SANTA CLARA -- Santa Clara coach Kerry Keating and his players say they only want to focus on the present, which means Saturday's sold-out matchup against Gonzaga -- the gold standard of West Coast Conference basketball.
But to appreciate how far the Broncos (12-3) have come in the past nine months -- to the point where they welcome the challenge of facing the No. 10 team in the nation at the Leavey Center -- you can't ignore the past.
Santa Clara stumbled to the finish line last April. As if a left-knee injury that sidelined Marc Trasolini the entire season wasn't enough, Kevin Foster -- the school's all-time leading scorer -- was suspended after being arrested in late January and charged with driving under the influence.
Final record: 8-22. Final WCC record: 0-16.
Now Trasolini's knee is fine. And a slimmed-down Foster, after a summer stint in a rehab program operated by former NBA All-Star John Lucas, is back draining 3-pointers and is the team's leading scorer at 19.1 points per game.
"Whether it's physical health or mental health, you always want to try to learn lessons," Keating said. "The good thing is those guys did what they had to do to get back to where they needed to be."
Grouping Trasolini's preseason knee damage with Foster's bad decision to get behind the wheel after a night of partying might seem forced. But Trasolini sees a common theme.
"It was difficult, but things happen in life and you just
Trasolini's recovery was a matter of surgical repair, physical therapy, rest and time. He is averaging 7.8 rebounds and 15.7 points per game -- both career highs.
The path back for Foster was more complicated, with detours in the court system and the Houston-based rehab program near Foster's hometown of Katy, Texas.
"Everyone makes mistakes. I learned from it and became a better person, a more mature person," ssaid Foster, 22, who has 1,977 career points. "I've got a second chance, and I'm excited about that."
Keating said Foster has completed the requirements of his sentence in a case that began when the car he was driving was stopped about 1.5 miles west of campus. Court records show that after a no-contest plea, Foster was put on three years' probation after spending five days in a weekend work program and enrolling in a first-time offenders counseling program.
Keating helped Foster meet that last requirement at the John Lucas Treatment and Recovery Center, and the coach said he took on the responsibility in part because of a commitment made to Foster's parents.
"You finish playing here, you will graduate," Keating told them when Foster came to Santa Clara as part of the coach's first recruiting class.
Changes by Foster off the court have helped him lose the weight that had concerned his Santa Clara coaches. The 6-2 Foster is listed at 211 pounds -- about 25 fewer than he had been carrying at one point.
"We went through deals where I wouldn't let him play if he was over 220, but we couldn't figure out why he couldn't do it," Keating said. "Well, obviously it turns out if you've got extracurricular activities going on a regular basis, it's hard to control."
Keating said he never doubted Trasolini and Foster would be back for their final season. But the coach said the entire team deserves credit for not bailing out after everything that went wrong a season ago.
"It says a lot about who we are as a program, who we are as a coaching staff and especially who these kids are and the character they have," Keating said after the Broncos beat USF 74-69 to open conference play Wednesday.
All of which makes Gonzaga (14-1, 1-0) a good measuring stick for an improving Santa Clara team.
"They're very talented, they're deep, they're experienced, they're big and they can beat you in a lot of different ways," Keating said of Gonzaga. "I love playing these guys because you know you're playing the best and usually they get our best."
Gonzaga (14-1, 1-0) at Santa Clara (12-3, 1-0), 5 p.m. CSNCA