basketball

Here’s Hoping Gonzaga’s Ride Doesn’t Flip

ROBBINS NEST

By Lenn Robbins

The story goes that Mark Few, the usually calm, rather stoic-looking basketball coach you’ve seen on the Gonzaga sideline for the last 22 seasons, once cracked a couple of ribs when he was four-wheeling and flipped his ride.

Seems this Few dude has a wild side.

These days crazy might be a more apt description of Few’s state of mind. He will lead Gonzaga (26-0) into the NCAA Tournament for the fourth time as a No.1 seed and the first time as the No.1 overall seed. Here’s where the Few’s story gets a little nuts.

He has lost in the NCAA championship game and in the first round. He has lost in the regional finals and the semis. But he also is the winningest active coach in the game having won a mind-blowing 625 out of 749 games (83.4-percent). He has been voted national coach of the year once and West Coast Conference coach of the year 14 times.

So how’s this for a riveting tournament wager: How many times will Few, who has a 31-20 record in NCAA Tourney play, be asked about the pressure that comes with having been to the tournament 20 times (last season’s tournament was canceled) and never winning it all?

“I don’t view my life a success solely based on basketball,” Few said prior to the 2017 Final Four when Gonzaga lost to North Carolina in the title game. “You know, there’s bigger things — my faith, my family, those things.

“Obviously the biggest thing for me to be successful professionally is, you know, how my players, once they’re done here, do they feel like we delivered on everything we talked to them about when we were bringing them in here? And do they feel like they’ve grown and that they’ve been developed and appreciated and loved and coached? And I judge things more on those aspects than I do Final Fours and wins and things like that.”

You read that answer and there can be only one conclusion: If your team can’t win it all this season, then Mark Few and Gonzaga has to be the people’s choice.

Because for more than two decades, Few has done more than win, he’s won right. Find me the time “Gonzaga,” and “violations,” were in the same sentence. Find me another tiny Jesuit school from a small town in Eastern Washington and a non-power league that has earned the right to walk with Duke, Villanova, Kentucky, et al.

Colleges from VCU to Grand Canyon State, both of whom also qualified for the tournament, have stated their goal is to be the next Gonzaga. Imagine how many more will pop out of the hardwood if Gonzaga finally wins it all?

“My first two years at Kentucky, I was there seven years, we were on probation, couldn’t play in the tournament,” said Iona coach Rick Pitino. “So we had five years. We went to three Final Fours in five years and two championship games. And when we finally won it, with only five years in the tournament, the headlines of the newspaper were, “Pitino Finally Wins it at Kentucky.” And it was only five years!”

Few’s been banging away for 21.

Of course, we know the anti-Gonzaga arguments. They play in a one-bid league, the West Coast Conference, where Few is 305-31 (90.8-percent). Kentucky plays in the SEC and every season is measured in Yankees Metrics – championship or bust.

That doesn’t mean Gonzaga and Few don’t want to win it any less. Knowing many of his conference games won’t be competitive, Few sets aside practice time to work on possible tournament scenarios:

Down 10 with three minutes to play. Up one and going to the line for a one-and-one. Going five-minute stretches with two stars on the bench in foul trouble. Press break. Identifying who to foul.

After that 71-65 loss to North Carolina, to his friend, Roy Williams, Few was less.

“What’s really tough right now is talking to Coach [Jim] Boeheim … he told me it will crush you if you don’t win it,’’ Few said. “And I guess I didn’t understand it, but the cagey old veteran is right. Man, it crushes you.’’

Boeheim knows. He lost to Indiana in 1987 and Kentucky in 1996 before beating Kansas, coached by Williams, in 2003. After the game Boeheim told Williams his time would come. Williams told Few.

That’s the way it works in this coaching fraternity: Win an NCAA title and you’re a genius; win 20-plus games for a two decades but never cut down the nets and you’re a flawed genius.

“The tournament is a crapshoot,” said Few. “It shouldn’t be everything. It’s such a shallow thing to pin everything on.”

We can be a shallow society, especially when it comes to how we view and treat coaches and players. It’s enough to drive a man mad. Yet Few is as grounded as a high schooler that broke curfew.

The guy behind the Gonzaga wheel (assuming he’s not off-roading) has a faith-based view of the world that has more do to with holding up lives than cutting down nets.

Few’s father, Dr. Norm Few, was a Presbyterian pastor for 54 years before stepping back in recent years. Turns out Mark Norman Few, 58, might not even be the best leader in his family.

“He’s saved thousands of souls,” Few said of his father in 2017. “He’s helped hundreds and thousands of people through all their tough times, you know? And that’s kind of the legacy that I’m looking at. I’ve got a long ways to go to get to first base living up to that guy’s standard.”

Few has established quite a standard for Gonzaga basketball and this might be his best team. The Zags lead the nation in scoring (92.1 points per game) and field goal percentage (55.1). They’re seventh in assist/turnover ratio (1.51). They beat Iowa, Kansas, Virginia and West Virginia.

Like every program in America, the Zags have had to deal with COVID and then some. Remember, Washington State had the first documented case of the virus on Jan. 21, 2020. The Bulldogs had seven games canceled including a highly-anticipated showdown with Baylor, the No.2 team in the nation for most of the year.

Along with fighting the virus, the Zags had to handle the No.1-ranking and unbeaten record, a burden that grew heavier as every other team lost. Their first loss this season will be their last loss, their only loss.

“What we’ve been through this year and to have this incredible run, heck to be undefeated on March 14 is crazy, especially with the preseason we played and even just getting through our league season,” GU coach Mark Few said on ESPN. “We’ve carried the No. 1 target on our shoulder all year. I think that’s an incredible accomplishment.”

It can be more incredible. Gonzaga can win it all. It can become the first team since the 1976 Indiana Hoosiers to go undefeated. But go ahead and root for your alma mater or the team with the nice unis. Once they’re out, jump the Gonzaga bandwagon. Few has traded in fly fishing for four-wheeling. These Zags won’t flip.

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