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.”