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Gonzaga Basketball

Dave Boling: Gonzaga will try on a No. 3 seed this NCAA Tournament – a number showing growth, worn with pride

By Dave Boling For The Spokesman-Review

Riding a surge of dopamine through a shower of confetti, Mark Few made a revealing comment about his 2023 Gonzaga men’s basketball team.

Accepting the trophy for having won another West Coast Conference tournament championship last week, he spoke of this, his 24th GU team: “I’ve never been as proud of a group.”

It didn’t seem like much at the time. But picture that. Consider all the seemingly unreachable milestones passed through the decades, so many overachieving teams, clawing for wins and national rankings and respect. But this was the moment of greatest pride?

It seemed like more than a toss-off comment in the moment, because this season, surely, has been different, more difficult, and followed a very unusual route. This team has been bruised and beaten more than recent predecessors, providing lessons of substance and self-awareness.

And maybe, as they enter the NCAA Tournament Friday in Denver against Grand Canyon, this season of altered trajectory will send the Zags to a higher outcome.

Is there any reason to expect that Few’s parental pride, for lack of a better term, will translate to winning more games? If you’ve ever had a coach or teacher say something like that about you, you might have felt it resonate for a lifetime.

More relevant is that his pride could be an outgrowth of the team’s personality and some qualities that it has shown this season, growth that will reap dividends in impending weeks.

Few later explained: “That’s what made (this) so special; they just hung with it and hung with it. It took a while for them to figure out what it was going to take, especially with our physicality and our connectivity on the defensive end.”

That taking-a-while part hasn’t been a luxury around Zags basketball, where the protocol has been to compete at a high level against one of the toughest nonconference schedules in the country, sustain and fine-tune during the conference season, and then crank it up again for the NCAAs.

“This was not looking good several times – (losses to) Purdue, Texas, Saint Mary’s – but they hung with it,” Few said.

Few conceded that he was not always pleasant company at times this season. Chances are that it made everybody, from head coach on down, reach deeper.

The benefit of the early losses is shedding the burden of pressure that a No. 1 -ranked team has to carry for months. The Zags have borne that top ranking for portions of every season since the start of 2018.

This season, the Zags’ ratings dipped as low as No. 18 before fighting back up to No. 8 and earning the No. 3 seed in the NCAA’s West Region.

How you play in November and December surely can affect your seeding in March, but it does not necessarily factor in your actual quality of play four months later.

The Zags that hammered Saint Mary’s in the WCC title game were so obviously a team capable of competing with the country’s elite. The Gaels carried an NCAA NET rating of No. 8, but the Zags beat them 77-51 in a game they led by 37 points. GU shot 58% and held the Gaels to 33% shooting.

The CBS crew announcing the pairings sensed the Zags’ powerful finish. Clark Kellogg announced: “I like Gonzaga to make it as your national champion.” And Seth Davis liked the way the Zags are a “huge under-the-radar” threat.

“I hope we stay in this space,” Few said after the SMC win.” If we play defense like that, and keep running our offense as crisp … it bodes really, really well for us in the tournament.”

It certainly does, and it makes upcoming weeks intriguing. This is a different team on an untrodden path. It’s a team on the rise, perhaps uncharacteristically hungry.

And absolutely bursting with pride.