John Feinstein on the challenges Mark Few faces keeping Gonzaga relevant.
Mark Few can laugh now about the voices he hears every March, if only because he’s grown so accustomed to hearing them that they’ve become white noise.
“If the worst thing they can say about us is that we haven’t been to a Final Four, well, I think that means we’re doing pretty well,” he said earlier this week. “I get it; I understand it, but I think it’s kind of shallow. What’s important to me is that we’ve been nationally relevant every year for 20 years now. I think that’s pretty good.”
The voices get a little bit louder in a season such as this one, when Few’s Gonzaga team is 23-0 — the only undefeated team left in Division I — and ranked No. 1 for the first time going into Saturday night’s game against Santa Clara. On Thursday, the Bulldogs faced one of their toughest challenges of the season when they went to Brigham Young, led all the way and quieted a very loud crowd of 18,987 en route to an 85-75 victory.
“I’m not sure, unless you’ve been there, that it’s possible to understand what a tough place that is to play,” Few said. “Especially when you go in there unbeaten and having just risen to number one in the country. We always have a target on our back in the WCC, but especially right now. The fans there look at sports as a way of showing people how great their way of life [the Mormon religion] is, and to beat a team like ours almost becomes a basketball crusade.”
Most people didn’t think this was going to be one of Gonzaga’s special teams. After all, the Bulldogs had lost Kevin Wiltjer and Domantas Sabonis to the NBA after going 28-8 last season and reaching the NCAA tournament’s Sweet 16 as a No. 11 seed. What they didn’t take into account were two talented transfers, Nigel Williams-Goss and Johnathan Williams, who sat out last season and Przemek Karnowski, the 7-foot-1, 300pound center who hurt his back in the fifth game of last season and returned this year on a medical redshirt.
“You know, watching them in [gym-] rat games last summer, you could see some things that were encouraging,” Few said. “I’m always the skeptic on the staff. My assistants were saying, ‘Hey, we’re pretty good, these guys can play.’ I was more like, ‘Let’s see what happens when we start practicing and playing.’ ”
The assistants were right. Williams-Goss, a two-year starter at Washington, is the team’s leading scorer at 15.6 points per game and had 33 on Thursday at BYU. Williams is actually scoring slightly less (9.7 points per game) than he did in his sophomore season at Missouri, but he has been part of an eight-man rotation that gives Few the kind of flexibility he’s rarely had.
“Last year we had to game-plan around foul trouble,” he said. “Now, if the older guys pick up a couple of fouls or are struggling a little bit, I’m absolutely fine going with the younger ones. They can all play.”
The real revelation, though, has been Karnowski. He moves surprisingly well despite his size and is an excellent passer out of the post, which makes doubleteaming him both difficult and risky. Few wasn’t certain he would come back after he had back surgery last January, but he has returned to play superbly.
Yet what is most remarkable is that Gonzaga has been nationally relevant for so long. This will be the 19th straight year that the ’Zags make the NCAA tournament, 18 of them under Few; they have been to the Sweet 16 seven times, the Elite Eight twice. Few’s worst record was 2311, in 2007. This season he is likely to win at least 30 games for the third time.
“People don’t realize just how hard it is to be that good all the time at Gonzaga,” said former Maryland coach Gary Williams, who heard the whispers about his lack of a Final Four appearance until he broke through in his 12th season with the Terrapins. “They aren’t in a power conference; they play on the West Coast, where most of their games are on too late at night in the East for people to watch. Plus, they aren’t Kentucky or Kansas or Duke or North Carolina. And yet, every year, they’re good. Mark’s not a good coach; he’s a great coach. Period.”
Because the bottom of the West Coast Conference is rarely strong, the NCAA tournament selection committee almost never does the ’Zags any favors in seeding, even though they play as tough a nonconference schedule as anyone. This season they’ve beaten No. 5 Arizona; No. 24 Florida; Washington; Iowa State, which was ranked at the time; Tennessee, which recently beat Kentucky; and underrated Akron.
Few bridled a little bit when he was asked this week in a news conference whether he thought his team would be undefeated if it played in the Pac-12 or the Southeastern Conference.
“Question bothered me a little,” he said. “Look, our league has three very good teams — us, Saint Mary’s and BYU — and a couple others that are solid. Is the Pac-12 deep beyond Arizona, Oregon and UCLA? The SEC’s got a couple good teams, but it isn’t anything to write songs about. We’d lose some games in the ACC, no doubt, but everyone loses games in the ACC this year.
“I didn’t make us number one. The polls did. I think we’re pretty good, and we’ve beaten some good teams along the way. The Arizona game told me a lot about this group. They’ve been fun to coach because they’re mature, they listen, they learn. I can’t ask for much more than that.”
Actually, there is one thing he could ask for, and that’s a Final Four trip, so that he would no longer have to deal with the question of “What about March?” For the record, he’s 21-17 in NCAA tournament play. Very few coaches outside the Hall of Fame have winning records in postseason play, especially when they’ve never set foot inside an NIT game.
The good news is that the questions about whether he’s going to leave Gonzaga for a power-conference job have faded in recent years. Few turned 54 in December and appears quite content at Gonzaga. He has certainly had chances to leave and admits he was tempted a couple times.
“When Lute [Olson] left Arizona, I’d always thought that was a great job, and I was a big admirer of his, so it was tempting,” he said. “But there were a lot of issues: It was going to be a major rebuild, and honestly, I liked my job. So, in the end, I turned it down.
“The toughest one was Oregon. That’s where I’m from. My parents still live there. My heart certainly got tugged on. Phil Knight [the Nike founder and chief executive] called me about the job. I spent a lot of time on the phone with him, and I finally said, ‘You know what? I’ve still got some unfinished business here.’ So, here I am.”
The best way to finish that business would, of course, be a trip to Phoenix the first weekend in April. One way or the other, though, Few will be back at Gonzaga next year, and you can be certain the ’Zags will be wearing that target on their backs again.
That’s what happens when you matter in the national conversation every single year. Which is just fine with Few. For more by John Feinstein, visit washingtonpost.com/feinstein.