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Gonzaga’s blueprint, from the WCC cellar to the Final Four, is incredible and irreplicable

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GLENDALE, Ariz. — To understand just how far Gonzaga has come, you need to first understand what the program was 27 years ago.

“It’s leaps and bounds different,” Gonzaga Athletic Director Mike Roth said. “It doesn’t even resemble [the old program].”

This was before the $25 million, 6,000-seat McCarthy Athletic Center was built, when Gonzaga was still playing in a gym that was straight out of high school, when tickets where $10 a pop and fans could sit anywhere they want. This was before they had a weight room for the athletic teams, when the basketball players would be doing squats next to the college guys doing curls and coeds on the treadmill. This was when Gonzaga, a little Jesuit school on the Washington-Idaho border, was paying their head coach a salary equivalent to a middle school math teacher.

“In no way shape or form could you ever envision what we [built], from that to right now,” head coach Mark Few said. “It’s 500 percent different from that school, how we travel, how we’re treated. We have a new arena.”

“I mean, we have expectations. We’re expected to win. And we’re expected to advance. Heck, we’re expected to get to a Final Four, and if we don’t get to a Final Four, it’s a disaster and we’re a failure. You know? So back in those days we were innocent and foot loose and fancy free. And those were the good old days.”



What makes Gonzaga’s rise from the depths of the WCC to being a top 15 program in college basketball is truly unique, a path that very likely will never be replicated for one, simple reason: The people that were a part of the program when the Zags started their run are still in the program nearly two decades later, as they gear up for the first Final Four in program history.

Mark Few has been with the program for 27 years, nine as an assistant and the last 18 as the head coach. His boss, athletic director Mike Roth, the man responsible for promoting Few all those years ago, has been in that position for 20 years and with the university for 30.

He’s also the man responsible for making sure that Few hasn’t left.

Because there have been overtures. From Indiana. From UCLA. From Oregon, the school that his parents attended, the school that he grew up 15 miles from.

Few said no every time.

“I’ve been lucky to keep Mark over these years,” Roth said. He’s wanted to stay. We’ve been doing the right things to make sure we give him the things he needs.”

“And I’m not talking about contracts. That’s easy stuff. I’m talking about facilities, supporting the program, how we travel, how we provide him opportunities to recruit, those types of things.”

That’s the other key to Gonzaga’s success. It’s not just that they’ve been able to keep Few around for 19 seasons, it’s that they’ve provided him with the financial support needed to be able to compete with the big boys. They built the nicest arena in their league. They’re in the process of building a state-of-the-art practice facility. They charter flights to road games. They charter flights for recruiting. A lot of people have invested a lot of money into building this program, and it’s paying dividends.

The proof?

Look at the caliber of player they’re in the mix with. Take Zach Collins, a McDonald’s All-American and a potential one-and-done first round pick, committed to Gonzaga over the likes of Arizona, Oregon and Cal. They landed Nigel Williams-Goss, a first team all-american this year, left Washington, his hometown school where he was a first-team all-Pac 12 point guard, and enrolled at Gonzaga, the U-Dub’s biggest in-state rival.

“We need to make sure that if we’re here in the Final Four, the teams we’re playing against in the Final Four that we’re doing the same kind of things,” Roth said. “It takes players. Mark can be a great coach, but if we don’t have players, we can’t win games.”

“I thought our teams, even back to ’99, had shown that they could compete if given the opportunity on the national level,” Few said. “And we followed up: Sweet 16, Sweet 16.”

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“Then we got Turiaf and Morrison and guys like that, and I felt we were getting the type of players that we could compete on the national level. And all that time we were staying nationally relevant. Maybe not for this particular weekend, but we were, you know, definitely first and second weekend-type of program, which is pretty good.”

The only comparable mid-major program is Wichita State, but even that isn’t all that similar. For starters, the Shockers were a successful program before Gregg Marshall showed up, and he’s turned that from a really good Missouri Valley program into a top 30 program.

“The way I refer it to is Mark made Gonzaga his next job,” Marshall said. “I make Wichita my next job instead of moving to an intermediate step. More money, whatever. We decided not to leave. We’ve had opportunities to leave, but I didn’t see them as being head and shoulders above Wichita State.”

Where Few separates himself, however, is that Gonzaga never had to jump to a bigger league to survive. VCU went from the CAA to the Atlantic 10. Davidson went from the SoCon to the Atlantic 10. Butler went from the Horizon League to the Atlantic 10 to the Big East.

Gonzaga has remained in the WCC, dominating their league, recruiting pros and — perhaps the best sign of what this program has turned into — scheduling neutral site non-conference games with the best programs in the sport.

No one else can claim that.

And no one else ever will.

Minnesota’s Amir Coffey out for the season with shoulder injury

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Minnesota sophomore Amir Coffey will miss the rest of his sophomore season with a season-ending shoulder injury, according to a release from the school.

The 6-foot-8 Coffey was one of the Big Ten’s most productive freshman last season but he wasn’t able to stay consistently healthy during the 2017-18 campaign. Coffey put up solid numbers when he was able to play, averaging 14.0 points, 4.1 rebounds and 3.3 assists per game, but he missed 10 total games with the injury.

Coffey has been out for the last five games, and with Minnesota’s postseason hopes plummeting during an eight-game losing streak, the decision to hold him out was probably best for his long-term health.

Barford leads dominant Arkansas past No. 21 Texas A&M, 94-75

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FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. — Daniel Gafford capped off the most difficult stretch of his young Southeastern Conference career with a disappointing and foul-plagued performance the last time Arkansas faced Texas A&M.

The standout Razorbacks forward remembered that game all too well, and it showed as he added yet another dominating effort to his remarkable freshman season on Saturday.

Gafford scored 18 points on 7-of-8 shooting to lead Arkansas (19-8, 8-6 SEC) to its fourth straight win, 94-75 over the No. 21 Aggies. It was the fifth straight game in double figures for Gafford, who is shooting 70.7 percent (29 of 41) since the 80-66 loss to Texas A&M on Jan. 30.

The 6-foot-11 freshman was on a mission to atone for that loss, and it showed as he hit his first five shots and punctuated the dominating win with a late dunk.

“Playing them here, in my mind I had to play smarter and more physical,” Gafford said. “Because in my mind, I was ready for them. I was ready for Tyler Davis, I was ready for pretty much all the big men because pretty much I got punked when we went up to Texas A&M, and I didn’t want that to happen tonight.”

Gafford had plenty of help from his teammates, with Jaylen Barford scoring 14 of his 21 points in the second half and adding five rebounds and five assists for the surging Razorbacks.

Also, Daryl Macon finished with 20 points for an Arkansas team that’s won seven of its last nine. It was the eighth time in the last nine games Macon has scored 20 or more. C.J. Jones had 13 points off the bench.

Robert Williams had 20 points and 14 rebounds to lead Texas A&M (17-10, 6-8), which lost its second straight after entering the rankings this week. The 6-foot-10 sophomore also had three blocks and finished 10 of 13 from the field.

Admon Gilder also scored 20 points for the Aggies, while Davis added 15 points and T.J. Starks had 12. However, Texas A&M was unable to slow down an Arkansas team that shot 49.3 percent (35 of 71) from the field and hit 10 of 23 3-pointers.

“There’s not many teams going to come in here and beat Arkansas when they shoot the ball like they did today,” Texas A&M coach Billy Kennedy said. “I thought they shot the ball extremely well and made some tough shots.”

REBOUNDING RAZORBACKS

Texas A&M entered the game 3rd nationally and tops in the SEC in rebounding with an average of 41.9 per game. The Aggies also outrebounded Arkansas 45-30 in their win last month, but the Razorbacks turned the tables on Saturday — finishing with a 45-33 edge on the glass.

Freshman Darious Hall followed up his career-best 11-rebound effort in a win over Mississippi earlier in the week with seven rebounds in only 17 minutes on Saturday, and Gafford and senior Trey Thompson had six rebounds apiece.

“This is a team that beat us by 15 at their place, and they’re one of the better rebounding teams in the country with all that size,” Arkansas coach Mike Anderson said. “Somehow we found the energy. We found the players that were really engaged and going to get those rebounds.”

BIG PICTURE

Texas A&M: The last time the Aggies won in Fayetteville was March 1, 1986, when both teams were members of the Southwest Conference and Arkansas still played in Barnhill Arena. They led only once on Saturday, a 4-2 advantage that disappeared quickly after the Razorbacks went on an 11-0 run. Texas A&M was 0 of 7 on 3-pointers while trailing 43-32 at halftime, and it just avoided matching its season low for 3-pointers — finishing 4 of 17 as a team.

Arkansas: The win starts a difficult five-game stretch to end the regular season for Arkansas, which entered Saturday 32nd in the NCAA’s RPI ratings. Beginning with the 18th-rated Aggies, the Razorbacks face teams all 31st or higher in the ratings during the five games — including Kentucky, Alabama, Auburn and Missouri. They started the stretch in dominating fashion on Saturday, a key victory for a team hoping to reach the NCAA Tournament for a third time in four seasons this year.

UP NEXT

Texas A&M returns home to face Mississippi State on Tuesday.

The Razorbacks host Kentucky on Tuesday.

Kentucky beats Alabama 81-71 behind Washington’s 16 points

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LEXINGTON, Ky. — Four straight losses were enough for Kentucky.

PJ Washington scored 16 points, Kevin Knox added 13, and Kentucky beat Alabama 81-71 on Saturday to end a four-game slide.

“They played desperately,” Kentucky coach John Calipari said. “We gave away some games this year and we have to start taking games away from people, which means desperation.”

The Wildcats (18-9, 7-7 Southeastern Conference) displayed a sense of urgency against the Crimson Tide, especially in the rebounding department. The Wildcats held a commanding 44-27 edge on the glass and grabbed 20 offensive boards, resulting in 20 second-chance points for the hosts.

“They were desperate and they had a lot of energy,” Alabama coach Avery Johnson said.

Quade Green scored 12 points, Jarred Vanderbilt scored a career-high 11 off the bench with nine rebounds, and Nick Richards added 10 points for the Wildcats.

Vanderbilt played a key role down the stretch for the Wildcats and finished with nine rebounds.

“We came together the last five minutes,” Vanderbilt said. “We made some key plays down the stretch, took care of the ball and we just executed.”

For Kentucky, which hadn’t won since an 83-81 overtime win over Vanderbilt on Jan. 30, fending off the Crimson Tide (17-10, 8-6) wasn’t an easy task. The Wildcats have won six straight over Alabama, including 11 of the past 12 games.

“It felt like we were back to normal and back to where we needed to be,” Washington said. “We just need to keep building from here.”

Alabama, the top defensive team in the conference, forced eight ties and 15 lead changes until the Wildcats gained control midway through the second half to avoid a fifth straight loss. Kentucky led for the final eight minutes.

Knox, Kentucky’s leading scorer, sat out 14 minutes of the first half because of foul trouble, but picked up the scoring load with all of his 13 points in the second half. Knox connected on first field-goal 7/8- a 3-pointer with 13:22 remaining — to ignite the Wildcats’ stagnant offense and spark the team’s impressive finish.

Kentucky led 39-34 at the break amid four ties and 11 lead changes. The Wildcats got most of their scoring off the bench in the opening half with Green and Washington combining for 15 points. Green paved the way with nine and made four of five field goals.

“They just outworked us,” Alabama forward Donata Hall said. “They were a hungry team.”

Hall led Alabama with 16 points, John Petty had 13, Colin Sexton 12 and Alex Reese 10.

BIG PICTURE

Kentucky: The Wildcats, who have lost three straight road games (Missouri, Texas A&M and Auburn), will attempt to end the slide Tuesday at Arkansas, which lost just one of its first 14 games at home this season. Kentucky, five games behind conference leader Auburn, is out of contention for a fourth consecutive regular-season title, although a top-four finish isn’t out of question.

Alabama: The Crimson Tide, 5-1 against ranked teams this season, including a 76-71 win over No. 10 Auburn on Jan. 17 in Tuscaloosa, will attempt a sweep of the Tigers Wednesday. Alabama will attempt to lock up one of four top spots and a bye during the final two weeks of the regular season. Alabama coach Avery Johnson fell to 0-6 in games against Kentucky.

PELPHREY RETURNS

Former Kentucky forward John Pelphrey, an assistant coach at Alabama, made his return to Rupp Arena. Pelphrey, a former Mr. Basketball at Paintsville High School in 1987, played for the Wildcats from 1988-92 and was a member of the “Unforgettables” squad that lost to Duke in the 1992 East Region finals.

UP NEXT

Kentucky is at Arkansas Tuesday.

Alabama visits No. 10 Auburn Wednesday.

No. 3 Villanova continues reign of dominance over No. 4 Xavier, winning 95-79

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Villanova is not a perfect basketball team.

They have their flaws. Their depth in an issue. Their defense is a bigger issue. Their health seems to be working itself out, but with a rotation that has been as shallow as six guys at time, they are never more than one sprained ankle away from being put in a spot where their starters play too many minutes.

And despite all of that, one thing remains true about this group: They are always capable of putting together a shooting performance that leaves you wondering how in the world they ever lost a game to begin with.

That’s precisely what happened on Saturday in Cincinnati, as the No. 3 Wildcats — having lost two of their last three games to fall a game out of first place in the Big East — went into the Cintas Center and truck-sticked No. 4 Xavier, 95-79. It’s a result we all probably should have seen coming. Villanova has, after all, won four straight Big East regular season titles, and they weren’t about to lay down and let the Musketeers take control of their league. Especially since it’s Xavier. In the 11 games since Xavier and Villanova became conference foes, the Wildcats are now 10-1 with an average winning margin of 17.6 points.

Mikal Bridges led the way, scoring 16 of his 25 points in a first half where he buried four of Villanova’s 11 threes. Their lead ballooned as high as 21 points, and they took a 51-37 lead into halftime. Xavier made their run in the second half, getting as close as 62-59 before Donte DiVincenzo, who finished with 21 points, nine assists and nine boards, helped to spark a surge that put the game away.

The difference-maker here was Villanova’s shooting. They were 11-for-19 from three in the first half. They shot 16-for-34 for the game. In losses to St. John’s and Providence in the last two weeks, the Wildcats struggled from beyond the arc. They were 8-for-33 against St. John’s, just 2-for-17 in the second half, and they shot 3-for-19 from distance at Providence during the week.

And it is also worth noting that they got some terrific play from two of their young, unproven freshman who combined to score 11 straight points during a five-minute second half stretch. Dhamir Cosby-Rountree had two critical buckets as Villanova pulled away late midway through the second half, when he was on the floor for Eric Paschall, who had picked up four fouls. And Collin Gillispie followed that up by banging home a three and scoring on a tough finger-roll over Sean O’Mara that helped hold Xavier at bay. All told, Cosby-Rountree finished with four points, three boards and a block while Gillispie chipped in with 10 points of his own.

Perhaps most impressive in all of this was that Villanova put together this kind of a performance on an afternoon where Jalen Brunson struggled to get into his normal rhythm. He finished with 11 points and eight assists, but shot just 5-for-12 from the floor and 1-for-6 from three. For a player that is having a historically-great season from an efficiency perspective, those are surprising numbers.

What it all adds up to is this: The Wildcats are not yet ready to relinquish control over the Big East regular season title. Xavier is still technically in first place by a half-game — they’re 12-3 while Villanova is 11-3 — but for all intents and purposes, they’re tied. Xavier’s schedule down the stretch is much easier than what Villanova has remaining. Xavier has road trips to Georgetown and DePaul left while Villanova still has to go to Creighton and Seton Hall.

That story is still left to be told.

But the simple fact of the matter is that Xavier had a chance to take a two-game lead on Villanova with two weeks left in the regular season and they couldn’t get the job done.

And if they slip up again in their final three games, they may be left wondering ‘what if?’ all over again.

Duke’s Marvin Bagley III to miss third straight game with knee issue

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Duke announced on Saturday afternoon that star freshman Marvin Bagley III will miss his third straight game with what they have dubbed a mild knee sprain.

Bagley suffered the injury in the first half at North Carolina, and while he played the rest of that game, he sat out wins over Georgia Tech and Virginia Tech.

Both of those games came in Cameron Indoor Stadium. On Sunday, they’ll be playing on the road against a shorthanded No. 11 Clemson program.

In Bagley’s absence, Marques Bolden, Javin DeLaurier and Alex O’Connell have played more minutes while Grayson Allen has seemingly rediscovered his confidence. He’s averaging 24 points and six assists in the last two games.