Few and the 'Zags: Back to One

by Larry Ness

In April of 1999, Don Monson, who had just finished his second year as Gonzaga head coach, promoted Mark Few to associate head coach. This came on the heels of the just completed 1998-99 college basketball season in which Gonzaga became the nation's basketball darlings. The Bulldogs had just made a run through the NCAA tournament, defeating Minnesota, Stanford, and Florida, to advance to the Elite Eight in the West Regional finals, where Gonzaga lost to eventual national champions UConn by five points. As fate would have it, the Minnesota head coaching job opened in late July and Monson left to take that job. Few, who had been designated as Monson's successor, was promoted to head coach to begin the 1999-2000 season. Right before the season began, in September of 1999, Brian McKnight released a song called "Back to One," and that is where I got the title for my latest article. Let me explain.

Mark Few's Bulldogs would reach the Sweet 16 that season, finishing with a 26-9 record. Since that first season, Few has led the Bulldogs to the NCAA Tournament EVERY season (except 2019–20, when the team had secured an automatic bid but the tournament was canceled), a stretch that has turned Gonzaga into a major basketball power, despite playing in a mid-major conference. I don't have the time to go into detail regarding all that Few and Gonzaga has accomplished over the last two-plus decades but I'm sure all are aware that despite Few's incredible records at "The Little School that Could," the glaring missing piece is the absence of a national championship banner hanging in the rafters of the McCarthey Athletic Center.

Mark Few has led Gonzaga to 21 straight NCAA berths in his 22 years (2020 tourney was cancelled), entering this season doing everything BUT win a national championship. However, he's led the Bulldogs into the title game TWICE in the last four seasons. Last year's loss was a 'killer,' as Gonzaga was No. 1 wire-to-wire and at 31-0, was looking to match Bob Knight's 1975-76 team, which was the last team to go unbeaten (32-0) and win the title. However, 73 years after it last played for a national title, Baylor 'jumped all over' the Bulldogs early in the game and never looked back in an 86-70 victory. It was Baylor's first national title and extinguished Gonzaga’s ambitions for wire-to-wire perfection. However, to no one's surprise, Gonzaga was ranked No. 1 in the AP's preseason poll to open the current season (defending champion Baylor was ranked eighth).

The Bulldogs would open 6-0, including impressive wins over then-No. 5 Texas (86-74) and then-No. 2 UCLA (83-63. However, on the day after Thanksgiving, Gonzaga would lose 84-81 to Duke (the game was played in Spokane, Wa) and when the new AP poll was released (Monday, Nov 29), Gonzaga dropped to No. 3, while Duke jumped from No.  5 to No. 1. Duke only stayed at No. 1 for one week, when an 8-0 Purdue team became the AP's No. 1-ranked team on Dec 6, for the FIRST time in school history. However, just like with Duke, Purdue's 'reign' lasted only one week. Rising to No. 1 on Dec 13 was defending champion Baylor, which had opened 9-0, while sporting a 15-game winning streak that included the team's 6-0 run in last season's NCAA tourney. Baylor was a unanimous No. 1 (got all first-place votes) and stayed No. 1 for five straight weeks (four times, earning all 61 first-place votes!). 

Baylor's winning streak reached 21 straight (15-0 in the current season), before the Bears lost back-to-back home games to Texas Tech on Jan 11 (65-62) and to Oklahoma St on Jan 15 (61-54). That ended the team's run at No. 1 and the AP's new No. 1 team became 14-2 Gonzaga, but with an asterisk. Auburn actually received 36 first-place votes to Gonzaga's 25, but  the Bulldogs were able to eke out more overall points, as some voters placed Auburn lower than any reasonable person would be expected to. By the following week, Auburn, 18-1 and on a 15-game winning streak, got 45 first-place votes to Gonzaga's 15 (Arizona snared one), as the Tigers earned the school's first-ever No. 1 ranking on Jan 24, while becoming the FIFTH school this season to be ranked at No. 1.

Auburn's stay at No. 1 lasted three weeks, as the Tigers extended their winning streak to 19 straight games. However, Auburn lost 80-76 (OT) at Arkansas on Feb 8 and when the new AP poll came out on Valentine's Day,  Auburn fell to No. 2 and Gonzaga ('America's Sweetheart') returned to No. 1 for the THIRD time this season with 54 first-place votes. Lopsided wins over Pepperdine and Santa Clara last week clinched a 10th straight WCC regular-season title for Gonzaga and on Monday (Feb 21), Gonzaga was "Back at One," as the unanimous No. 1 in the latest AP poll. The 23-2 Zags haven't lost since Dec 4 and have now won 16 in a row.

Let me add a few notes here about Gonzaga. With its back-to-back No. 1 ranking the last two weeks, Gonzaga has now been ranked No. 1 in 32 of the last 73 AP polls.  Duke has 11 No. 1 rankings in that same time frame and Baylor 10. The Bulldogs are averaging 89.5 PPG (tops in the nation) and are looking to lead the nation in scoring for the FOURTH consecutive year (note: Gonzaga is making 52.9% of its FG attempts this season, which also ranks No. 1). Let me take a quick look at Gonzaga's domination of the West Coast Conference. Gonzaga is winning its WCC games by an average of 27 points, one of the most dominant conference seasons in the past 25 years, according to KenPom.com. Gonzaga is on pace to match the 2019 team for the largest margin of victory in conference games. The Bulldogs own FOUR of the top five spots on that list in the last 25 years, joined by the 1999 Duke team. Gonzaga is truly "Back at One" but of course, needs to "win it all" in 2022. Is this finally the season when college basketball's one-time 'Cinderella,' turned elite basketball power, stands atop the podium come April 4th?

Some closing thoughts. How about Arizona? The Wildcats were picked to finish tied for fourth in the Pac-12 Conference in a preseason poll but under first-year head coach Tommy Lloyd (a 22-year assistant under Few at Gonzaga!), 24-2 Arizona (No. 2 to Gonzaga in Monday's poll) is 14-1 in the Pac-12, giving them a 2½-game lead over No. 16 USC, which is 23-4 overall (12-4 in the Pac 12). Gonzaga's 'tentacles' are reaching out. Sticking with a WCC theme, is anyone else amazed that entering the final week of February, the WCC has two top-25 teams (St Mary's is ranked No. 23), while the all-powerful ACC has just one ranked team in No. 7 Duke?  

How about a couple of 'shout outs' to 26-2 Murray State of the OVC. The Racers have won 16 straight games, tied with South Dakota St of the Summit (25-4 / 16-0), for the nation's longest-active winning streak. In the case of Murray St, the Racers entered the AP rankings back on Feb 7 at No. 22 (1st time since a one-week stay back in March of 2015) and opened the new week ranked for the THIRD consecutive week (up to No. 19). However, for every Yin, there is a Yang! The 'Yang' goes to Michigan, which was No. 6 in the AP's preseason poll (coming off a 23-5 season), but with its Sunday loss at Wisconsin, Michigan checks in at 14-11 (8-7 in the Big Ten).  Making matters worse was this press release on Monday which stated that Juwan Howard, the head coach of the University of Michigan men’s basketball team, was suspended for the rest of the regular season for his part in a postgame fracas in which he appeared to strike a University of Wisconsin assistant coach in the head. Has anyone seen the tape? Did it look to you like Howard "appeared" to strike a University of Wisconsin assistant coach in the head? And so it goes.

Good luck...Larry

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