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Sports >  Gonzaga basketball

ESPN’s Jay Bilas talks Gonzaga basketball success, being recruited by Zags and national title chances

UPDATED: Sat., March 6, 2021

ESPN’s Jay Bilas is one of Gonzaga’s greatest supporters, saying earlier this season, “It is one of the greatest success stories, I think, in American sports history.”  (Mike Mulholland/Tribune News Service)
ESPN’s Jay Bilas is one of Gonzaga’s greatest supporters, saying earlier this season, “It is one of the greatest success stories, I think, in American sports history.” (Mike Mulholland/Tribune News Service)
By Justin Reed The Spokesman-Review

It has been about 10 years since ESPN’s Jay Bilas forever etched his words into Gonzaga’s history.

When Bilas was interviewed for “A Decade of Excellence,” a documentary done on the Bulldogs’ 1999-2009 meteoric rise, he dropped a quote that immediately caught the attention of Zag Nation.

“They go to school. They do their homework. They shake hands. They say please and thank you. But once you throw that ball up, they will rip your heart out and watch you bleed.”

The Bulldogs loved it so much that seven years later, they painted it on the first wall they see when they walk into the locker room. It is right next to a quote from Bulldogs great Casey Calvary and above their Final Four trophy.

Ten years later, Bilas jazzed up the Bulldogs again – this time on ESPN’s broadcast of the Zags hosting Pepperdine on Jan. 14.

“It is one of the greatest success stories, I think, in American sports history,” Bilas said during the broadcast.

GU’s official social media pages grabbed the quote and plastered it all over their pages. Fan pages did the same.

While he only said it a few weeks ago, Bilas has thought it for a long time. So long now, that the success shouldn’t be a considered a run, but just flat-out consistency.

“But after you do it for 20 years, you start comparing to other teams, other sports, and certainly in basketball, there are very few teams that you could say have had a had a 20-year dominance streak and dominant run,” Bilas said. “It’s hard to even say a run for 20 years. It’s been consistent excellence for such a long period of time.”

Bilas also praised the Bulldogs’ impressive attitude and fiery, competitive spirit – all while playing sound basketball and following the rules along the way.

“You can be a cutthroat competitor (and) they’re all really nice guys. They all do the right things,” Bilas said. “They compete when it’s time to compete, and then when it’s done, they’re a great group of people. You don’t have to have a motorcycle gang to win. They do things the right way.”

Since 1998, the season before Mark Few took over as head coach (not including this season), the Bulldogs have 627 wins, including 34 NCAA Tournament wins. That averages out to just under 29 wins a season.

Prior to 1998, the Bulldogs amassed 1,072 wins and zero tournament wins – in 91 seasons, or an average of 12 wins a season.

“You can’t really find many analogues to what Gonzaga has done, especially doing it out of a smaller conference and a smaller school that in the ’90s you know, not many people had even heard of,” Bilas said. “It’s a national and international brand that stands for something. I mean, I don’t think anybody could have imagined this in 1998. And that’s why I think it’s one of the greatest American success stories in American sports.

“It’s a remarkable transformation.”

Most of America was unsure of who or what Gonzaga was for most of the 20th century. Only John Stockton’s NBA success gave any sort of publicity to the Bulldogs.

As a top-50 recruit coming out of Rolling Hills High School in California, Bilas had his fair share of suitors, including the Jesuit university in Spokane.

Bilas could have played alongside Stockton for the final two seasons of his college career in 1982-1984 – yet Bilas had offers from Duke, Syracuse, Iowa and Kansas – so the Zags were not even on his mind.

It took another 15-plus years before the Bulldogs began their ascent into the national spotlight.

“It wasn’t on my radar to go to the West Coast Conference, but at the same time, I mean, I’d never heard of (GU), and the only way I’ve heard of it was when they recruited me,” Bilas said. “And it wasn’t a long process. I mean, it was a couple of phone calls. And a couple letters, and that was the end of it.”

That offer came from former head coach Jay Hillock, who spent four year at GU between 1981-1985. He later coached at Loyola Marymount for two seasons. Current GU athletic director Mike Roth was on the bench as an assistant men’s basketball coach at the time of Bilas’ recruiting.

“I didn’t know anything about (Hillock) either,” Bilas said. “That’s kind of my point is that it’s not a knock on Gonzaga. I had my sights on different things.”

After Hillock came the late Dan Fitzgerald – for his second term – who laid the foundation for the future Bulldogs success, including hiring Dan Monson and later, Few.

The continuity of the coaching tree has been a large part of keeping the Bulldogs near the top of the college basketball ranks for two decades. It doesn’t hurt that Roth has overseen the exponential growth, taking over the position in 1997.

“Well, they have a great coach and they had one with Dan Monson, and Mark (Few) was his assistant, and they had a really good team and then they broke through and had some NCAA Tournament success that led to some money flowing their way,” Bilas said.

After Monson, Few took the reins and built a coaching staff that has stayed remarkably consistent. Obvious changes to the coaching staff over the years have led to new faces, but assistant coaches usually stay a few seasons. In the case of Tommy Lloyd, Few’s top assistant, he has been on the staff since 2000.

“(GU) just built an amazing winning culture,” Bilas said. “And so those things don’t happen by accident. … And they’ve gotten tremendous support from the administration where they have the resources they need to sustain that kind of success. I mean, you don’t do it without outstanding leadership, on the coaching staff, administrative support, which means money.”

Money might not buy wins, but it does help in recruitment when facilities become top-notch.

The McCarthey Athletic Center was built in 2004 to replace the Charlotte Y. Martin Centre for $25 million ($33.8 million in 2021). Then in 2018, the university opened the Volkar Center for Athletic Achievement, a world-class building that houses weight rooms, a nutrition center, practice courts and meetings spaces. The $24 million facility was built purely off donations to the athletic department.

Add strong recruiting, which helped build a strong and balanced roster full of potential All-Americans and future NBA players, and the program has been lifted to new heights.

“And then you have to have players,” Bilas said. “No great coaching staff has ever, ever won any games without great players. It just doesn’t happen.”

Even with the consistent coaching staff, the rosters from the past couldn’t keep up with new expectations and goals the Bulldogs hoped to accomplish. GU was routinely bullied by bigger, more athletic guards and its bigs couldn’t match up with the powerful bigs from the Power Five conferences.

“They weren’t as athletic as some of the teams they wanted to beat outside of their conference and sort of the big-time games they were playing,” Bilas said. “They weren’t rebounding as well. They went out and they recruited to those issues. And they had more success and recruited a couple international players and started getting better American players. They made really intelligent decisions and just built an amazing winning culture.”

Bilas has called his fair share of Bulldogs games over the years, especially as the Zags find themselves on ESPN more often. This has given him chances to see the Zags firsthand and build a relationship with the staff and players.

“They have a lot of fun while they’re doing it,” Bilas said. “But when it’s time to play, they fight and fight together. And that’s a really cool part of their program is they have a tremendous amount of fun. I don’t know that I’ve been around a group over the years – coaches, players – that have been more fun to be around. And I haven’t been around a team that’s been more competitive. But it’s rare you find a program that has both of those things, and do it so seamlessly.”

The Zags cruised this season, racking up 24 wins with no losses – the first men’s team to go undefeated in the regular season since Kentucky in 2015. The sheer ease at which the Bulldogs reached their 24 wins has led most college basketball pundits to prematurely crown them national champions – until proven otherwise.

“Well, they’ve got a number of different scorers that can (score) … they have a bunch of guys they can go to, but they don’t have a go to guy that the ball is in his hands all the time,” Bilas said. “Their go-to guy is really the open man, which is a great way to play. And they’ve got a lot of really good passers and good movers.”

In early January, Bilas released his first Bilas index – his own personal rankings – and he had the Bulldogs at No. 1.

“The Zags have the best offensive team in the nation, and it isn’t really a close call,” Bilas said in his piece on ESPN. “The weapons, the schemes and the controlled freedom with which they play is nothing short of unadulterated fun. The talent level of this team is absurd, as is the closeness of the players, the maturity of the approach and the purity of the collective. Pandemic or not, Gonzaga will enter the NCAA Tournament bubble without a loss. Damn, this team’s good.”

At the beginning of February, Bilas doubled down on GU.

“This team is simply fabulous, in every conceivable respect,” he said. “I don’t care whether this is Mark Few’s best team. It is the best team this season. … Gonzaga is a great team not because it is the next in line of a great program but because these players are just better than those of other teams around the country – and in Gonzaga history. Enjoy this team. It will take a great game to beat it.”

If the Zags are at the top, Baylor and Michigan are a close second, both even grabbing a few Associated Press first-place votes along the way.

“Well, (the Bulldogs) are the favorite along with Baylor. I think those two teams are a little bit separated from the pack,” Bilas said. “I think Gonzaga and Baylor have the best chances to make the final.”

The 2020-21 version of the Bulldogs is arguably their best team. That title has been tossed around a few times over the years, including the first Final Four team in school history. That team had different strengths compared to this iteration.

“They’re not as good of a rim-protecting team, as (Few’s had) in the past,” Bilas said. “Like in 2017, where they had Zach Collins and (Przemek) Karnowski, who could really protect the lane more than protect the rim, but they did both. So they’re not that kind of team. But they’ve got good athleticism and they could switch and (Joel) Ayayi can guard multiple spots. Anton Watson can guard multiple spots … just about everybody else is interchangeable.”

The 2017 team finished first in KenPom’s defensive efficiency with its lane-clogging ability. It rode its defense to Glendale, Arizona, where North Carolina ended its season. But the offense is what will power this team as far as it can in Indianapolis.

“But, look, (defense) is not the greatest strength they have,” Bilas said. “But there’s nothing wrong with that. There are other teams that are better defensively, then they are offensively and if I had a choice, I’d rather put up 96 than have to hold somebody to 55.”

The Zags have been improving their defense since the calendar turned. Now, the Bulldogs still have the best offensive efficiency in the country and have moved up to 10th in defense.

Outside of the current dog fight happening atop of the rankings, Bilas has been actively working on a different debate.

Bilas, who actively practices law in his free time in North Carolina, has been preaching that benefits for college athletes are lagging behind. He has been driving the names, image and likeness (NIL) debate as the battle rages harder while the NCAA continues to drag its feet.

“I don’t listen to what (the NCAA) says anymore,” Bilas said. “I just watch what they do. And they don’t, they don’t do it. And they’re not going to do it unless they’re forced to do it. But it’s just a question of rights, economic rights.”

It all comes down to the NCAA’s definition of amateurism. The issue with its definition is how nonspecific it actually is. A quick look at the NCAA’s website and there are multiple links that try to explain what amateurism is, according to the NCAA.

Athletes can’t make money off NIL unless it is through a sport through which they don’t have a scholarship. A college football player can take a signing bonus from an MLB team if he gets drafted. College Olympians can be paid for competing in the Olympics, no matter the sport.

“Amateurism is a sham, there’s nothing to it, and it provides nothing to the athlete, and nothing to the school. It provides nothing to the culture. All it is, is limiting for only one class of person,” Bilas said. “And no player has ever been no athlete has ever been a better player, a better student or a better person by virtue of his or her amateurism. It’s a myth.”

The NCAA has had many of the same guidelines in place since its inception in 1906. The difference is how much money the NCAA earns, specifically from the NCAA Tournament and its broadcast deal with Turner Sports.

“It’s for those that are in charge of the money to keep all of the money and act like they’re doing everybody a big favor by allowing them to play, and I don’t think that’s right,” Bilas said. “I don’t think it’s fair. And I think when you’re running a multibillion-dollar business, it’s wrong to the point of being immoral.”

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