Gonzaga and Duke players and coaches met with the media Saturday in Houston. It’s the price paid for success in the NCAA basketball tournament, and the Bulldogs and Blue Demons handled the media every bit as deftly as they do opposing teams.
The press conferences for each team produced no stunning revelations, no verbal venom. The media, so often accused of spewing more negativity than a politician at election time, had no choice but to grudgingly acknowledge that the Bulldogs and Blue Demons are gosh-darn fond of one another.
That sentiment may be altered somewhat by the time the two teams are done fighting for a Final Four berth Sunday at NRG Stadium (2:05 p.m., KIRO 7). For the time being, let’s give top-seeded Duke (32-4) and second-seeded Gonzaga (35-2) two thumbs up for class and sportsmanship as they prepare to battle in the South Region championship game.
Gonzaga coach Mark Few opened Saturday’s lovefest by declaring that Duke is “one of probably the most decorated programs in modern history and who have just had an excellent, excellent season.”
Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski caught that bouquet and tossed it right back, saying, “Mark has built a great, great program there and a veteran team, a team that’s very difficult to defend. With one day preparation, we’re hoping that we can come up with something to limit them a little bit.”
Gosh, one hopes Coach K can somehow muster a decent game plan. After all, the man has only coached four national championship teams and won more games than any other college basketball coach.
Of course, Few owns the best winning percentage (.811) in NCAA Division I history, so he’s no slouch. Neither is his team, ranked No. 7 in the country, three notches behind Duke.
Both teams have potent, inside-outside scoring attacks with plenty of balance, and both defenses are solid. Gonzaga has more experience, but all three freshmen starters on Duke score in double figures. That includes 6-foot-11, 270-pound center Jahil Okafor, a prime candidate for Player of the Year honors before going No. 1 overall in the NBA draft this summer.
Okafor leads Duke with 17.7 points and 8.7 rebounds per game. Quinn Cook, a 3-point gunner, averages 15.7 points. The Bulldogs hope to take advantage of undersized power forward Justise Winslow, but the 6-6 freshman from Houston delighted the hometown crowd by piling up 21 points, 10 rebounds and two blocked shots Friday against a big, physical Utah team.
Cook referred to Gonzaga’s Kevin Pangos as “the heart and soul of their team.” Krzyzewski is another fan of the senior point guard from Canada.
“Pangos is a very, very special player,” Krzyzewski said. “I don’t know him as a young man, but he’s got to be an amazing young man.
“He looks unflappable. He’s got a great face all the time. He’s got a strong leadership face. I remember Mark was on my Sirius XM show earlier this year and talked about his (Pangos’) commitment, how much he comes back to the gym. And he’s got routines and you can tell he’s very confident because of his discipline in what he’s put into what he does.”
Few and Krzyzewski saved some of their most lavish comments for one another. Few, in fact, said the Bulldogs keep a close eye on Krzyzewski’s way of doing things and sometimes copy them.
“I put him right up there on the same platform as John Wooden,” Few said. “I look at what he’s been able to do in the modern era, and he’s done it with such class and grace and he’s been so successful, but yet, he’s done it with a humble spirit and he’s been a tremendous leader.”
Krzyzewski, so accustomed to winning that he refuses to lose even in a battle of compliments, said Few has established “one of the great programs in the United States at a terrific school, got great kids. Mark’s a guy’s guy and one of the really outstanding people in our profession. He gives back, whether it be the coaching profession, Coaches vs. Cancer, USA Basketball.
“A very humble, great coach and a winner. Obviously, his kids love playing for him, and they play an exciting brand of basketball. And I’m a big fan of his and a good friend, and I’d be pulling for him tomorrow if we weren’t playing.”
Well, at least there are some limits to this hug-a-thon. In fact, Krzyzewski drew laughs when he said the diminutive Few “could be a little bit taller, and he shouldn’t be doing all those crazy things in his locker room making us older coaches look bad. Other than that, he’s a good guy.”
Krzyzewski was referring to Few’s penchant for attempting (poorly) to perform handstands in the locker room after some victories. Gonzaga students have been breaking out in impromptu imitations of the coach’s handstands (“Do the Few”) on campus, but cartwheels may be in order for Few and the students if the Zags win Sunday to advance to the Final Four for the first time in school history.
“We know it’s a huge challenge,” Few said, “but we feel like we belong here and feel like we’re capable of moving on if we play well. But we’ll have to play great. There’s no way we’re going to get out of this thing if we don’t play great.”
Pangos added, “It’s just a great feeling to be here, but we’re not satisfied. We really want to make the next step.”