They remain just as disruptive as they did during their breakthrough in 1999. They now only do so within the system. They no longer fight for admission to the elite. They have become the standard in men’s college basketball, and if they can survive Baylor in a whopping Monday night national title game, they will become the standard. Though their name is still being mutilated – ZAG, not ZOG, folks – they are on the verge of a championship and a 32-0 record of immortality.
The Bulldogs needed a miraculous overtime buzzer beater from Jalen Suggs to get here, but don’t reduce the feat to the work of a magician. A refreshingly steadfast approach anchors the Gonzaga program, and it has managed to maintain that ethos throughout its ambitions and expansion. As the current team seeks to complete a masterpiece and sit down at the best table in history, the 2020-21 season can best be described as the most elegant collage of anything Gonzaga has established in more than two decades.
Gonzaga University defeated UCLA with a 3-pointer in the NCAA tournament game in Indianapolis on April 3. (The Washington Post)
At best, this team seems to come from another time. But are these bulldogs from the past or the future? Or both? For 31 flawless games, they were a modern step backwards in every way. They can shoot, they play at a fast pace, and they preach ground clearance by following today’s best basketball drills. But they live in the color and make an unfathomable 55 percent of their field goal attempts.
Your staff emphasizes this timelessness. They’re a mix of prototypical Gonzaga All-Americans (Drew Timme, Corey Kispert), impact transfers (Andrew Nembhard, Aaron Cook), international recruits (Joel Ayayi), a great national recruit (Suggs) and a number of developmental gems who will grow and carry the program after this season.
There’s recruiting and there’s talent evaluation. Gonzaga never just recruits and reaches for the best players he can snap up. Coach Mark Few and his staff not only check whether an athlete can play, but also consider how a player fits into the program culture. how to reconcile classes with immediate influencers and long-term differentiators; and how to put together the right mix of ability, tenacity and athleticism.
Like a batsman with a good eye, they are not afraid to take up pitches. They refuse to do wild hacks against talent, but they still hit a lot of home runs while maintaining a high batting average.
Long-time Gonzaga assistant Tommy Lloyd once explained the approach to me: Reach higher, but don’t change. Gonzaga likes to be Gonzaga. Few who value fishing as much as exercising in front of large crowds are not obsessed with the so-called big time. He likes living in a basketball lab in Spokane, Wash.
“Honestly, what we do isn’t that different from the start,” said Lloyd. “If you know Coach Few, he’s a pretty straightforward, straightforward guy. We don’t spend a lot of time worrying about the past, and we don’t look too far into the future. We try to stay the same. Same approach. Same mentality.
“Many of these programs want everything to be loaded from the beginning. They want everything to be set up perfectly so they can go out and win. We have never summoned anything to Gonzaga. Things have come to us as we deserve them over time – our facilities, our arena. And since we’ve won and got access to better players, our approach hasn’t changed. “
Gonzaga has played in 22 direct NCAA tournaments. During this time, many programs outside of the power conference establishment have seen memorable runs and successes. But the Bulldogs did it. They’ve had different waves of success and every time there’s a new one, they climb higher.
In 1999 they became relevant with an elite eight run under former coach Dan Monson, who moved to Minnesota after the breakthrough. Then Few took over the role and rose to successive Sweet 16s in 2000 and 2001. The program took another leap in 2006 when Adam Morrison became a high-scoring phenomenon. Seven years later, Gonzaga reached number 1 in the tournament for the first time in 2013. Four years later, the Bulldogs made their first Final Four, losing in the 2017 title game to North Carolina. This season they were number 1 last season and carried this torch until the last night of the season.
The road wasn’t always smooth. From 2007 to 2014, the Few teams couldn’t leave the first weekend in eight tournaments seven times. The Bulldogs became the targets of ridicule in March. They were considered overrated, overstaffed, the West Coast Conference team with an inflated record and insufficient constant competition throughout the season.
They didn’t panic, but few made changes when necessary. Gonzaga has gotten more physical and defensive over the years. It has complemented its capabilities with a greater emphasis on athleticism. It has become more adaptable and learned to play different types of basketball. Now it has put together a monster season. However, the mood of the program is the same. Suggs made this clear against UCLA on Saturday night. He didn’t just show it off with his 40-foot bench shot at the buzzer. His sequence, with just under two minutes of regulation remaining, could indicate his commitment to Gonzaga.
At this point, the freshman point guard, expected to be among the top 5 NBA draft picks, blocked the great UCLA man Cody Riley’s dunk attempt and then released an unfathomable bounce pass for a dunk to Timme. After Monday, Suggs joins Zach Collins, who served as the 2017 NBA draft lottery pick, as Gonzaga’s only single player. He could even be voted higher than Morrison, who finished third in 2006. For all of the great lead guards Gonzaga has had over the past 22 years, Suggs is a different kind of special. But it fits in perfectly with the culture of the program.
“I could have gone to a lot of places and people are asking me, ‘Why Gonzaga?'” Said Suggs, who is from Minneapolis. “It’s not like the Big Ten or Big 12 or anything. That’s why I decided to come here for the people and for the culture. “
When Suggs won the game on Saturday, Morrison made a color commentary on the team’s radio broadcast. As announcer Tom Hudson described the scene, Morrison exclaimed, “Yes! YES! Whoa! Wow!”
Fifteen years ago, he wept on the pitch after Gonzaga lost a narrow Sweet 16 game to UCLA. It was his last college game, an abrupt and incomplete ending. It was a moment many refer to when they think about the agony of this tournament.
When Morrison cried this time, they were happy tears. Check out his old school that’s still growing. Still Gonzaga.