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Gonzaga Basketball

Blanchette: Current Zags may be Mark Few’s best coaching job

Gonzaga’s Josh Perkins, left, and coach Mark Few watch Kyle Wiltjer shoot during practice on Thursday at the United Center in Chicago. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)

CHICAGO – Maybe this really is the Sweetest 16 for Mark Few or maybe it’s just the moment he’s in that makes him think so. Either way, that’s cool.

Not that such a thing really needs to be ranked, any more than we really need a preseason Top 25.

But we’re nothing if not a culture of ratings, lists and bests, and the debates they breed. And what better to fill the dragging minutes in the crawl-up to today’s Gonzaga-Syracuse meeting in the NCAA tournament than with another toss-up?

Is this Few’s best coaching work in his 17 years on the job at Gonzaga?

A month ago, of course, such a notion would have found purchase only on the slopes of Mount Punchline. These Bulldogs were in imminent danger of being the first in Few’s tenure not to make the NCAAs, and it’s folly to rate what doesn’t measure up to history.

You know the rest: the win at Brigham Young, the “new Zags” run through the West Coast Conference tournament and the transformation into the grand omnipotent stompers of the NCAA’s first weekend.

The detractor’s sneer: what took them so long?

But the gestation period for this team is just one of the things that suggests special, flexible work was done.

On Saturday night, as the Zags were steamrolling Utah, recently dismissed Santa Clara coach Kerry Keating climbed aboard Twitter to claim, “Nine years in the WCC and this by far is Mark’s best job. He had to coach more during the season than ever before. Managed struggles and lack of depth masterfully.”

It’s no surprise that Few himself isn’t necessarily buying it.

“I bristle with that,” he said. “I laugh when people say, ‘Oh, you had to coach this year.’ We coached last year. We coached hard because that team was expected to go to a Final Four and win every game they played. We had to get guys into roles and keep them happy.

“You have to coach every year. There are just different managing jobs that have to be done.”

But Few doesn’t dismiss this year’s special challenges, either.

The changeover from veteran guards Kevin Pangos and Gary Bell Jr. The depth gamble – and Few’s call – to go with a roster short on scholarship players while talented transfers sat out. The back injury that wiped out center Przemek Karnowski’s senior year – leaving the Zags, in effect, as a team with one returning starter.

With some great components, obviously, but limitations, too.

As the season wore on, the rotation was pared to six, with spot minutes for backup center Ryan Edwards. But mostly there was the fitful development of the guards, youngsters and vets alike, and issues of confidence, trust and – as the players have acknowledged – coachability.

“I think the staff tried every strategy,” said Matt Santangelo, the team’s radio analyst and program elder statesman, “from tearing them down to good cop/bad cop to everything in between, trying to find what worked.”

And the frustrations set in.

“It wasn’t fun for a while,” Few admitted. “It didn’t feel like they were progressing and as a coach you always want your team to progress. And we weren’t playing very good in some stretches.”

Notably in the closing time of the “big games” – Arizona, UCLA, Saint Mary’s and more. Conversely, the Zags were downright remarkable in taking care of the more mundane chores.

“Eventually, we just hunkered down and said let’s get our core standards in there – the things that mean the most – and maybe not sweat the little stuff as much,” Few said. “We like to be perfectionists, but there’s a realization that you have to pick your battles and accept that we weren’t going to execute as tight as some of our teams have.”

In one respect, the Zags’ major shortcoming – depth – became what Santangelo called “the golden egg.

“You couldn’t take people out. They had to be allowed to play through mistakes and have that experience, and I know that was hard for the coaching staff – to stomach those growing pains.”

And sometimes things boiled over. When the players were chased from practice the last week of the regular season for effort Few called “pathetic,” it wasn’t just to goose the drama for the HBO cameras.

But that also proved to be the season’s tipping point. And if the Zags don’t win that game at BYU – if Nick Emery doesn’t miss a couple of shots – this isn’t even a conversation.

Yet there’s no denying the growth. The Zags of last weekend will never be confused with the Zags of January.

“It reinforces your belief in kids, that they’ll stay with it to figure it out,” Few said. “And in coaching – it still does work.”

Doug Wojcik was a head coach at College of Charleston and Tulsa, and serves as Few’s special assistant. His view of the program is that of an outsider, coming from programs “where 26 or 28 wins isn’t the norm.

“Mark does a great job of just moving on,” he said. “He knows what he wants to do – doesn’t always tell everybody – and is just a steady hand. That more than anything else sends a strong message to everybody on the team, coaches and players.”

Mark Few’s best work? Maybe it’s just not losing sight of the possibilities.