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Gonzaga is still the best story of the Final Four

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GLENDALE, Ariz. — The best story of this Final Four wasn’t North Carolina’s redemptive run to a national title or South Carolina getting to the final weekend of the college basketball season 44 years after the last time that they won a tournament game. It wasn’t Isaiah Hicks’ star turn, where he went from playing like he was shaving points to scoring the biggest basket on Monday night, or Joel Berry II’s parents embracing the tattoo they never wanted him to get in the first place.

The results didn’t matter.

The best story of the Final Four was Gonzaga, college basketball’s ultimate rags-to-riches tale.

There is never going to be another Gonzaga. It’s not possible. The blueprint that they’re built from is irreplicable. When Mark Few joined the program nearly 30 years ago as a graduate assistant, the Zags were coming off of a season where they won four games. It was the worst job in the WCC, and it wasn’t particularly close. Why would anyone choose to go to college in the eastern-most corner of Washington when they could play at, say, Loyola Marymount or Pepperdine?

“This wasn’t even possible,” Few said. When he was first hired by the school, he made $1,500. When he was first promoted to assistant coach, he lived with Dan Monson because Monson, who only made $45,000 at that time, actually owned a house. Bill Grier, the third assistant on that staff at the time, lived there and “would pay as much rent as we could afford,” Few said.

“In no way shape or form could you ever envision what we [built], from that to right now. It has changed, I don’t know, it’s 500 percent different from the school, how we travel, how we’re treated. We have a new arena. I mean, everything is. 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.”

Gonzaga was then what, say, Southern Utah is now, buried in the bottom of a conference with teams at the top that have had some tournament success and have sent some players to the NBA. It’s not an enviable position to be in, and the Zags were able to dig out of it because they lucked into a head coach that is one of the best in the business that never wanted to leave.

That’s the way it works at that level. When you have some success, when you make a run in March and prove your chops as a coach, you bounce for a job in a bigger league, with better facilities, a bigger paycheck and a chance to recruit better players. Few never did that.

“Mark made Gonzaga his next job,” Wichita State head coach Gregg Marshall said. Marshall would know. He’s done the same at Wichita State, even going as far as to leverage opportunities to leave for a power conference gig to help get Wichita State into a position where they may end up joining the American Athletic Conference. At Gonzaga, Few’s worked with the same athletic director, Mike Roth, for all 18 years that he’s been the head man in Spokane. They’ve paid him more. They built a $25 million, 6,000-seat arena and broke ground on a state-of-the-art practice facility. They’ve given him the funding to pay for a good staff, making Gonzaga a destination job for assistants. They’ve given him the resources to afford flying private to road games and for recruiting.

“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.”

The Zags continued to build and continued to win and continued to keep Few, who has heard overtures from programs like Indiana, UCLA and Oregon, where he’s an alum that grew up 15 minutes from campus. That kind of continuity is typically reserved for the biggest and the best programs. It’s not only allowed them to build the basketball program into what it is, at worst a top 15 program in the sport, but it has helped turn Gonzaga basketball into a family that bridges generations.

On Sunday, before the Zags were to square off with North Carolina, Few paraded in some 50 former members of the team, the players that built the foundation of what this program has turned into. Dan Dickau, Adam Morrison, Ronny Turiaf. They received a standing ovation from the players currently on the roster, a group that is chock-full of kids that may only spend one season on Gonzaga’s campus. Most expect five-star recruit and former McDonald’s All-American Zach Collins to head to the NBA as the first one-and-done player to come through Gonzaga. He may not be the only one to declare for the draft, either, as All-American point guard Nigel Williams-Goss seems likely to at least test the waters. Jordan Mathews, who hit the game-winning shot for Gonzaga in the Sweet 16 win over West Virginia, was a grad transfer.

He left California, where he averaged 14 points for the Golden Bears his last two seasons, to play a lesser role with the Zags. Williams-Goss was a former McDonald’s All-American and first-team all-Pac 12 point guard at Washington, Gonzaga’s in-state rival, before transferring to the other side of the state. Zach Collins picked the Zags over the likes of Arizona and Oregon, happy to play his role as the first big man off the bench if it meant he got a shot to play for a national title.

“That’s what makes this culture so special those guys, those former players — the Pendos, the Turiafs, Olynyk, the Morrisons, the Dickaus, the Pangoses, and Bells — these guys know it,” Few said. “They’re still connected to these guys even though they never played together. And our culture is just so strong. And this was a culture statement and I couldn’t be prouder.”

It’s also a statement of where Few’s program is.

“I was young and naive,” assistant coach Tommy Lloyd, who has been at Gonzaga for 16 seasons, said of when he first got the job. “I thought why can’t we recruit NBA players. Let’s go do it. Let’s sell these guys on what we believe in. I was all in but I was 23 years old. It was my first job. I thought I could do anything. Mark was the same way. Being naive was a good thing then.”

It’s not naive anymore.

Gonzaga was one rolled ankle from Williams-Goss, one blown out-of-bounds call on North Carolina’s Kennedy Meeks, from having having the ball in the final minute with a chance to take the lead in the national title game, and doing so with the only one-and-done player in a Final Four with three power conference schools, two of whom entered the season as top six teams.

“I thought over this run of 20 years we probably had three or four — probably three teams that could have made it here,” Few said. “And, you know, just from the luck of the draw or that particular night, or I think of Wichita that year, or the one year we had a great team with Pangos and Bell, but we just ran into Duke in Houston in the Elite Eight.”

“So certainly felt, my stance all along was you just gotta be good enough and then eventually it’s going to happen. We wanted to stay nationally relevant. And I think we’ve done that year after year after year. And that’s probably what I’m most proud of. And then eventually you’ll kick the door down and break through.”

“We did this year.”

Elite Class of 2020 point guard to reclassify

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Nico Mannion, a five-star point guard from Arizona, announced on Friday that he will be reclassifying into the Class of 2019.

Mannion was a top 20 player in 2020 but, according to 247 Sports, he will be ranked No. 11 in 2019. The athletic, 6-foot-3 Mannion was long-rumored to be considering a move up a class because of his age. He’ll turn 18 in March of next year, meaning that he’ll arrive on campus the same age as a typical college freshman.

Mannion cut his list to ten schools in June — Duke, Arizona, Villanova, Kansas, USC, UCLA, Oregon, Vanderbilt, Marquette and Utah — but Duke and Arizona appear to be the favorites at this point.

Mannion plays his high school ball for Pinnacle High School in Phoenix and with West Coast Elite on the Under Armour Association circuit. He played for Team USA’s youth ranks, but his mother is Italian and, in June, he was called up to the Italian men’s senior national team, scoring nine points in 29 minutes of a FIBA World Cup Qualifier.

Nebraska to lose junior big man to transfer

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Nebraska’s frontcourt depth took a blow on Thursday as junior big man Jordy Tshimanga informed the program that he will be transferring.

“Jordy called me tonight and asked for his release,” head coach Tim Miles said in a statement that was given to the Lincoln Journal-Star. “The University of Nebraska and our program wish Jordy and his family the best.”

Tshimanga averaged 4.0 points and 4.6 boards in 13 minutes this past season, and a source close to the program told NBC Sports he wasn’t expected to play much more than that this season.

Miles’ has spent the better part of the last two seasons on the hot seat, and this certainly doesn’t make his job easier, but with the talent the Cornhuskers have on their roster, they look like an NCAA tournament team already. They bring back their top four scorers, including former five-star prospect Isaac Copeland and potential first-team all-Big Ten wing James Palmer. With or without Tshimanga, Nebraska has a shot to finish top four in the Big Ten.

North Carolina, UCLA, Michigan State part of Las Vegas event

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LAS VEGAS (AP) — North Carolina, UCLA, Michigan State and Texas will play in an early season basketball tournament in Las Vegas.

The Las Vegas Invitational will include games at campus sites, then the final two rounds on Nov. 22-23 in Las Vegas. North Carolina takes on Texas in one semifinal, and Michigan State faces UCLA in the other.

UNC, UCLA and Michigan State are all top 20 teams in the NBC Sports preseason top 25.

The championship is Nov. 23, and the semifinal losers also play each other that day.

NCAA to study possible effects of widespread legal wagering

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INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — The NCAA plans to study how the expansion of legalized betting could affect college athletics and member schools.

The NCAA announced Thursday it will create a working group of “subject matter experts” to assess areas such as officiating, NCAA rules, federal and state laws, and the use of integrity services. NCAA leadership has already called for federal regulation on sports betting. NCAA rules prohibit sports wagering by athletes and athletic department employees.

The Supreme Court opened the door for states to have legal wagering on sporting events when it struck down a federal ban in May. Schools in some states such as West Virginia, Mississippi and New Jersey are already exploring the possibility of collecting integrity fees in anticipation of legal sports books opening in their states.

“While we certainly respect the Supreme Court’s decision, our position on sports wagering remains,” said Donald Remy, NCAA chief legal officer. “With this new landscape, we must evolve and expand our long-standing efforts to protect both the integrity of competitions and the well-being of student-athletes.”

The NCAA Board of Governors has already suspended the association’s ban on holding championships in states with legalized sports betting, a policy that only affected Nevada.

“Legalized sports gambling across the country is rather new, but the NCAA and its members have committed significant resources over the years to policy, research and education around sports wagering,” said Joni Comstock, senior vice president of championships and alliances. “With student-athlete well-being as the centerpiece, we will continue to build upon these efforts to assist members as they adapt to legalized sports wagering in their states and regions.”

Arizona releases non-conference schedule

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A trip to Maui, a home date against Baylor and trips to UConn and Alabama highlight Arizona’s non-conference schedule, which the school released Thursday, this season.

Despite losing nearly the entirety of last year’s talented-but-troubled group, Sean Miller still scheduled aggressively. The first test will come the week of Thanksgiving in Hawaii at the Maui Invitational. It’s an extremely competitive field with Duke, Auburn, Gonzaga, Iowa State, Illinois, San Diego State and Xavier. The bracket for the event has yet to be released.

The Wildcats travel to Storrs to face UConn in Dan Hurley’s first season on Dec. 2, and then a week later visit Alabama in Tuscaloosa.

The marquee home game will be Saturday, Dec. 16, when Scott Drew and Baylor come to Tucson.

Here’s the full schedule:

Day Date Opponent Location

Sunday Nov. 11 Cal Poly Tucson, Ariz.

Wednesday Nov. 14 UTEP Tucson, Ariz.

Monday Nov. 19 vs. TBA Lahaina, Hawai’i

Tuesday Nov. 20 vs. TBA Lahaina, Hawai’i

Wednesday Nov. 21 vs. TBA Lahaina, Hawai’i

Wednesday Nov. 28 Texas Southern Tucson, Ariz.

Sunday Dec. 2 at UConn Hartford, Conn.

Thursday Dec. 6 Utah Valley Tucson, Ariz.

Sunday Dec. 9 at Alabama Tuscaloosa, Ala.

Saturday Dec. 15 Baylor Tucson, Ariz.

Wednesday Dec. 19 Montana Tucson, Ariz.

Saturday Dec. 22 UC Davis Tucson, Ariz.