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Sports >  Gonzaga basketball

‘It’s truly brothers’: Gonzaga’s tight coaching tree branches out with four conference champions in the West

March 5, 2022 Updated Sat., March 5, 2022 at 8:32 p.m.

The texts and phone calls fly back and forth, checking in on each other’s programs, families and kids in this season like no other for the Zags’ coaching tree.

It’s what four college basketball coaches and close friends do, except close isn’t the right description.

“It’s not just some buddies,” Dan Monson said. “It’s truly brothers.”

Brothers who have collected four regular-season conference titles in the West when the preseason polls favored only one, Gonzaga.

Here’s the rundown: Mark Few and Gonzaga (24-3), West Coast Conference champions again and pursuing the NCAA Tournament’s top overall seed for the second straight year.

Leon Rice, Few’s former assistant at GU, guiding Boise State (24-7) to the Mountain West championship, the Broncos’ first outright conference title since 1988. BSU was fourth in the MWC preseason poll.

Monson, architect of the Zags’ improbable run to the 1999 Elite Eight with his eventual successor Few serving as an assistant coach, leading Long Beach State (18-11) to the Big West crown after being eighth in the coaches’ preseason poll.

And Tommy Lloyd, the first-year head coach who has Arizona (28-3) at No. 2 in the AP poll and NET rankings, one spot behind his former boss Few and Gonzaga. The Wildcats were picked tied for fourth with Oregon State in the Pac-12 preseason poll.

“Arguably, it’s the four best leagues on the West Coast and the Zag tree has won all four of them,” said Rice, noting that Duke recently capturing an outright ACC championship for the first time since 2006 underscores how difficult it is to pull off the feat. “The cool thing for us, it’s not like we all went our separate ways and never talked to each other.

“We’re still family connected, talk every day, root for each other and living and dying with each other through the ups and downs.”

Feb. 26 was a rare down day for the tree with only Rice’s team registering a win. The Zags lost at Saint Mary’s, Long Beach State was edged by UC Irvine and Arizona fell to Colorado.

“I called Mark, we were talking the other day after his tough Saint Mary’s deal,” Rice said. “We talked about pickleball for 10 minutes. We didn’t go there (SMC game). It’s not all basketball. We vacation together and do so many other things.”

The connections run deep and go back more than three decades for Monson, Few and Rice as Oregon students working camps for Monson’s father, Don, who was Ducks coach after leading Idaho to milestone seasons in the early 1980s.

When Boise State clinched the Mountain West title Tuesday on Senior Night, Dan’s wife, Darci, walked son MicGuire, a senior manager, onto the court for pregame festivities and watched later as he snipped part of the championship net.

“I remember Jim Harrick Jr. and (Mark) Gottfried and Steve Lavin used to call us the West Coast mafia,” Monson said. “We grew up together. Mark and Billy (Grier, former Zags assistant now assisting at Colorado) were both in my wedding. Tommy played for (longtime family friend) Jeff Reinland at Walla Walla.

“I asked Mark to help me with three commitments I made before I left – let Kyle Bankhead walk on, make sure Scott Snider stayed on staff and third was I had a grad assistant that I promised a job to that I’d never met, Tommy Lloyd.”

Few hadn’t met Lloyd either. Some background: Monson told Lloyd, who was still playing at the time, he’d have a spot for him if he decided to get into coaching. That time came as Lloyd’s pro career overseas was winding down, but Monson was bound for Minnesota after the 1999 season and Few was promoted to Gonzaga’s head coach.

Few honored Monson’s pledge, giving Lloyd had a foot in the door at Gonzaga.

“They’ve all done a great job,” Few said. “It’s fun to watch their teams play and they’re all different. They all, with the exception of Tommy, had to rally from poor starts.

“Leon’s team lost some games they probably shouldn’t have and they flipped it around. Dan’s team was way down, but he flipped it and that’s hard to do. I’m proud of all of them.”

The four will soon head to Las Vegas for conference tournaments and possibly a quick reunion Tuesday night if their travel and game schedules cooperate.

The WCC title game is Tuesday and tips at 6 p.m. BSU, LBSU and Arizona open their respective conference tournaments Thursday.

Gonzaga and Arizona are projected as No. 1 seeds while Boise State appears to be safely in the field as a seventh or eighth seed. Long Beach State needs a Big West Tournament title to cement its second trip to the Big Dance in Monson’s 15 seasons. LBSU is guaranteed a spot in the NIT if it comes up short in Las Vegas.

Fox Sports’ latest bracket projection presents a few interesting scenarios for the Zags’ coaching tree, which frowns on scheduling nonconference games against each other. Mike DeCourcy has Gonzaga facing Long Beach State in the opening round with the winner meeting the No. 8 Boise State/No. 9 Marquette winner.

A Gonzaga-Arizona matchup probably only happens if both reach the Final Four.

“You work so hard and root for each other and then to have only one of us survive this, that’s terrible,” Rice said. “Everybody always asks when are you going to play each other when we’re on vacation at Hayden Lake or in Hawaii. We’re like, ‘Hell no,’ we’re not going to ruin our vacation. I don’t even want to go there.”

“That would be fun for a lot of people, it wouldn’t be for me,” Monson said. “A, you don’t want play friends. B, you absolutely don’t want to lose to friends. It’s like dating your best friend’s old girlfriend. There’s lot of other girls out there, it’s not worth the friendship.”

No matter what unfolds in March Madness, it’s been a magical season for the four programs. The Zags and Wildcats are title contenders. BSU and LBSU dug out of early holes.

The Broncos were 3-4 after losing at home to Saint Louis, which has former Zags assistant Ray Giacoletti on its coaching staff.

“When we came here, we were a medium WAC team. We weren’t in the Mountain West yet,” said Rice, who earned a co-MWC title in 2015. “So it was a long climb to get to the top of the mountain.”

Rice said it wasn’t easy leaving Gonzaga after 11 years for Boise State following the 2010 season.

“That was like a divorce, it was awful,” he said. “I was like, ‘Dan, I don’t want to break up our families,’ and he was like, ‘You can create that in Boise.’ That’s what we did. That’s where the similarities lie in the culture. That’s what we have here now and what I envisioned.”

Monson’s squad faced an even steeper climb with a 4-9 record after dropping their Big West opener to visiting Hawaii in January. It responded with 11 consecutive victories.

“We got down 15 or 17 at home and our guys got some urgency and panic to them,” Monson recalled. “We started pressing, disrupting defensively and got all the way back. We ended up losing, but it kind of changed our season.

“We play five guards, we’ve had four centers (injured), so we run and press. We started the year with 17 players and we dressed eight last week. We’ve been very resilient since that game. It might be one of my least-talented groups, but they like each other and they have character, a really connected group. It goes to show there’s a lot more to it than talent.”

Lloyd replaced Sean Miller, who went 17-9 in his final season at Arizona. Several former Arizona players urged the school to hire someone with connections to the program, but Lloyd has proven to be an ideal fit.

“They play with great pace,” said Few, who joins Lloyd among the candidates for Naismith Coach of the Year. “They move the ball, they’re playing a fun style. He has some terrific athletes. He has size and he’s got really agile size. They’re something.”

So is the friendship of the Zags’ coaching tree.

“The cool thing is Don (Monson) is the godfather of it all,” Rice said. “We all got together through his camp and got to know each other through late-night activities. That put us on this road. This started in 1988 and to this day, the stuff we talk about can go back 20-30 years ago.”

Or perhaps something that happened earlier this week.

“To see all four of us winning our conferences,” Dan said, “there’s a lot of pride.”

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