Mark Few finds history both fascinating and amazing. Especially recent history.
“The way I understand it, the two greatest college football teams in history played in the last two years,” he said with a laugh. “I mean they’ve played college football for more than 100 years and – bang! – LSU was the greatest team ever two years ago, and then – bang! – Alabama was the greatest team ever this past season. Wow! That’s really something, isn’t it?”
Few was joking earlier this week about some of the hyperbole connected to his current Gonzaga team, one that is 15-0 and has handily beaten ranked teams including Iowa, Kansas, Virginia and West Virginia. A lot of pundits already have Few’s top-ranked team playing against No. 2 Baylor (14-0) in the national championship game in April – with the winner potentially becoming the first undefeated team since Indiana in 1976.
“That’s getting a little ahead of ourselves, isn’t it?” Few said. “I mean, don’t get me wrong, we’re good. We’re talented. I really like coaching this team, and I think we’re tough to play against. But so is Baylor; so is Villanova; so is Texas; so is Michigan. The Virginia team we beat in December is not the Virginia team that Tony [Bennett] will put on the floor in March. Villanova’s probably got the best win of anyone – winning at Texas.
“But heck, this is fun. I’m enjoying the ride.”
Few has been on a remarkable 22-year ride since he replaced Dan Monson as Gonzaga’s coach in 1999. He has never failed to make the NCAA tournament, came within a whisker of winning the national title in 2017 and has won at least 30 games in each of the past four seasons – including last year, when the Bulldogs were 31-2 before the season shut down in March. At 58, Few has won 614 games – his 600th in a rout of Kansas in the season opener.
Yet this could be his best team. “Maybe,” he said. “We’ll see. That 2017 team was really good. We had size, depth and experience. That’s why we won 37 games.”
Few believes that 2017 team took Gonzaga to another level in recruiting, which is why the three best players on this team are not transfers – as was often the case in the past – but players recruited straight out of high school.
“Before ’17 we had gotten to the point where really top kids would put us on their list, maybe mention us as being in their final five,” Few said. “But in the end, we weren’t going to get them. Now, we have a real chance to get them.”
The best example of that might be 6-foot-4 freshman Jalen Suggs, an all-everything high school star a year ago. Suggs is from Minnesota and, once upon a time, probably would have landed with a Power Five school. His other finalists were Minnesota, Iowa State, Florida and Florida State.
But Suggs’s father, Larry, a former junior college basketball player, loved the way Gonzaga ran its offense. “He told me he used to tape all our games because we were on late at night and then watch them the next day,” Few said. “He thought our offense would be the best fit for his son.”
Suggs is Gonzaga’s third-leading scorer at 13.9 points per game and is averaging 5.2 rebounds, 4.9 assists and 2.3 steals. He can take over a game or defer to older teammates, the two most prominent being senior Corey Kispert and sophomore big man Drew Timme.
They are the team’s two leading scorers – Kispert at 20.6 points per game, Timme at 18.5. Kispert shoots just under 50% from outside the three-point arc, and Timme is shooting 61%, almost exclusively from inside it. As a team, Gonzaga is shooting an astounding 54.9%. A lot of that is because almost everyone on the floor is a good passer and, perhaps just as important, a willing passer. That’s not always the case with star-laden teams.
The other key player is a transfer – Andre Nembhard, a 6-5 guard who played two years at Florida, put his name into the NBA draft last spring, withdrew it and decided to transfer. Several so-called big-time schools pursued him, but he chose Gonzaga and has added experience and toughness.
Gonzaga always plays a difficult preconference schedule and is expected to dominate the West Coast Conference. Under Few, the Zags have won the WCC regular season title 19 times in 21 years and the conference tournament 16 times. To say they are favored again this season is like saying February is favored to follow January on the calendar.
Once, the NCAA basketball committee used the conference’s lack of depth as an excuse to give Gonzaga lower seeds than it deserved. Those days are gone, too: Gonzaga’s nonconference wins, combined with the fact that St. Mary’s and Brigham Young are often ranked, makes it impossible to deprive of its deserved No. 1 seed a team that usually has around 30 wins.
That’s especially true this season, when a lot of teams didn’t have the chance to play the kind of nonconference schedule Gonzaga played. Gonzaga lost one much-hyped game – against Baylor – to a pandemic-related cancellation. That’s why Few said his team might still add a nonconference game or two, against ranked teams if possible – not so much to improve the Zags’ resume as to help them be ready when March comes around.
“I’m not worried about going undefeated or not going undefeated,” he said. “What I want is for us to have faced as many different kinds of challenges as possible: teams that pressure, teams that can really shoot, teams that play up-tempo, teams that slow you down, teams that play a Syracuse-type zone. The other day in practice, I told them, ‘OK, we’re down 10 with three minutes left, let’s see how you do.’ I don’t want anything to be new when we get to March.”
Few isn’t thrilled with the idea of spending three weeks in a bubble in Indiana to play for the national championship – even though he understands why it has to be done.
“We did the bubble thing early in the season,” he said. “When it was in Florida and it was warm and we could go outside, it was OK. But then we went to Indianapolis and it was cold. By the eighth day we were there, it was almost apocalyptic. It felt like we were in Siberia. Indy’s a great town, but we couldn’t go out at all, we were stuck in the hotel. We ordered food from St. Elmo’s [the famous Indianapolis steak house], but it wasn’t close to the same. I do worry about going through that for three weeks – not just for us, for everybody. By Final Four weekend, the winner might be the team that holds up best mentally through it all.”
As much as Few enjoys this players, he isn’t afraid to tell them when they’re good – and when they’re not. “They probably think I focus a lot more on not good,” he said, laughing. “Two weeks ago, we didn’t play well in either game. I told them that. I told them, ‘Fellas, the team we were this last week is not as good as Baylor or Villanova or Michigan.’ Last week, we were better – maybe better than those teams. We’ll see how good we are in March. For now, I’m doing the ‘one game at a time’ coach thing. And I’m trying to enjoy every minute of it.”
As for being one of the great teams of all time, Few will leave that for others to judge – when the time comes. And that time, he knows, won’t come before April.