Zags and Few make magic
03-26-17

Final Four. Gonzaga’s Final Four. It seems so incongruous, such a non sequitur.

But there they were late Saturday afternoon in San Jose, the Zags body-bumping, slipping on celebratory T-shirts and ball caps, wearing grins as wide as Hamilton Street in Spokane, where the hoo-rayin’ at Jack and Dan’s must be over the moon right about now.

Gonzaga 83, Xavier 59, which, among other things, was an affirmation of the work Zags coach Mark Few did to reach the program’s first Final Four, which will silence the naysayers at least until Sunday, at which point they’ll begin to cackle that he hasn’t won a national title.

All the fretfulness, all the fits and starts of the first three games of the tournament -- the early deficits against South Dakota State, the late-game officiating controversy against Northwestern, the bar fight that was the West Virginia victory -- suddenly were flushed away in shockingly torrential fashion against Xavier.

That Gonzaga could play so well, not seize up with the magnitude of the moment in such an apocalyptic game, has to spring from Few. In a year in which he has picked up a couple of national coach-of-the-year awards, it was the latest in a lengthy series of victories.

Think about the makeup of the team that a year ago lost to Syracuse in a disheartening, late-game breakdown in the Sweet 16. That club was dominated by Kyle Wiltjer and Domas Sabonis, with a load of athleticism from Eric McClellan and some glue from Kyle Dranginis.

At that point, Nigel Williams-Goss was in a boot, recovering from ankle surgery midway through a redshirt season. Johnathan Williams III, also redshirting after transferring from Missouri, was amid strength coach Travis Knight’s school of tedious body-shaping sessions in the weight room.

Jordan Mathews wasn’t even a rumor yet. The Cal transfer didn’t visit until Hoopfest weekend in late June.

Ultimately, Few melded all those abilities. He persuaded Josh Perkins, whom Few had personally recruited tirelessly, that he could still flourish with Williams-Goss dominating the ball. And he squeezed some rogue tendencies from Williams-Goss’ game, leftovers, perhaps, from his free-lancing days at Washington.

He orchestrated those spokes to revolve around the hub of Karnowski, who sat out almost the entire 2015-16 season and eventually required back surgery, so he didn’t hit a basketball floor to play in his new surroundings until sometime well into summer.

And yet, Few, aided by assistants Tommy Lloyd, Donny Daniels and Brian Michaelson, made it all look seamless. The Zags strode to an unbeaten non-league record, therein beating Florida (now in the Elite Eight), Iowa State (Big 12 tournament winner) and Arizona (granted, without Allonzo Trier).

Before long, as the Zags were smothering the outclassed West Coast Conference, they were ranked No. 1, which, of course, augured a whole ‘nother level of national scrutiny. Nobody seems to inspire as much derision as these guys, typified by CBS’ Wally Szczerbiak’s Selection Sunday observation: “I don’t trust them.”

Surely, Gonzaga’s trek through the first four games of the NCAA tournament weren’t always artful. It shot sub-40 percent against South Dakota State, and after a blistering first half against Northwestern, retreated as the national-darling Wildcats menaced in the second half. Then came West Virginia, and a game of survival pocked down the stretch by Mathews’ memorable three-point dagger and a Gonzaga defense that choked off the Mountaineers on their last possessions.

That brought Gonzaga to Xavier, which had swatted aside Maryland, Florida State and Arizona. Yeah, the Musketeers were an 11th seed, but that’s a four-month portfolio. The real-time snapshot was a team that had bludgeoned third-seed Florida State by 25 and taken out Pac-12 champion Arizona in the Sweet 16.

The pressure on the Zags was thus immense, no matter that they had reached a second Elite Eight in three seasons. This would be labeled choking, of course, if they didn’t advance. One Seattle radio host on Friday staked out what remaining anti-Zag turf could be found: They were meeting a No. 11 seed, after having disposed of a 16 and a 4. So the naysayers could have it both ways: If they lost, they were folding again. If they won, well, it was a primrose path.

It would have been possible for Gonzaga to freeze in the moment, and indeed, when Perkins threw a lazy bounce pass on GU’s first possession, hijacked and dunked by Xavier, it was briefly ominous. But shortly, Perkins threw in a couple of threes, and his teammates joined him, and Gonzaga seemed to be playing free and easy and mostly enjoying the whole afternoon.

They didn’t defend much in the first half, getting beat off the bounce, which caused their big men to get in foul trouble. So Few and Co. dusted off a zone defense, which the Zags had employed rarely this year (but had also trotted out against West Virginia). And it seemed to work.

Along the way, Gonzaga limited one of the tournament’s sensations, Trevon Bluiett, to a mere 10 points on 3-of-14 shooting.

In the end, the Zags made 12 of 24 threes, when they were just 16 of 56 in the tournament’s first three games. They looked a lot like the team that was the rage of January and most of February.

It was a credit to a lot of people, none more than Mark Few. After all the brickbats, he's due a few bouquets.


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