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Mark Few reflects on the ‘start of the entire run’ when Gonzaga and Connecticut met in the 1999 Elite Eight

Gonzaga Bulldogs head coach Mark Few takes questions during a press conference on Friday, March 24, 2023, before the Gonzaga Bulldogs’ NCAA Tournament Elite 8 matchup against UConn, Saturday, at T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas, Nev.  (Tyler Tjomsland/The Spokesman-Review)
By Jim Allen For The Spokesman-Review

LAS VEGAS – Mark Few isn’t the nostalgic type.

Like most coaches, he’s hard-wired to look to the next recruit, the next practice or the next big game – in this case, Gonzaga’s Elite Eight matchup Saturday night against UConn.

But during Friday’s news conference, Few opened up about that last big meeting with the Huskies, which also took place in the Elite Eight round.

That was 24 years ago, before any of the current Zags were born. But those elite athletes are wearing GU blue partly because of the magical season of 1998-99 and the hard work that followed.

The subject came up late Thursday night, after the Zags’ scintillating win over UCLA in the Sweet 16.

Asked about preparing a team back then, as an assistant to Dan Monson, compared with now as a head coach, Few shrugged his response.

“No, I couldn’t even tell you,” Few said. “That was like 77 dog years ago or something when you do this coaching stuff. Maybe 125 dog years or something.”

But on Friday, he figuratively strolled down memory lane – or more accurately the hardscrabble road Gonzaga had traveled until then.

“A whirlwind run,” Few called it, the 10th-seeded Zags’ upsets of Minnesota, Stanford and Florida in the first three rounds of the ’99 tournament.

“I mean, the school had never even won a game at the NCAA Tournament, let alone three of them. And so it was just such a magical ride,” Few said.

“We had never done press conferences,” Few said. “We never had police escorts. We never had anything. Very rarely even been on national television except for maybe once or twice on ESPN or something.

“It’s the start of the entire run. And everybody knows the story. Enrollment went from 2,500 now to over 8,000. And there’s all kinds of new buildings and new arenas.”

Gonzaga’s Quentin Hall gets the handle on a loose ball in the first half against UConn’s Khalid El-Amin.  (Colin Mulvany/The Spokesman-Review)
Gonzaga’s Quentin Hall gets the handle on a loose ball in the first half against UConn’s Khalid El-Amin. (Colin Mulvany/The Spokesman-Review) Buy this photo

The run ended in defeat, 67-62. UConn went on to claim the 1999 NCAA title and later three more.

But Gonzaga had won something important: momentum.

A month later, Monson departed for Minnesota and then-athletic director Mike Roth elevated Few to head coach.

A decade earlier, Few had joined the program as a graduate assistant for $500 and the use of Monson’s spare bedroom.

The weighty question now fell on Few’s shoulders: Was this a blip, or something more?

Earlier on Friday, Sarah Michaelson was strolling the Las Vegas Strip with her children and other relatives.

Two years after the Zags’ magical run, Michaelson enrolled at Gonzaga as a freshman soccer player.

She had some doubts about the basketball program’s long-term prospects.

“Honestly, I didn’t think it would go this long,” Michaelson said the Zags’ 25 straight NCAA appearances. “But it speaks to the culture and the staff and everything they value as an athletic department.

“It’s built on the right things.”

The cornerstone was the hard work that followed.

Absurd as it sounds now, the Zags finished the next season tied with Pepperdine for the West Coast Conference regular-season title.

They met again in the WCC Tournament, where some lesser-known magic unfolded.

Casey Calvary, a major player in the Elite Eight season, came up big again, scoring 28 points in GU’s 69-65 overtime win over the Waves in the title game.

“And we’re back, baby, we’re back,”’ senior point guard Matt Santangelo shouted while giving Few a postgame hug.

A No. 10 seed again, the Zags beat Louisville and St. John’s before falling to Purdue in the Sweet 16.

There was more drama in 2001. Gonzaga had to win the WCC Tournament to reach the Big Dance and did so, 80-77 over Santa Clara behind MVP Dan Dickau’s 25 points, including six free throws in the final 96 seconds.

More magic followed off the court. Michaelson is now married to Brian Michaelson, a former GU walk-on and now an assistant to Few.