John Fe­in­stein on the chal­lenges Mark Few faces keep­ing Gon­zaga rel­e­vant.

The Washington Post Sunday - - SPORTS - sports@wash­post.com

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.

John Fe­in­stein

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