On Sunday, the Zags will be named to their 15th straight NCAA tournament, a streak that nationally trails only Kansas (24), Duke (18) and Michigan State (16).
It’s Selection Sunday, one of the days A.J. Few has circled on the calendar.
“It’s my son’s favorite day,” said Mark Few, the Gonzaga basketball coach. “He likes it even more than his birthday.
“I keep telling him, it’s not like this every day. It can be a really sad day.”
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Just not around Gonzaga, where seeing your school’s name in the bracket is a rite of March as routine as crocuses breaking the soil.
A.J. Few is 13 now, and he’s never known a Selection Sunday without his favorite team on the board. On Sunday, the Zags will be named to their 15th straight NCAA tournament, a streak that nationally trails only Kansas (24), Duke (18) and Michigan State (16).
Skeptics scoff at Gonzaga’s mostly overmatched competition in the West Coast Conference, but that misses the point. In only three, and perhaps four, of those 15 seasons, the Zags needed to win their conference tournament and did.
The rest of the time, they’ve built a résumé the NCAA basketball committee can’t ignore. In that 15-year run, they’ve beaten teams from the power-six conferences 62 times in the regular season, including 20 ranked clubs.
It’s a long legacy of success, more than ought to be possible at a relatively out-of-the-way place that had a modest basketball tradition before all this started.
“I’m extremely proud of what I started at Gonzaga,” said Long Beach State head coach Dan Monson, whose 1998-99 team authored the Elite Eight run that ignited the streak. “But you really shake your head in amazement at what Mark has done to sustain it.
“Even Butler, which got to two Final Fours (2010-11), didn’t get to the NCAA last year.”
So how does this keep happening?
Never a letup
Monson remembers phone conversations that season (1999-2000) after he had left for Minnesota, when Few expressed doubt about his first-year regime.
“We’re going to take a step back, we’re going to go right back to where we were,” Monson recalls Few telling him. “We worked too hard to get this program to a national level.”
“For the first time, we were dealing with expectations,” said Few. “We’d never had expectations.”
Few’s first two teams would go on to Sweet 16s, and the expectations would get bigger. Even as that was happening, the Zags were showing a knack for timing that would sustain them.
Guard Dan Dickau was transferring from Washington, bent on finding a place where he could get into the gym at any hour and throw himself into the game. He would become a first-team All-American.
The Zags ferreted forward Cory Violette out of Boise, and he would become the school’s No. 3 career rebounder.
Paired with Dickau was guard Blake Stepp, a high-school All-American from Eugene who grew up a couple of miles from the University of Oregon campus.
Few had an in on Stepp. In the late ’80s, Few was looking for a full-time job after graduating from Oregon, and substitute-taught for Dean Stepp, Blake’s father and the South Eugene High basketball coach.
“Dean would bring Blake down (to the gym),” said Few, recalling a preschool Stepp. “He would be like form-shooting on this little Nerf hoop.”
While the talent kept flowing, the school made a seminal decision to build the McCarthey Athletic Center, moving out of the bandbox “Kennel.”
“The institution found Yogi Berra’s fork in the road,” says GU president Dr. Thayne McCulloh, recalling debate over whether Gonzaga should make that investment.
As Yogi advised, the Zags took that fork. They’ve never looked back.
Gonzaga has been a haven for foreign recruits, as Few’s assistants, particularly Tommy Lloyd, have consistently scored with players from Canada like Robert Sacre, Kelly Olynyk and Kevin Pangos, and in Europe with Ronny Turiaf and Elias Harris. Lloyd is a Whitman College grad who played in Germany in 1999.
“It wasn’t so much a bigger push (overseas), but Tommy’s network was just so strong; nobody’s stronger over there with guys that trust him,” Few says.
“There’s so much time and money wasted over there by a lot of Division I programs with kids that might already have a professional contract, or with kids that are tracked along the trade-school route. If you are, you have no shot to qualify academically in the U.S.”
Fear the ‘stache
In mid-decade came an unorthodox offensive gunner from Mead High School who would go on to nurture a wisp of a mustache and a legend that blew off the charts at Gonzaga, where he became an All-American.
There was a time when Few wasn’t so sure about Adam Morrison. He recalls that early in Morrison’s high-school career, assistant coach Leon Rice begged Few to go look at him and Few agreed, grumbling.
Rice called him at halftime that night for a report. Few wasn’t very sunny, saying, “I don’t know, he’s got a weird run, he kind of shuffles around, he’s got a different-looking shot, he plays no defense, doesn’t get down in a stance … “
“How many’s he got?” Rice asked.
Few glanced down at a stat sheet somebody had just handed him.
“Thirty,” he said, a little sheepishly.
Morrison would grow another three inches and have 30 a bunch of nights for Gonzaga.
Feeling the love
Players kept coming — Brazilian big man J.P. Batista and guard Jeremy Pargo from the sullen streets of south Chicago.
“We had a bunch of great college players that maybe weren’t NBA guys, but they were right there, they were in NBA camps,” Few said. “Sometimes that’s better than having the other kind.”
They were attracted now by Gonzaga’s blossoming reputation, but also by a small campus and a close-knit culture in the program. Just about every college team talks about being a family, but it resonates loudly at Gonzaga, where the coaches’ kids become ball boys and ball girls.
Gonzaga has had its share of players who transferred out. But it also has the kind of environment in which Olynyk would sit out his third year rather than transfer, and become the first Division I player in history to be an All-American after a redshirt season that followed two years of play.
Harris, a senior forward from Germany, was asked last month if it’s been a good experience at Gonzaga.
“Absolutely, no question,” he said. “Knowing you’re in a place surrounded by great people, a great community that loves you. … I actually gained like a family away from my family. That’s so precious.”
Few’s handiwork got him on everybody’s shortlist of coaches likely to move up. But before there was Brad Stevens, staying true to Butler, and Shaka Smart, remaining at Virginia Commonwealth, Few hung with the Zags.
He found a sense of place, in part because what he helped build stayed robust. One of his crossroads moments was in 2002, when Washington athletic director Barbara Hedges courted him to replace Bob Bender. How different history might have been had he accepted.
“Barbara and the Husky thing came at me pretty hard,” he admitted. “But we had Blake and Cory and Ronny and all those guys coming up.”
Then there was Arizona, when it eventually hired Sean Miller in 2009. But Few says of the job feelers, “None of them ever came down to getting on a plane (to interview) or anything.”
Every time, he concluded the same thing: “It was more like unfinished business. It was, hey, I’ve got a better job. It’s been hard to convince people of that.”
Now Few has the Division I record for most consecutive NCAA-tournament appearances (14) by a head coach beginning a career. The streak — the story — continues.