final minutes.
Zags assistant coach Ray Giacoletti had few answers Tuesday, saying, "We ask him to defend the best perimeter player every night, and he does a great job at it. But we asked him to do that last year. We need to find a way to get him more open shots. I thought he turned down a couple (at Butler), to be honest with you."
Last week, coach Mark Few compared Bell's shooting struggles to earlier ones of point guard Kevin Pangos, who came out of those well.
"Every time he goes up for a shot, I think it's going in," Few said of Bell. "And other than him, I'm probably the second-most important guy. He's gonna be fine."
But the trend lately is, Bell isn't even going up for shots. He has taken eight in the past three games, for six points.
In the second half of the Butler game when Bell was in, Gonzaga had 24 possessions. Two early ones were curtailed by Pangos turnovers. On 11 of the remaining 22, Bell didn't touch the ball. He got one touch on each of the other 11, and never got two touches.
It was a night when the Zags went heavily to their advantage inside, and profitably. Meanwhile, Bell defended Butler's hot three-point shooter, Kellen Dunham.
"Gary does so much for us," Few said last week. "It doesn't always show up in the stat sheet. He can guard on the ball, off the ball, he obviously can shoot the ball deep and is a threat to do that at any time, he can handle the ball and his midrange game is getting better and better.
"If you can do all those things really well, that guy's going to play."
Bell said recently he had recovered from an abdominal strain he suffered against South Dakota on Nov. 18.
"It's gone away now, so that's good," he said. "I think it was right at Oklahoma State (Dec. 31) where I didn't feel it anymore."
It was in that game that Bell went down early with what he feared was a serious knee injury. He came back from a pedestrian game to nail the deciding three-pointer with 35 seconds left.
His 2012-13 numbers are mostly down — scoring from 10.4 to 8.8, shooting from .496 to .403, three-point shooting from .477 to .343. His free-throw percentage is up at .815, but he isn't getting to the foul line nearly as much, only 27 times compared to 85 a year ago.
The last numbers — he hasn't shot a free throw since Jan. 5 — suggest Bell might not be as healthy as he says. But Matt Santangelo, one of the best guards in Gonzaga history and now a radio analyst, advances another possible reason Bell's offense hasn't been as prominent. His ability to attack the rim might be curbed by the big bodies in his path in Gonzaga's high-low offense.
"If he wanted to turn the corner, there's not any lanes for him to attack," said Santangelo. "That's why he and Pangos have worked hard on that midrange floater game."
All the while, the decrease in shots taken might be feeding the likelihood of them not going down.
"He sometimes kind of gets lost, not being overly aggressive in trying to find shots in the offense," said Santangelo. "When you do that, you lose a little bit of rhythm. If anything, he can be a little selfless."
It isn't the first time Bell has appeared deferential. In 75 minutes in two games of the WCC tournament a year ago, the league's leading three-point shooter tried just one trey.
Few would point out that Bell has regularly drawn a murderer's row of defensive assignments — Illinois' Brandon Paul, Baylor's Pierre Jackson, Oklahoma State's Marcus Smart, Santa Clara's Kevin Foster and Saint Mary's Matthew Dellavedova.
One of Bell's goals after his freshman season was to improve his decision-making on ball screens, and he thinks he has made strides. Paradoxically, even in his downsized offensive season, he feels he has been given more freedom at that end.
"Nobody's not going to want more freedom," he said, grinning. "I definitely love playing for coach Few and playing with these 'bigs.' "
But if there are big things down the road for Gonzaga, clearly the Zags will need more offense from the guy who gives them a little bit of everything else.
Bud Withers: 206-464-8281 or email@example.com
BYU @ Gonzaga, 8 p.m., ESPN2
JED CONKLIN / AP
Some have wondered what's up with Gonzaga's Gary Bell Jr., the former Kentridge High star who was scoreless against Butler and took just one shot.
BEN MARGOT / AP
Gonzaga's Gary Bell Jr., right, has taken just eight shots in his last three games.