A few of Mark Few’s pet peeves: Inquiries about the starting lineup, sweeping generalizations, and awards, all-conference, coach of the year, etc.
So his input will be absent from this article, and it’s pretty much a given he won’t read it either.
Others, from his staff to former players to opposing coaches, were more than willing to describe Few’s coaching this season as one of, if not the best, of his 19-year tenure at Gonzaga.
“He’s just done a tremendous job of defining their roles and having guys play within themselves,” BYU coach Dave Rose said after the WCC Tournament. “He has a lot of really high-end, talented players, and trying to mold them into the team he has now might be the best job I’ve seen since I’ve been here.”
The stiffest competition to Few’s efforts this season comes from the previous two years, squads in 2007 (Josh Heytvelt suspension) and 2011 (tied for fourth midway through WCC season) that had to win the conference tournament to keep the program’s NCAA Tournament streak alive, and the 26-win 2001 crew breaking in a backcourt of Blake Stepp and Dan Dickau, who missed nine games with a broken finger.
Last year’s march to the national championship game stocked several trophies, including the Naismith Coach of the Year, on Few’s office shelf.
The 2016 Zags had no depth, and the guard line struggled for the first few months of the season. The guards made huge strides, and the Zags dug out the WCC Tournament title when there was no NCAA at-large safety net.
Few’s awards haul last season was well deserved, but the job wasn’t without challenges. Rewind to the start of the 2017 season. Przemek Karnowski was returning from back surgery, Nigel Williams-Goss and Johnathan Williams were coming off a one-year layoff under NCAA transfer rules, Jordan Mathews arrived on campus in late August. Zach Collins and Killian Tillie were true freshmen with great promise.
The pieces came together quickly, and the best team in program history was rarely tested in a 37-2 season. Only three John Calipari-coached 38-win teams, two at Kentucky and one at Memphis, have won more games in a single season.
There were several swings and misses in the off-season on graduate transfers. It became clear early that the Zags were going forward with five returning players: Williams, Tillie, Josh Perkins, Silas Melson and seldom-used Rui Hachimura; redshirts Zach Norvell Jr. and Jacob Larsen; and true freshman Corey Kispert.
None of the returners would be in the same role as in 2017. Melson and Tillie graduated to the starting lineup. Perkins took over as solo point guard. Williams moved from power forward to center. Hachimura became crucial in the rotation. Kispert and eventually Norvell stepped in at starting wing.
GU’s personnel picture worried some in the fan base and didn’t overly impress media or fellow coaches. Saint Mary’s was essentially a unanimous pick to win the WCC in the coaches’ preseason poll.
The Zags played well early, taking two of three at the prestigious PK80 Invitational in Portland before blasting Washington and Creighton. Villanova handled the Zags, but concern levels soared after a road loss at San Diego State and a home loss to Saint Mary’s.
“The challenges we faced were different than last year,” said assistant coach Brian Michaelson, citing the players’ changing roles and replacing leadership from 2017. “We knew as a staff the margin for error wasn’t the same as last year, when you knew we were going to wear down the opponent at some point.”
The Zags’ defense began locking in after the first Gaels game. The offense motored along as turnovers dropped and Hachimura filled a prominent role.
“One thing I said after last year, coach Few and coach (Tommy) Lloyd were not going to put a bad product on the floor,” Williams-Goss said. “They’re just that good of coaches.”
The Zags faced numerous tight games but repeatedly delivered. They’ve won 16 in a row entering Thursday’s Sweet 16 matchup with Florida State.
Few added to his collection in recent weeks with his 12th WCC Coach of the Year award and another for District IX, but he seems to have gone unnoticed nationally. Nine of the 10 finalists for the Naismith award are from power conferences.
“What are they ranked, No. 6 or 8, I don’t even know,” San Francisco coach Kyle Smith said. “That’s your drop, after losing four starters or seniors? He’s pretty smart about how he does it. It’s something we want to emulate, but it takes time.”
The Zags (32-4) rank among the favorites after a wacky first four days of the NCAA Tournament.
“When you can go to a championship game and come back the next year and have the kind of year that they’ve had, it says you have reached elite-level status,” said Ohio State coach Chris Holtmann, who has phoned Few several times for advice on various topics. “That’s where they are at right now.”
It wasn’t easy to get there, and it has probably been harder to stay there.
“I watched from start to finish the San Diego State game,” Rose said. “He had guys that were looking around, trying to figure out where they really fit. Since that game to now, he’s done an unbelievable job. Mark is one of the best there is.”
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