“The Great Eight!” “Down to the Final Four!” “GO ZAGS!” Messages on business marquees throughout Spokane transformed with the rounds of the NCAA Tournament this spring. Downtown Spokane’s Wells Fargo building was illuminated at night in support of the Gonzaga Bulldogs, and t-shirt and souvenir vendors were peppered throughout the city. This year marked the West Coast Conference Gonzaga University men’s basketball team’s 19th consecutive appearance at the tournament.
“Gonzaga men’s basketball has been a fairly bright light in our community for almost 20 years now; that’s rare in today’s sporting world,” says Bryan Rosman, Spokane resident and a fan of the Zags since grade school. “For a city and surrounding area of approximately half million people, GU basketball continues to be the biggest show in town.”
Going into the last game of the regular season, Gonzaga remained the only undefeated team in the nation before falling to BYU and ending the season with the Zag’s all-time-best record of 29-1.
“Yes, Gonzaga has won more games than anybody else in the country, but it’s deeper than that,” wrote former Bulldog Adam Morrison in an editorial titled “Adam Morrison: G-O-N-Z-A-G-A!” which appeared in The Players’ Tribune. “These Zags don’t play to the level of their competition. Not at all. They’re the ones who dictate the tempo and tone of the game.”
Even with an end-of-season loss, Gonzaga’s momentum never faltered and the team continued on to claim the conference title, entering the NCAA Tournament as a No. 1 seed. It wasn’t long before the Zags propelled to the Final Four with a 24-point win over Xavier. Then, a hard-fought game against South Carolina brought them to the final stage with powerhouse North Carolina. Despite a devastating loss of 71-65, the Zags proved they belonged in the spotlight every step of the way.
“We broke that glass ceiling everybody said we couldn’t get over,” says Jordan Mathews, senior-year guard and transfer from Cal.
A Long Time Coming
Over the years, Gonzaga University—a private Roman Catholic university with 5,000 undergraduate students, located in the heart of Spokane—has been referred to as everything from the NCAA’s “most polarizing,” to the “most under-rated,” to the “most over-rated” team.
The nation’s eyes have been on Gonzaga since its first trip to the Elite Eight in 1999. Named the tournament’s “Cinderella” team, the Zags fell to the eventual champions, University of Connecticut, during the final seconds of a nail-biting game played in Phoenix.
Mark Few, associate head coach at the time, was named head coach several months later. Entering this season, Few had led the Zags to 17 consecutive winning seasons, keeping losses to single digits in all except two. But early-round heartbreaks in past tournaments stunted the Zag’s potential to prove their talents on the national stage, and criticism of the team’s limits became common conversation. “The West Coast Conference isn’t tough enough” and “They’re good, but not good enough to make the Final Four,” were opinions most fans of the Zags endured hearing—possibly even agreed with at times.
Enter the 2017 Bulldogs
Three transfer students—Mathews, junior guard Nigel Williams-Goss from University of Washington, and junior forward Johnathan Williams III from University of Missouri—played in Gonzaga jerseys together for the first time this season. They were joined by two international recruits, freshman forward Killian Tillie and returning senior center Przemek Karnowski. All-star freshman forward Zach Collins, sophomore guard Josh Perkins, and junior guard Silas Melson rounded out the key, eight-man rotation.
With so many new faces, coach Few seized the opportunity to begin this season with a wilderness experience that, in turn, bonded the team on and off the court.
“We talked a lot during that trip,” says Tillie. “We talked a lot about sacrificing for each other and playing together. Unselfishness is really important to this team and you can see it on the court. Every time we have a bad moment in the year we just remember what we did on our trip together.”
Indeed, this season’s team often times exemplified the definition of “meshing” on the court—with the partnership between Karnowski and Collins under the basket, Williams-Goss’s vision and command to create plays, and the calculated and refined shots taken by Williams and Mathews. The team communicated as if they had played together for years, conquering both ends of the court and occasionally throwing up a score more than 30 points ahead of their opponent’s by the final buzzer.
“I’ve had some really, really tough teams. I’ve had some really close teams. I’ve had some teams that have been crazy efficient on the offensive end and ones that have been pretty darned good on the defensive end that probably didn’t get credit for it,” Coach Few says. “These guys are all of that. All of it.”
A Family On and Off the Court
“There are many places that preach about their family atmosphere, but I don’t really know how else to describe what we have in Spokane,” Morrison wrote in his editorial. He went on to explain that former players remain close; they are often seen at Gonzaga’s games, and a couple dozen even chose to settle down in Spokane.
At the helm of the family, of course, is Coach Few, who began his career as a graduate assistant coach in 1990. In 1992 he became the assistant coach before eventually moving up the ranks to associate head coach and head coach in 1999.
“I think coach Few is a great man and a great coach,” says Tyson Linstrum, a loyal Zags fan of 20 years. “When he first started as head coach, we were considered a mid-major team. He had success very early. Unlike many coaches put in his position, he chose to stay in Spokane and stay at GU. I give him credit for this because he developed a culture in the school and the community that can never be taken away from him.”
Heading into the NCAA Tournament, Williams-Goss penned an editorial titled “Where My Zags At?” that appeared in The Players’ Tribune. He wrote about Few, “He’s one of the reasons I came here.”
In his article, Williams-Goss goes on to explain, “Coach Few has a lot of different sides to his personality. He’s a family man. He’s ultracompetitive. He delivers fiery speeches and he’s not afraid to be a disciplinarian.”
At a typical practice, Few’s four kids are often in the stands, while the family’s German shepherd watches intently from the sidelines. It is, indeed, a family affair.
The family extends to the university, with an administration that is consistently investing into the men’s basketball program through its upgraded facilities and recruiting efforts. And the Gonzaga spirit is vibrantly embraced by the students—who kick-start each season with a team introduction and scrimmage at an event on campus called Kraziness in the Kennel.
“I can’t really do it justice, but it’s one of the wildest things ever,” Williams-Goss wrote about the event. He described his introduction in front of his new school as the best standing ovation he had ever received.
A further extension of the Gonzaga family is within the community of Spokane. “Just seeing that support from the people around the city, it’s awesome,” Karnowski said, of the sold-out home games.
“Some of them are bandwagons, some of them are true fans, but we’ll accept them all, we’ll embrace them all,” Melson stated during the tournament. “A lot of this is just for the city of Spokane. We know the fans up there are loyal so we’re just performing for them.”
Squashing the Critics
“Regardless of the year or team, I think the greater Spokane community has and always will support GU,” Linstrum says.
But as loyal as fans can be, Gonzaga’s time to prove itself as a fierce competitor in the NCAA bracket was long overdue. And it took place, appropriately, in the same city where the Zags first captured the nation’s attention in 1999.
“It didn’t finish the way we wanted, but with only two teams left in the whole country, it was us and North Carolina,” says Melson. “It was a well-deserved championship for them, but in the back of our minds we won’t hold our heads too low.”
Coach Few proudly reflected on this year’s Bulldogs following the championship game. “They absolutely ignited a lot of stale people that were kind of bored with the Zags and saying that we haven’t been capable of achieving something like this. I think they got the whole world behind them and believing in them,” Few said. “I’ll tell you this: they did it the right way. These are high-character dudes, and are good students, are hoopers, and that’s what college basketball is all about.”
Congratulations, Gonzaga, on an incredible season.
Kimberly M. Gunning and her husband are recent Spokane transplants, brought here on military orders, and are exploring all the region has to offer now that the snow has melted. She’s a foodie, wine drinker and runner, and has worked as an associate editor and freelancer for a variety of travel and lifestyle publications. Gonzaga’s men’s basketball team stole her heart this year. “Their games gave me something to look forward to while my husband was away for extended trips to the field, and witnessing the community’s support was what made me begin to love this city. I will continue to be a fan in the years to follow; you can bet on it!”