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Gonzaga Basketball

‘They’re winners.’ Coachable Gonzaga team listened to Few, ignored noise during Elite Eight run

Gonzaga’s Julian Strawther (0) reacts after hitting a game-winning shot against the UCLA Bruins as guard Malachi Smith (13) and head coach Mark Few celebrate during the second half of an NCAA Tournament Sweet Sixteen basketball game on Thursday, March 23, 2023, at T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas, Nev. Gonzaga won the game 79-76.  (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)

Mark Few considered where Gonzaga was in late October following a 99-80 exhibition loss to Tennessee and where the Bulldogs finished the season, 40 minutes shy of a third Final Four appearance, when evaluating the growth and improvement of his 2022-23 team in relation to the other 23 he’s guided to NCAA Tournament berths.

From starting point to finish line, Few couldn’t recall another team that compared to the Zags in that regard, at least not off the top of his head while speaking to reporters in a postgame news conference following the team’s 82-54 Elite Eight loss to Connecticut on Saturday at T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas.

“They’re winners. We’ve had a great run of winners,” Few said. “As I told them in there, I mean, personally, I think this is 24 years of being a head coach, I’ve never had a team get this much better over the course of a year.”

Despite bringing back three starters, returning a national player of the year candidate in senior forward Drew Timme and checking in at No. 2 in the preseason Associated Press Top 25 poll, Few cautioned that Gonzaga would need time to jell after losing two players – Chet Holmgren and Andrew Nembhard – who dictated much of what the Bulldogs did on both ends of the floor last season.

The general public got an earlier glimpse of Gonzaga than usual, watching the Bulldogs trail by as many as 21 points and give up 13 3-pointers to Tennessee in an exhibition loss that was aired on pay-per-view as part of the Legends of Basketball Charity Classic. The Volunteers shot 57% from the field and tallied 28 assists in the preseason game.

During postgame remarks from the Comerica Center in Frisco, Texas, Timme acknowledged Gonzaga’s shortcomings while simultaneously offering an optimistic outlook for the remainder of the season.

“They’re a really good team and I think we’re a really good team,” Timme said of Tennessee on Oct. 28. “We just obviously have to clean up some stuff. But yeah, I could definitely see us playing each other again just because they are such a good team and we’ll get there.

“Slow and steady wins the race.”

Timme’s comments were prophetic as Gonzaga won three games at the NCAA Tournament, extending the school’s run of eight consecutive Sweet 16 appearances. Meanwhile, Tennessee’s season ended one round earlier with a Sweet 16 loss to tournament Cinderella Florida Atlantic, which will face San Diego State on Saturday in the Final Four.

“I knew it from the start, I knew it from the start,” sophomore forward Ben Gregg said. “I knew with the guys we had, the group, we just needed time to jell. We had a couple new guys, guys stepped into bigger roles. So just taking that time to jell, I knew we’d be OK and having a guy like Drew and Julian (Strawther) and Anton (Watson) leading things, I knew we’d be OK.”

Outside of the home locker room in Spokane, confidence in Gonzaga’s ability to follow in the steps of past teams started to wane when the Bulldogs lost three of their first eight games, 93-74 to Texas on Nov. 16, 84-66 to Purdue on Nov. 25 and 64-63 to Baylor on Dec. 2.

“At the beginning of the season, we thought it was going to be tough,” Watson said. “We thought it was going to be a long season and didn’t know how many games we were going to win. But just kept getting better week by week, practice by practice, and (Few) kept reminding us of that.”

Gonzaga went to Birmingham to beat eventual No. 1 overall NCAA Tournament seed Alabama 100-90, and the Bulldogs gained confidence through an 11-game win streak that spanned the final three weeks of nonconference play and the first three weeks of West Coast Conference play.

But the Zags got another lesson in handling adversity when they lost to Loyola Marymount on Jan. 23 in Spokane, ending the nation’s longest home winning streak (75 games) and marking the program’s first loss to a WCC team other than Saint Mary’s and BYU in 116 games.

“We had some rough patches this year that may have brought some dark times and a little bit of negative energy,” Strawther said. “But at the same time, we did an amazing job of just bouncing back and playing through adversity. I think we’ve hung our hats on that, our ability to fight through adversity and just having resilience throughout the season.”

A USA Today article titled, “Blowout losses, inexplicable defeats: What’s wrong with Gonzaga men’s basketball?” was published on Feb. 3, one day before the Bulldogs lost their fifth game, 78-70 in overtime at Saint Mary’s.

Gonzaga dropped out of the top 10 of the AP poll for the first time since 2017-18 after losing to Purdue, then plummeted to No. 18 after a one-point loss to Baylor in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. The Bulldogs didn’t return to the top 10 again until March 6.

“Everybody was hating, everyone had doubts on us,” point guard Nolan Hickman said. “That’s what makes us so good, I feel like. We just took all that with a grain of salt and we buckled down and figured out how to win games.

“The stretch was big, it didn’t end how we wanted it to end but the run is definitely a core memory.”

“Everybody kind of counted us out after that,” Gregg said. “They were like, this is not our year and whatever.”

The Bulldogs couldn’t completely avoid negative comments on social media – some directed at players, others at Few for various personnel decisions – but suggested those never infiltrated the locker room or impacted their play.

“We’re a team, we’re like family and we just ignored all that and we just stayed together with each other in the locker room,” senior guard Malachi Smith said. “That’s how we got to where we are. No one picked us and that’s why this game doesn’t define our season.”

Gonzaga’s ceiling started to come into focus toward the end of the regular season as the Bulldogs barreled into the NCAA Tournament with a nine-game win streak, including two wins over WCC rival Saint Mary’s – the second of which was a 26-point drubbing in the conference tournament championship game.

Again proving how you finish a season is more important than how you start it, Gonzaga reeled off NCAA Tournament wins over Grand Canyon, TCU and UCLA – overcoming a halftime deficit in the last two of those – to advance to the program’s sixth Elite Eight.

The team was just the second to make an Elite Eight run after losing more than three games in the regular season. Gonzaga’s original Elite Eight team, in 1998-99, lost six regular-season games.

“I mean, again take away this last two hours,” Few said, “but prior to that, from where we were in November to where we were two hours ago was just an incredible journey and a bunch of fun, because they were coachable and willing to work and willing to do what we asked them.”