Before Gonzaga’s first-ever game against Arizona, Nov. 29, 2000, a reporter asked UA All-Pac-10 forward Michael Wright if he knew much about the Zags.
“Like what?” Wright said.
“Do you know where Gonzaga is?”
“Oregon, right?” said Wright.
No. 5 Arizona beat the Zags 101-87 that night, but all of that cute stuff about Gonzaga — How do you pronounce it? Where is it? Is the coach really named Few? — lost its playfulness years ago.
Astonishingly, Gonzaga has become the most feared college basketball program in the West. How far west? One step west of Phog Allen Fieldhouse in Lawrence, Kansas.
The Zags have gone 18-5 against Pac-12 schools over the last decade. But Pac-12 basketball isn’t exactly no man’s land for opposing teams, so here’s a better qualifier:
Gonzaga has reached the Sweet 16 the last five years in succession. How good is that? Arizona has never gone to the Sweet 16 or beyond in more than three consecutive years. Never.
UCLA hasn’t done it five straight times since 1980.
In the perspective of West Coast basketball, only two men can match the work of Gonzaga coach Mark Few — John Wooden and Lute Olson. Is there a better comparison?
Wooden rose to power at UCLA in the 1960s and the Bruins sustained their status as No. 1 through 1980.
Olson figuratively took the torch from Wooden; Arizona was clearly the West’s No. 1 program from 1985 to 2005.
Now it’s Few and the Zags.
In the last 25 years, there have been a few bursts of excellence from nontraditional college powers. Northwestern has played in the Rose Bowl, Butler in the Final Four and Coastal Carolina won the College World Series. All slipped back to mediocrity.
Not Gonzaga; the Bulldogs haven’t taken a backward step since reaching the 1999 Elite Eight.
As such, the Gonzaga-on-top notion ceased to be a novel concept long ago.
In the last decade, Gonzaga has gone 10-14 against nonconference Top 25 opponents in the regular season, routinely playing the best of the best: Duke, North Carolina, Villanova, Michigan State.
A 10-14 record doesn’t sound impressive, but consider that over that same 10-year period Arizona is 8-10 against Top 25 nonconference teams in the regular season.
What makes Gonzaga’s ascent to blue-blood status is that the Zags have rarely recruited from a power position, never just hand-picked one McDonald’s All-American after another, as does Arizona.
Do you realize the Zags have signed just one McDonald’s All-American straight out of high school? Zach Collins.
But no team in college basketball has been as resourceful in recruiting elite-level players from France to Japan to Poland to Canada to wherever Few and his prized assistant coach of 20 years, Tommy Lloyd, find them.
The playing rotation Gonzaga will put on the floor Saturday night at McKale Center includes Joel Ayayi and Killian Tillie of France, Filip Petrusev of Serbia and Martynas Arlauskas of Lithuania.
Dozens of strong college basketball programs populate their rosters with foreign players; under Sean Miller, Arizona has deployed those from Serbia, Finland, Australia and Ukraine.
But Gonzaga has been able to couple its foreign pipelines with high-level transfers, game-changers, such as Kyle Wiltjer of Kentucky, Nigel Williams-Goss of Washington, Johnathan Williams of Missouri, Micah Downs of Kansas and, this season, rotation players from Texas A&M and North Texas State.
Without traditional five-star recruits, Gonzaga has produced six NBA first-round draft picks over a period during which seven Arizona players have been first-round selections.
It’s a testament to Few’s willingness to find his own way; he has proved you don’t have to follow a script to contend with Duke and Kansas.
Gonzaga elevated Few to its head coaching position in the summer of 1999, just one day after Dan Monson accepted the head coaching job at Minnesota. To his everlasting credit, Gonzaga athletic director Mike Roth didn’t hire a search firm or take a few weeks to scan the horizon for a coach with a higher profile than the low-key, 5-foot-9-inch Few.
“We weren’t going to find a better coach than we had right here with Mark,” said Roth, who, like his coach, has remained at the school during Gonzaga’s rise to prominence.
What is it that Few does so well (beyond his obvious skill in X’s and O’s)?
Former Zags head coach Dan Fitzgerald, the man who hired Few as a Gonzaga assistant in 1991, told reporters that Few’s evaluation skills are at a higher level than most coaches.
“He’s a great evaluator of talent,” Fitzgerald said in 1999. “He’s the best follow-up guy I’ve ever seen. He’ll go get guys that other people wouldn’t. He always turns over all the rocks.”
Few seems to come up with a T.J. McConnell-type transfer every year.
The Pac-12’s ranking basketball powers — Arizona, Oregon and UCLA — have had a combined 11 head coaches since Few took charge at Gonzaga. It’s no secret that all three of those schools would’ve hired Few had he been interested.
Turns out, he had a better gig in icy Spokane, Washington.
When Gonzaga played its first game at McKale, in 2000, it played the role of Team X in a “guarantee game,” a designated-victim paid $40,000 for making the trip to Tucson.
Now Few and the Zags arrive at McKale Center as the featured attraction in what qualifies as the Game of the Year here.
Contact sports columnist Greg Hansen at 520-573-4362 or email@example.com.
On Twitter: @ghansen711.