INDIANAPOLIS – Among the activities that have kept players and coaches busy while inside their Indianapolis bubble – addictive board games like Catan, interactive video games like Call of Duty – a classic paddleboard sport has hooked the Gonzaga Bulldogs and Baylor Bears as they approach the end of their stay at the NCAA Tournament and prepare to meet in the national championship.
That would be pickleball and Mark Few and Scott Drew are taking names.
“I can’t speak much about the pickleball court,” Gonzaga senior wing Corey Kispert said in a recent Zoom press conference. “That’s coach Few’s realm, he’s the pickleball master. I haven’t been over there for the entirety of our stay, but he’s really, really good and he lets you know about it.”
Andrew Nembhard claims he’s also been dissuaded from joining his coach in a competitive pickleball game until he gains some real experience in the sport.
“I haven’t, he said I’m not allowed to play him until I get my game a little bit better,” Nembhard said. “So, I’m still working, still working.”
But at some point during the Bulldogs’ three-week stay in Indianapolis, Few did find someone capable of pushing him on the pickleball court: the man who’ll be on the opposite sideline trying to outthink and outmaneuver him when top-ranked Gonzaga meets third-ranked Baylor in Monday’s national championship game.
More often than not, Few, the 22nd-year coach at Gonzaga, and Drew, in year No. 18 at Baylor, actually join forces on the pickleball court and take on anyone willing to pose the challenge, holding court as if they were two college-aged friends unwilling to give up their spot on the beer pong table.
“I don’t know if it’s safe to admit yet, but we’re partners in pickleball and undefeated in the bubble I might add,” Few said. “So that’s been fun.”
On Monday, the court will look a little different at Lucas Oil Stadium, but Few and Drew will still have their competitive juices flowing as the No. 1-seeded Bulldogs and Bears meet in a national championship game tens of thousands of college basketball fans have been anticipating since a regular-season game between Gonzaga and Baylor in Indianapolis got scrapped because of positive COVID-19 tests.
However it finishes, with Baylor upstaging the team that’s spent the entirety of the season No. 1 in the AP Top 25 poll, or Gonzaga finishing a perfect season with a national championship, the game will end with a genuine handshake between the coaches who’ve spent the last two decades building traditionally underachieving programs into powerhouses.
“It’s absolutely, unequivocally off the charts,” Few said of his counterpart’s rebuild, which came on the heels of a major scandal within Baylor’s program. “I don’t think it’s ever been seen and I’m glad it’s coming to light. We’re side by side in our meeting rooms (in the bubble) and we’ve been hanging out lot. … We have talked about that. We’ve talked from where we were to where we are.
“Ours was a lot smoother and it just didn’t come from a dark place. Where they were, it’s unbelievable what they’ve been able to do. I also feel like he’s had to fight through some totally inaccurate portrayals or whatever. He’s a phenomenal, phenomenal basketball coach.”
The coaches agreed to take part in a pregame ritual when their respective teams made it to Indianapolis, but that might have to go on indefinite pause come Monday.
“We started texting each other, saying a prayer for the other’s team before the games during the tournament and said we’d do that all the way up to the championship,” Drew said. “So I guess he won’t get that prayer text before this one.”
No text, but Drew indicated he and his father may visit Few’s lakehouse in the Spokane area at some point in the offseason to “play pickleball and go fishing.”
“He loves to fish, I love to fish. He’s the king of the fly-fishing, I think I’m the king of the bass fishing,” Drew said. “But we have a great relationship.”