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Gonzaga Basketball

‘A pretty exclusive club.’ Kentucky series another example of Gonzaga’s scheduling breakthrough over last two decades

Coaches John Calipari, left, and Mark Few greet each other before the Kentucky-Gonzaga showdown at the Arena on Nov. 20, 2022.  (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)

Three days before Gonzaga’s charter plane took off for a marquee nonconference game at Kentucky, Mark Few reflected on the evolution of his program, specifically recalling a period in the early 2000s when the school’s scheduling efforts were often met with figurative stiff-arms.

“There was some old-school (thinking), ‘Oh, we’re a blue blood.’ Yeah, well, you haven’t won in 20 years,” Few said during his weekly radio show with Gonzaga play-by-play commentator Tom Hudson. “I’m not speaking about Kentucky, I’m speaking about some of these other schools that claim whatever a blue blood is and blah, blah, blah. There’s kind of that old boys network or whatever you want to call it that’s hard to break through.

“Well, we’ve been able to break through that.”

Gonzaga’s phone calls rarely go unanswered in 2024 – largely due to the broad network of coaching friends Few’s created over the past three decades – and Gonzaga’s six-game, six-year series with Kentucky, which continues Saturday at Rupp Arena is another example of the breakthrough that occurred roughly five to six years after he took over the helm of Bulldogs’ program.

“It took awhile for the recruiting to come around, obviously TV came around and then (scheduling) was the last thing,” Few said. “It’s a pretty exclusive club to get in and have these games.”

Although Few couldn’t give an exact date when things shifted, Gonzaga’s home-and-home series with Virginia in 2005 and 2006 represented the first time the Bulldogs hosted a power conference team outside of the Pac-12, then the Pac-10.

Gonzaga’s success was the primary reason high-major programs began to entertain the idea of playing in Spokane, but the team’s move from the Martin Centre to the McCarthey Athletic Center in 2004 was a driving force as well.

“We had teams coming in and playing us, some of that because we went from a gym to an arena,” said Mike Roth, who served 24 years as Gonzaga’s athletic director before retiring in 2021.

High-major schools like Stanford, Wake Forest and Notre Dame began trickling into the Kennel on a semiregular basis, along with other prominent college basketball brands such as Memphis, coached then by John Calipari, Few’s longtime friend who will double as his adversary this weekend when the Zags take on the Wildcats.

Eventually, blue bloods started to warm to the idea of traveling across the country to play in Spokane. Michigan State and Tom Izzo agreed to a home-and-home contract, visiting Gonzaga in 2011, and the Bulldogs hosted two West Coast powers, Arizona and UCLA, within a seven-day span during the 2015-16 season.

“Those teams, those are not games that are expected,” current Gonzaga AD Chris Standiford said. “We’re across the country, geographically isolated. Those are respect games. Those coaches have respect for each other’s programs and recognize they’re not only worthy of the home and home, but they’re stewards of the game.”

Over the past five seasons, Gonzaga’s either played games against or negotiated contracts with six of the seven college basketball programs that have won at least four national titles.

That included a home-and-home series with North Carolina that culminated with the Tar Heels’ 2019 visit to the Kennel, neutral-site games against UCLA and Duke in 2021 and a neutral-neutral series with UConn that opened in December with the Huskies winning 76-63.

The Kentucky series, which began with an 88-72 Gonzaga win at the Arena last November, will resume on Saturday at famed Rupp Arena.

“Playing at Rupp, that’s a once-in-a-lifetime thing,” Gonzaga forward Anton Watson said. “Especially for Gonzaga.”

Gonzaga and Kentucky will play four other games in Seattle, 2024-25; Nashville, Tennessee, 2025-26; Lexington, Kentucky, 2026-27; and Spokane, 2027-28.

“I give ‘Cal’ a lot of credit for being open to this, but that’s based because he knows the level of our program and he’s a friend of mine, a good friend of mine,” Few said. “He understands, when we signed up for it, it was a big deal for Kentucky.”

Kansas, one of only two schools with a longer streak of NCAA Tournament appearances than Gonzaga, could be making its first trip to Spokane in the coming years. The Zags and Jayhawks have a home-and-home series on the books. Standiford indicated there’s still mutual interest from both programs in finalizing a date, despite scheduling complications preventing that from happening each of the past two seasons.

“We’re still certainly trying to figure it out, trying to figure out how that fits,” he said. “Obviously, their league’s going through a lot of change and they’re going to a 20-game schedule probably and different things. There’s a lot in play there as well.”

Either way, Gonzaga won’t struggle to put quality games on its nonconference schedule. Early in Few’s tenure, Gonzaga’s coach was usually the one trying to set those up, often dealing with the same outcome.

Now the phone calls are coming the other way and the rejection is far less frequent.

Calipari initiated the series with Kentucky and former UNC coach Roy Williams proposed the idea of a home-and-home with the Tar Heels while he and Few were having a conversation at the PK80 in Portland.

“When Mark picks up the phone and calls one of his peers, it’s not little old Gonzaga,” Roth said. “It’s Mark Few, future Hall of Fame coach, calling about a blue blood in college basketball.”