The harvest is plentiful, but the workers are Few.
In June of 1999 Dan Monson, the head coach of Gonzaga University, a small Jesuit university in Spokane, Wash., left the program to become the head coach of the University of Minnesota. The move was unremarkable, as it has long been the norm for college coaches to move through their careers climbing the ladder to the next, better, more prestigious job. At the time no one believed Gonzaga’s improbable run to the Elite Eight in March of that year was sustainable and thus Monson’s move was understandable.
To compensate for the loss of Monson, Gonzaga decided to promote little known 37-year-old assistant Mark Few to the role of head coach, hoping, but not expecting, that the success Monson had brought the program would continue. Fourteen years later, Gonzaga has ascended to the number one ranking in the two major polls for the first time in its history, and over that time period Coach Few has the highest winning percentage of any coach in America.
Now, it is important to note that despite their stellar record that has lasted for more than a decade, Gonzaga is not a mid-major like UNLV of the late 80s and early 90s. In fact, they have not even had as much tournament success as a similarly small school like Butler. The Final Four has eluded the Zags, and the school has not produced a first round draft pick since 2009. However, what Gonzaga offers is consistency. In the Few era the team has reached the NCAA Tournament every year of his tenure, accumulated four Sweet Sixteen appearances and received a number two seed in the 2004 tournament.
Alas, success on college basketball’s biggest stage has eluded the Zags since their 1998 Elite Eight. In 2003 they lost one of the greatest games of the 2000s, 96-95 to Arizona in the second round of the NCAA tournament, in 2004 seeded 2nd, boasting a 28-2 record and ranked 3rd by the AP, Gonzaga lost in the second round again, this time to a seventh-seeded Nevada team.
The low point for Gonzaga’s lack of tournament success occurred in 2006 when as a three seed Gonzaga led UCLA by seventeen points in the second half only to collapse and lose an opportunity to return to the Elite Eight for the first time since 1999. That game left Adam Morrison, a player of the year candidate crying on the court, knowing that the Zags had missed their best chance at a Final Four in the Few era.
All this takes us to this year’s version of Gonzaga, Few’s best and most complete team since 2006. Ranked number one by the AP and Coaches poll the Bulldogs feature the nation’s best frontcourt of senior Elias Harris, and Canadian Kelly Olynyk. The Bulldogs are the second best shooting team in the nation and are currently on a twelve game winning streak. In fact, if Butler’s buzzer beater in January had missed the Zags would have been winners of twenty-one straight.
This year, the standard for the Zags will be the Final Four. They will attempt to become the first non-BCS school ranked in the top 5 to advance that far in the tournament since Memphis in 2008 and despite Few’s coaching and his team’s national ranking the task will be a tough one to accomplish. As happens every year for Gonzaga, their lack of competitive conference opponents in the end will probably be their downfall. Gonzaga has not faced a ranked opponent since January 19th and has not defeated a ranked opponent since December 31st.
No matter what happens in March though, Coach Few’s decision to stay at Gonzaga despite numerous other offers over the years to leave has proven to be the right one. The number one ranking validates Gonzaga as a college basketball power, and should Coach Few stay on for 10 or more so years a Final Four and even a possible championship are sure to come eventually.