Given all the passion he has poured into Gonzaga basketball over the years, and all the zeal that has gone into his sharing his periodic thoughts with me about the basketball program and how it is perceived andcovered, I suppose I should have expected a lot when I asked my friend “D” for some brief thoughts about how it feels to have the Zags qualify for their first Final Four.
He sent me 2,400 words. Indeed, that Final Four breakthrough meant a great deal.
For so much of the past two decades, Gonzaga has been dismissed by many as a novelty, a pretender, a wannabe and, ultimately, a fraud. It was because I was guilty of none of this that he first started sending me e-mails in the early 2000s. Over the years, we’ve exchanged too many to count. D regularly has sent me articles, comments, questions about the program. There is no doubting he loves his Zags.
Not until I sat down to write this and searched for the proper term to define our interactions did I discover there still is such a thing as a pen pal. But D is not a pen pal, because neither of us ever has written a letter. What does one call that person when it’s all done by e-mail? Whatever that is, that’s our relationship.
D is a private person, so he prefers I refer to him publicly in this manner, but I knew he’d have thoughts worth sharing in such a thrilling circumstance for a program that has come so far over the past 20 years. He called making the Final Four a “strange feeling,” which perhaps is because Gonzaga’s excellence became more controversial than celebrated in recent years.
He is proud of the program in part because of who Mark Few has been, and who he has become, over his 18 years in charge of the Zags. Few has declined many offers to leave Spokane for jobs in more prestigious conferences, at schools that have won national championships.
Few has remained because he loves his life in the Pacific Northwest, the freedom afforded by Gonzaga and nearly universal support he has received from its fan base. All that pressure to get to a Final Four, that “monkey on the back” that he denied existed? One reason it was, to him, not imaginary but non-existent: Zags fans understand. They get that this is not normal, and that he’s the architect who made it possible.
“There are local Few critics,” D wrote, “but when they emerge they are immediately shut down.”
D wonders if it was social media that changed the broader public’s attitude toward Gonzaga, buthe said that enough of his fellow Zags fans noticed they developed the term “BCS snobs” to describe it. Given that the BCS has been dead four years, one can see this has been an issue for a while.
“Facts started getting distorted: That GU always underachieves in the tournament. That GU doesn’t have a good record against BCS teams, etc.,” D wrote. “The most disappointing distortion of the truth in recent years is that Gonzaga is still considered a mid-major program by some ‘experts’ even though they operate in every way like a BCS program. Gonzaga spends more money on its men’s team, generates more revenue from its team and lands more profit from its team than most BCS basketball teams. Having a football team doesn’t mean you spend money on basketball.
“I remember when this program was a low-major and then a mid-major. I know the difference.”
This has been a particularly rewarding and aggravating season for Gonzaga fans such as D. How can you win every game you play until the final day of the regular season and not be lauded universally? But we saw it with Wichita State a few years back, and Saint Joseph’s a decade before that. If you’re not in the club, someone’s going to hit you with it.
“The WCC is not a Power 5 league, but it’s not the 28th-ranked league in the nation,” D wrote. “Beating out St. Mary’s and their genius coach Randy Bennett and BYU is always a challenge. We don’t normally win the league by two-plus games. The same challenges are thrust upon the team in the league’s sweat box gyms, filled dangerously beyond capacity for the home team’s ‘Super Bowl.’ When it comes to the WCC not preparing GU for March Madness? That baby was put to rest when Butler went to back-to-back title games out of the Horizon, a worse conference than the WCC.”
Except that it wasn’t. When the Zags stormed through the league this season, winning 20 of a possible 21 games, there were the same loud suspicions about whether rolling over mid-major opposition would lead to a March flop.
It didn’t. Their three regular-season victories over Saint Mary’s looked pretty solid when the Gaels went into the NCAA Tournament second round and fought a fierce battle with Pac-12 champion Arizona. And the Bulldogs defeated teams from the Big Ten (Northwestern), Big 12 (West Virginia) and Big East (Xavier) in three tournament games on the way to the Final Four. When they finally got the long-awaited berth in the Final Four, what did they hear? From many, that their road to Phoenix had been too easy. They’d only beaten an 11 seed in the regional final, you see.
“There is somewhat of a hierarchy in college basketball, and one of GU’s great achievements is knowing their limitations but seeing the cracks in the ceiling that can busted open if you strike at the right moment,” D wrote. “If going 36-1 were so easy, why aren’t more teams doing it?”
It’s a funny thing about this Gonzaga season: The Final Four chase became such a big deal the fact the Zags won 97.3 percent of their games has been lost. They can become the first one-loss NCAA champion since 1974 if they win twice in Phoenix. They can tie the record for Division I victories set by John Calipari’s Memphis Tigers in 2008 and later matched by his Kentucky teams in 2012 and 2015.
D points out that one of the special qualities of this Gonzaga team, one of the reasons so many of us did not anticipate this level of achievement, is six of the top eight rotation players were not on the squad last year. Transfers Nigel Williams-Goss, Jordan Matthews and Jonathan Williams are all new Zags; Przemek Karnowski was injured last season. Zach Collins and Killian Tillie are freshmen.
D was convinced Gonzaga would make a Final Four eventually. “You can’t win that many games and not make it at some point,” he wrote. He was particularly impressed, though, it would develop with a team Few had to reconstruct, even with so many great pieces, starting in the preseason.
“Few is probably less concerned with his legacy than any big name sports coach in America. For some reason that rubs certain people the wrong way,” D wrote. “It’s not the so-called American way, where you keep moving up the ladder. One tweet I read once even referred to Few as gutless for not taking on a blue-blood job.
“I understand the value of loyalty. Few has been loyal to Gonzaga. Gonzaga has been loyal to Few.And that loyalty and commitment to excel without losing sight of the bigger picture is the reason why I will continue to be loyal to this basketball program. I am grateful to be a Gonzaga Bulldog basketball fan.”