BUFFALO, N.Y. – Mark Few stood off to the side of a hallway at HSBC Arena. The walls were drab, the air stale.
The Gonzaga head basketball coach had already said goodbye to Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim and his wife, Juli. He had complimented Andy Rautins on his 24-point effort and Wes Johnson on his career-best 31-point game.
Now he was asked to reflect. He did.
He talked about the game just past, the 87-65 whacking his Gonzaga Bulldogs had suffered at the hands of top-seeded Syracuse in what was basically a home game for the Orange.
He talked about the season just past, and how the near-record NCAA defeat shouldn’t color it.
But he left the talk about the Bulldogs’ future to others.
“I don’t really start now,” he said. “I need some time off.”
He’s earned it.
It was a long journey for Few and the Zags.
Six months of molding a team from a group that included six newcomers, a few returning players not counted on in the past and two veterans. From those ingredients, Few and his staff cooked a 27-win soufflé.
“More than any team than I’ve ever been associated with, from Day 1 to now,” Few said of the Zags’ growth. “We had a lot of questions we needed answers for in October. To these guys credit, they stepped up and solved them.”
But there would be no solving the Orange’s riddle Sunday. Other than to say they were the better team.
“When we play like that, when we shoot the ball like that, we’re pretty tough to beat,” Boeheim said of the Orange’s 54.7 percent shooting, even better than their 51.7 nation-leading season mark.
“If they play harder than you, we’ve got no shot,” Few said. “And they played harder than us.”
But he also saw that as an aberration in a season he called one his most enjoyable.
“They have been just a joy to coach all year,” Few said of his 11th Gonzaga team. “Very easy, not one problem in any way, shape or form. They played hard, they’re fun to travel with, they get along extremely well. I mean it’s really been a fun, fun year.”
But not a fun day.
The outside shots wouldn’t fall – GU’s three starting guards, Matt Bouldin, Steven Gray and Demetri Goodson, were 6 of 29 combined.
The defense wasn’t intense or physical – the Orange dominated on the glass 38-27 and were just one miss away from hitting half of their 25 3-pointers.
And the Zags had no answer for Johnson, the 6-foot-7 transfer from Iowa State. His final line: 31 points, 14 rebounds, zero turnovers in 40 minutes. And yes, he didn’t sit even when Syracuse led by 32.
“We just didn’t quite have the same mentality we had the other night. We were blasting guys pretty good against Florida State,” Few said.
Still, he wouldn’t cast stones.
“I don’t know why you would identify a six-month journey with one game,” he said.
When it came time to talk of next year’s expedition, Bouldin took the wheel.
The Zags’ lone starting senior, Bouldin, struggled in his last game, hitting just 3 of 11 shots, 0 of 6 from long range. But he didn’t struggle when asked what the future held for a locker room that should lose only him, lightly used 7-5 center Will Foster and walk-on Chris Pontarolo-Maag.
“They’ll go into next season being ranked pretty high,” Bouldin said. “This next year could be a huge year for the Zags. If they all buy in and really come together as a team, they could make a much deeper run than any other team before.”
If that puts added pressure on next year’s group, well, most of them will have been through it before.
“If anything I think they got burdened a little bit by, here you go into Maui and win it and everybody ranks them eighth or ninth,” Few said of this season’s team. “My son A.J. just has a huge problem with that. If you’re ranked high, how can you lose? I try to explain to him those are just rankings. Those aren’t any exact science.
“I think that affects a lot of people, quite frankly. From my vantage point, which is as good a vantage point as any since I’m with them every day, from where they came from to where they ended up and what they accomplished, this is probably as good a year as I’ve ever had at Gonzaga.”
With that, Few shook hands and stepped inside the locker room. After some rest, another trip beckoned.
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