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‘Vastly, vastly underrated.’ In wake of Final Four ‘chess match,’ UCLA’s Mick Cronin heaps praise on Gonzaga’s Mark Few

UPDATED: Sat., April 3, 2021

Gonzaga head coach Mark Few watches from the bench during the first half of a men's Final Four NCAA college basketball tournament semifinal game against UCLA, Saturday, April 3, 2021, at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis.   (Associated Press)
Gonzaga head coach Mark Few watches from the bench during the first half of a men's Final Four NCAA college basketball tournament semifinal game against UCLA, Saturday, April 3, 2021, at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis.  (Associated Press)

INDIANAPOLIS – Mick Cronin had seen it play out before. Not quite like this. Not when a national championship berth was on the line. Not against a top-ranked team on the verge of college basketball history.

But it triggered the memory nonetheless.

Cronin, the third-year UCLA coach, was on Cincinnati’s sideline in 2009 when Robert Sacre knocked down a short jumper near the end of regulation and followed with a key block on the other end to send the championship game of the Maui Invitational to overtime.

Mark Few’s team didn’t overwhelm Cronin’s in the extra period, but the Bulldogs did just enough.

Starting to sound familiar?

Gonzaga scored just six points in overtime but held Cincinnati to four and the Bulldogs, who had to overcome a 10-point deficit in the second half, clipped the Bearcats 61-59, leaving the Lahaina Civic Center as champions of the Maui tournament for the first time in school history.

Few and Cronin hadn’t crossed paths since, but when they did Saturday in the Final Four, it took another overtime period to decide a game between two of the sport’s brightest coaching minds.

It also took a clutch block inside the final minute of regulation. In 2009, it was Sacre swatting Cincinnati’s Yancy Gates. On Saturday, it was Gonzaga’s Jalen Suggs stuffing UCLA’s Cody Riley.

The unbeaten, top-ranked Bulldogs needed a buzzer-beating 3-pointer from their freshman sensation, Suggs, to avoid double overtime with Cronin and a tough-minded UCLA team that entered the Big Dance as a No. 11 seed and needed to win a play-in game just to advance into the main tournament field.

“He’s got me twice now in overtime,” Cronin said. “Maui in (2009) and in the Final Four here in ’21.”

In UCLA’s postgame Zoom conference, Cronin equated Saturday’s 45-minute battle to a “chess match.” There’s probably no better term for a game that featured 19 lead changes and 15 ties. The Bruins shot 57% from the field and the Bulldogs 58%. To punctuate the tight-knit nature of the matchup, both teams recorded 10 turnovers.

Cronin rarely made a move that wasn’t countered by Few, and vice versa.

“It was such a chess match to coach against him,” Cronin said. “He’s a great guy and I just think he’s vastly, vastly underrated as a tactician, because people will say, ‘Oh, they’ve got all this talent.’ It’s really hard to get guys to pass the ball to each other consistently and play as a team the way they do.

“So their talent level is high, but their coaching is elite as well.”

Few college basketball teams have collected talent the way the 2020-21 Zags have, blending Suggs, a five-star freshman prospect who was expected to be an NBA lottery pick well before hitting Saturday’s winner, with the likes of senior wing Corey Kispert and sophomore forward Drew Timme.

To be sure, the Zags are more than just a loaded roster. Talented basketball teams crash out of the NCAA Tournament all the time, so Few’s coaching acumen is what sets Gonzaga apart. He didn’t necessarily make more moves than Cronin, but he made the ones that got the Bulldogs to the finish line. Suggs’ desperation heave did the rest.

“They do have really good players,” Cronin said. “Timme’s a great offensive player, but they have to overcome some things. I don’t want to sit here and tell you my opinion and point those out. The reason I bring that up is Mark is such a great coach that very few teams execute at their level, at their pace.

“They do a lot of changing of what they’re doing.”

As someone who was there for Few’s 269th win as Gonzaga’s coach, in a high school-sized gym on the island of Maui, and now his 630th, on college basketball’s biggest stage, Cronin knows it all too well.

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