SPOKANE, Wash. (AP) — Both inside and outside “The Kennel,” Gonzaga is undergoing an upgrade.
New locker room. New practice facility. New fancy center-hung scoreboard in the arena. All the accompaniments of being a major college basketball program.
“Those things are just, basically, kind of keeping up with the Joneses,” Gonzaga coach Mark Few said.
But this is no longer just a matter of little ol’ Gonzaga trying to keep up with the blue bloods of college basketball. The disclaimer of being the Little Jesuit School that Could from the remote outpost of Spokane, Washington, doesn’t apply anymore.
The Zags have completely chiseled away that narrative after last season’s breakthrough, reaching the Final Four for the first time. The Bulldogs came home from Glendale, Arizona, in April feeling empty after watching North Carolina celebrate a national title.
Few understands the improvements are important. He largely created the foundation for what Gonzaga has become. Staying there means creating the infrastructure so getting to a championship game isn’t just a one-time event.
That means upgrades all around. For most of the summer and early fall, the area inside and around the McCarthy Athletic Center — the formal name for Gonzaga’s home floor — looked and sounded like a construction project. Knocked out walls and new lockers for an expanded locker room. Dust, concrete and bricks littered on what used to be a small lawn, where a new practice facility and student support center is being built with views of the Spokane River. Electrical cables, flat-screen panels and video enhancements on the inside where the new center-hung scoreboard was being pieced together.
It’s all done with a truly Gonzaga feel, even if it’s all with the ultimate goal of the Bulldogs becoming one of those “Joneses,” as Few says.
“The cool thing during this entire run, going back to (1999) is we’ve never been satisfied with where we’re at. So we’re trying to, always trying keep moving forward,” Few said. “This is one of those moments, as cool as it is, as great as it is — it’s probably never been better, quite frankly — you got to look forward. It gets harder and harder to squeeze out that last, whatever 5-10 percent and you got to keep moving them forward.”
The breakthrough Gonzaga experienced last season was nearly 20 years in the making, even if it fell short in the title game, 71-65 to North Carolina. The school with the name many struggled to pronounce correctly first burst on the scene in 1999 with a memorable run to the Elite Eight, and while there were numerous important benchmarks along the way, last season elevated Gonzaga to another plane.
“Personally, I never felt like I needed the validation or really cared so much about that aspect of it,” Few said. “But I saw the impact that it had on so many people, former players, just how excited they were for the moment, really, really good friends of mine that have supported our program forever, how much that meant to them. So I needed to take a kind of step back and go, ‘OK, wow, I guess this is a bigger deal than I thought it was gonna be.'”
Consider there are only 90 programs to have ever played in a Final Four and that last season featured two first-timers in the Zags and South Carolina. Gonzaga’s run to the title game led to parades and celebrations, and resentment from neighboring fan bases that haven’t experienced that kind of success in decades.
“That was the first time a loss didn’t feel like a loss, if that makes sense,” guard Josh Perkins said. “You know obviously some tears were shed, obviously we should have won that game, but we didn’t. But coming back, the city loved us.”
Few wants to keep his approach and the tenets that got Gonzaga to this level. But truly elite programs consistently play for titles. Fair or not, a school’s standing — no matter its success or dominance in the regular season — is lately based on what it does in the NCAAs. That’s especially the case for the Zags because of the relative lack of consistent high-level competition in the West Coast Conference.
The Bulldogs saw the blueprint last season and it’s just a matter of if and when they’ll get there again.
“The program has done a lot, we made it that far last year, but we came up a little short, so it’s not over still and we still feel it,” Perkins said. “So we’re going to do what we can to get back to where we were. … We got to make the next step.”