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Sports >  Gonzaga basketball

John Blanchette: Gonzaga assistant Donny Daniels knows not to take Final Four for granted

March 29, 2017 Updated Wed., March 29, 2017 at 6:35 p.m.

Gonzaga head coach Mark Few, left, and assistant Donny Daniels yell out instructions during the first half of the NCAA Tournament game against West Virginia. (Tony Avelar / Associated Press)
Gonzaga head coach Mark Few, left, and assistant Donny Daniels yell out instructions during the first half of the NCAA Tournament game against West Virginia. (Tony Avelar / Associated Press)

GLENDALE, Ariz. – Warning: Don’t even suggest to Donny Daniels that this Final Four business must seem routine by now.

“Oh, no – can’t say that,” said Gonzaga’s veteran assistant coach. “Every one is special – every one. This is something you just don’t take for granted.”

Little danger of that

The signs are everywhere that the Bulldogs’ first foray into finaldom has burrowed into the spirit at Spokane’s very core. And we mean signs. At the base of the I-90 on-ramp at Jefferson Street on Wednesday afternoon, a gentleman in need worked his turf with a swatch of cardboard that read “Anything Helps” with the sign-off, “Go Zags.”

The Bulldogs themselves are well back into the preparation cycle – with momentary imaginings about the spectacle ahead and just what they’ve gotten themselves into.

But they need only ask Daniels.

He’s been there, done that. And not just once, but four times in previous coaching stops at Utah and UCLA.

And he believes it should have happened before at GU.

“I think we all know there were other Gonzaga teams that could have done this,” said Daniels, who signed on with the Bulldogs’ staff in 2010. “But it was this team’s time. Moon’s in Aquarius, the stars have aligned – all of those things.”

It probably takes some of that, along with a team’s particular rhythms, the matchups, the way the bracket falls. That’s the getting-there part of the proposition. Now that the NCAA Tournament field is down to four, bracket analysis is pointless; it’s all performance from this point on.

Daniels got a dose of that understanding in 1998 – the year before anyone had a notion the Zags could ever be in such a position – when he assisted the late Rick Majerus at Utah.

That Utah team was not unlike the 2017 Zags – a powerful presence inside with Michael Doleac and Hanno Mottola, and a hard-charging point guard in Andre Miller, who only this year found no takers after gadding about the NBA for 18 years. The Utes lost just twice in the regular season, but high-centered on a speedbump in the Western Athletic Conference tournament – losing in the first round to host UNLV.

“But I had the same feeling I do now – we had a bunch of good guys who played hard, and we bounced back from that,” Daniels said. “When we were good, we were great. When we were bad – and that wasn’t often – it was not so bad because you liked being around those guys.”

Their one close call in NCAA’s early stages was a 65-62 win over West Virginia in the Sweet 16 (sound familiar?). Two days later, the Utes undressed Arizona 76-51 to earn the school’s first trip to the Final Four since 1966. In the Saturday semifinal, they buried Vince Carter and a North Carolina team under a 17-4 barrage from the opening tip and won by six to reach the final against Kentucky.

In which the Utes led by 10 and halftime, and seven with 10 minutes to play. But they only made four field goals in the last 16 minutes, and lost 78-69.

“I still thought we handled the moment,” Daniels said. “It wasn’t nerves. We just didn’t get it done in the last five minutes.”

The disappointment was deep. It was a winnable game “and you just never know if you’ll ever get another chance,” he said.

But for Daniels, that only took eight years. By then, he had moved on to UCLA under Ben Howland, the one-time Gonzaga graduate assistant. And there wouldn’t just be one Final Four but three from 2006-08 with casts that included Kevin Love, Russell Westbrook and Jordan Farmar.

“Can you imagine – three Final Fours in row?” Daniels said.

But the Bruins always bumped their head on the ceiling. Twice they lost to eventual champion Florida, once in the title game. Maybe they used up their karma in one game – the 2006 Sweet 16 shocker over the Zags, who led by nine points with 3:26 to play and “should have won,” Daniels once acknowledged.

“Everything had to happen right,” he said. “Down five with a minute to play? We made plays against a team with great players – Adam Morrison, (J.P.) Batista, (Derek Raivio). It was unfortunate for them – but good for me.”

Daniels insisted that nothing of substances changes this week. The media demands increase, but they’re compartmentalized. The reset after the Elite Eight game allows for the proper attention to detail. The rest is business.

But the stakes change. However traumatic early-round upsets are to the toppled higher seeds, the real punch to the gut comes to the team that loses a step short of the Final Four – or that gets even closer to a championship.

“We were good enough to win it – all those years,” Daniels noted, “and especially with UCLA there all those times you think, ‘Man, I’d like to win one of these.’ ”

Seems like a good time to start.

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