SALT LAKE CITY – Inhabitants of Zag Nation have, at last, exhaled. The boys will be just fine, they have assured themselves. Just a bump in the road. A little adversity never hurt anyone, right?
Truthfully, Gonzaga fans, players and coaches have cause for concern.
Not only did the nation’s top-ranked college basketball team very nearly flop like a salmon in their NCAA tournament opener Thursday against the 16th-seeded Southern Jaguars, but Gonzaga now faces a Wichita State team that plays every bit as hard and physically as the Jaguars, only with more size, depth and talent.
“The first thing that comes to mind when you watch them play is just how tough they are,” Gonzaga coach Mark Few said Friday. “They’re just a tough-minded group, and they’re very confident.”
If the Bulldogs are sent packing Saturday (5:40 p.m., TNT), they will be deemed failures. That would be fair and just, since a No. 1 seed is obviously expected to fare better than 1-1 in the Big Dance.
Call it the Big Flop if the Zags zig out Saturday. That said, a loss to ninth-seeded Wichita State – you know, the WSU that plays GOOD basketball – could hardly be termed embarrassing.
Just ask the other WSU. Klay Thompson and the Cougars ran into the Shockers in the semifinals of the NIT two years ago, and the final score of 75-44 scarcely did justice to the winners. The game was a “contest” only in the strictest sense of the word.
On Friday, the Bulldogs (32-2) and Shockers (27-8) performed the daily song and dance for the media that is mandated at NCAA tournaments. All the right words were said, all the clichés polished to a fine gloss.
“You win or your season’s over,” Few said.
“We will have to execute,” Shockers guard Ron Baker said.
“They are pretty good,” teammate Malcolm Armstead said.
Gonzaga has more talent than Wichita State, including a singular talent in Kelly Olynyk who might be the best player in college hoops. Not that such a distinction carries as much weight as it did a few years back.
The kiddies parade of young, talented players who leave college early to star in the NBA – or too-young, too-raw players who leave college early to sit on the bench in the NBA (Tony Wroten, anyone?) – has taken a considerable toll on the college game. The first half of Thursday’s game between Wichita State and 20th-ranked Pitt was . . . well, the pits.
That said, the Bulldogs are among the very best of the current lot of college teams – perhaps THE best — and that remains quite amazing.
Increasingly, we tend to forget that Gonzaga is a tiny, private school, located in an isolated, middle-sized city with precious little in the way of homegrown basketball talent beyond John Stockton and Adam Morrison. The closest Spokane comes to providing urban culture is when a country song by Keith Urban plays on the radio.
Win or lose Saturday in Salt Lake City – or next week in Los Angeles, or the following week in Atlanta – Gonzaga basketball remains an inspiring tale. The Zags are not all that far removed from scheduling Whitman and Carroll instead of Duke and UConn, taking buses instead of charter flights, playing home games in a glorified high school gym instead of a glistening arena lined with suites.
The Bulldogs began making their mark on the national scene in the mid-90s. Gonzaga’s coach and athletic director at the time was Dan Fitzgerald, a gregarious Irishman who shook every hand and patted every back in town in a desperate attempt to occasionally fill Gonzaga’s little gym.
Money was scarce. Assistant coaches slept on floors of hotel rooms paid for by sympathetic coaches from rival schools. A battered car was stashed in a garage in San Francisco to save on rental car bills.
“There was no money. None,” recalls UCLA coach Ben Howland, who received Gonzaga’s standard pay of virtually nothing when he broke into the business as a graduate assistant for the Bulldogs. Current Gonzaga head coach Mark Few laughed out loud when he revealed what Fitzgerald paid him as a graduate assistant.
“Fifteen hundred a year,” Few said.
Few accepted the job only after assistant coach Dan Monson (who later replaced Fitzgerald as head coach) let him room with him for free. Howland did his best to make ends meet by working at Playfair, Spokane’s old horse racing track, for “about $5 an hour” after Fitzgerald begged a buddy to give Howland a job.
“I was the door man,” Howland said. “I was almost like a bouncer, is really what I was, but not a very big, strong one.”
Gonzaga has grown into a big, strong basketball program year after year, to the surprise of Howland and Monson.
“Mark has done an unbelievable job,” Howland said. “The run that they’ve had every year and what they’ve created there is truly incredible. One of the great stories in all of sport.”
Monson, now the head coach at Long Beach State, said, “Mark Few’s greatest strength was and is his vision. He was the first one of all of us (at Gonzaga) that would not be afraid to recruit a kid just because the Pac-10 was.
“Before he got there, any kid the Pac-12 — the Pac-10 back then — was recruiting, everybody would say, ‘Well, we’re not wasting our time.’ Mark was the one that changed that vision and said, ‘No, no, no. I believe that this is the place for that kid.’”
Few, modest and almost shy in many public settings, offered a quick summary of the reason for his success: “It’s the players, man.”
Well, yes. That being said, Few and his staff foster an atmosphere at Gonzaga that is rare in big-time collegiate athletics.
“Gonzaga just kind of breeds teamwork,” Few said. “The whole community does. The school does. And we’ve had a great run of coaches here.”
Few is almost certainly the best of them. He needs a win Saturday, however, to prevent Zag Nation from hyperventilating.