Among the numerous mileposts in Gonzaga’s 2017 season was one Saturday that went largely unnoticed.
Gonzaga sealed its third straight Sweet 16, which hasn’t happened since the 1999 squad launched the Zags onto the national stage and the ensuing two teams kept them there.
“I was like in shock after the (Northwestern) game for a couple minutes,” said senior guard Jordan Mathews, a grad transfer from Cal whose only NCAA experience came in a first-round loss last season. “I’ve never been in the Sweet 16. I’ve never been in the second round. Going to the Sweet 16 is going to be another level. My dad told me it’s special so we’ll see.”
It’s special for Few, promoted to head coach in 2000 when Dan Monson accepted the Minnesota job after guiding the ’99 Zags to the Elite Eight.
The 2015 Zags were fairly loaded with Kevin Pangos, Gary Bell Jr., Byron Wesley, Kyle Wiltjer, Domantas Sabonis and Przemek Karnowski. They set a school record with 35 wins and reached the Elite Eight.
Gonzaga trailed eventual national champion Duke by two points with 5 minutes left but the Blue Devils closed with a 13-1 run.
The 2016 Zags resided on the NCAA tournament bubble but the emergence of guards Josh Perkins, Eric McClellan, Kyle Dranginis and Silas Melson triggered a late-season surge. The 11th-seeded Zags, behind Sabonis and Wiltjer, crushed Seton Hall and Utah.
They appeared to be Elite Eight-bound until they were outscored 15-3 down the stretch in a 63-60 loss to Syracuse.
The current Zags, who look nothing like last year’s edition, held off Northwestern 79-73 in Salt Lake City. It’s a unique eight-man rotation with three experienced transfers light on NCAA tournament seasoning, three holdovers in Karnowski, Perkins and Melson, and fearless freshmen Zach Collins and Killian Tillie.
Karnowski played in just five games last season before undergoing back surgery.
“What’s lost in all this is Perk, Przem and Silas are the only ones that have played in NCAA tournament games,” said Few, who has led GU to seven Sweet 16s. “This program has done it a bunch, but these guys that transferred in, that’s why they came here.
“They wanted to win, they wanted to play in NCAA Tournament games and they wanted to have a chance to win an NCAA Tournament game. That’s what makes this thing special. We’re delivering on what we told them could happen here. That’s all you want as a coach.”
Transfers Mathews, Johnathan Williams (Missouri) and Nigel Williams-Goss (Washington) have earned their first two NCAA wins. The top-seeded Zags (34-1) will chase another against fourth-seeded West Virginia (28-8) on Thursday in San Jose.
Mathews grew up in the Bay Area. His dad Phil coached San Francisco from 1995-2004 and Mathews played his first three collegiate seasons at Cal.
“I get to see my friends, my girlfriend is going to be there,” Mathews said of playing close to home in San Jose. “My parents are going to be there.
“I can’t describe it. It won’t sink in until probably Monday.”