Zach Gourde is the quintessential Gonzaga player, a project from a small Washington town called Brush Prairie who redshirted as a freshman and then blossomed into a major contributor the three years since. But if you ask Gourde, the last remaining tie to the breakthrough 1998-99 team, he may be a relic from a bygone era. He is not so sure Gonzaga would recruit him anymore.
"It's a question I ask myself all the time," said Gourde, now a senior. "It's tough to say. They're recruiting a much different level now; the guys who would go to a Pac-10 school and then transfer to us are now coming to us straight out of high school."
Gonzaga's coaching staff disagrees, saying there is always room for a hardworking, 6-foot-8, 245-pound player with good hands and a strong back-to-the-basket game.
But the coaches acknowledge that the foundation of what made Gonzaga (9-5) so successful -- with three NCAA tournament runs and last season's team reaching No. 6 in the Associated Press poll -- is changing. No longer the Little Engine That Could, the small Jesuit school from Spokane, Wash., has become a national program.
"The amazing thing is that they're playing all of these made-for-TV games," said Pat Kennedy, the longtime Division I coach in his first year at Montana, referring to the Bulldogs' participation in the Jimmy V Classic, Maui Invitational, Peach Bowl Classic and Pete Newell Challenge, all against major conference opponents.
Kennedy makes no apologies about using Gonzaga as a model for his Grizzlies. "That television exposure is the uncharted territory. They have become a team that people want to watch."
Part of the appeal is stylistic; the Bulldogs play an up-tempo but disciplined system that creates lots of open three-points shots. They have had a line of telegenic players, such as the hard-nosed Matt Santangelo, Casey Calvary, and the floppy-haired transfer from Washington, Dan Dickau, Gonzaga's first all-American last season.
Another part is the charm of the program, which has had amazing continuity in the decade since Dan Monson, Mark Few and Bill Grier joined the staff of Dan Fitzgerald. Monson succeeded Fitzgerald in 1997, Few succeeded Monson in 1999 and Grier is in place if and when Few finally gets the offer he cannot refuse.
"I miss it every day," said Monson, now coach at Minnesota. "Now that doesn't mean I regret coming here, because I don't. It was something I had to do professionally."
The continuity extended to the players. The program was built on redshirting unheralded recruits such as Gourde from small towns in Washington and Oregon, filling in holes with junior college transfers from Washington and Idaho and mixing in the occasional international player or Division I transfer, such as Washington's Earl Knight, sitting out this season. Monson said he could not recall a significant contributor transferring from Gonzaga in 15 years. That gave the roster an uncommon degree of stability.
Instead, the team is increasingly built on blue-chip recruits who are asked to contribute right away. The coaching staff laments losing players such as Oregon's high-scoring duo of Luke Jackson and Luke Ridnour, each of whom listed Gonzaga as their second choice.
"I've been going up against these guys for 15 years," said Oregon Coach Ernie Kent, who coached WCC rival St. Mary's (Calif.) from 1992 to '97. "It's the same thing then as now. They beat the bushes, have all of the junior college coaches in the Northwest locked down. It's unheard of, for a team from that conference out-recruiting some Pac-10 schools."
Few said this season's top freshman, hometown forward Sean Mallon, could well be the last he redshirts. Sitting out Mallon was possible only because the Bulldogs have almost unheard-of size for a mid-major program, with four post players, including Gourde, capable of starting.
"It's true, we are getting more top-100, even top-50 recruits," Few said. "It gets tougher and tougher to redshirt kids every year."
All but two members of the 1993-94 NIT team, the first to win the West Coast Conference regular season title and make it to the postseason, had reshirted, including four of five starters. The starting lineup on the 1999 team, which reached the NCAA West Region final, included two redshirts. Of this year's starters, none are redshirts.
Few said he sees no downside to the program's growth, "as long as we don't lose our integrity, which I don't see happening with myself and Bill here."
But in the future, will there be room for a player such as Gourde, just the kind of offbeat character that made Gonzaga so endearing in the first place?
Gourde has had six majors -- the current double major of applied commerce and computer science along with "electrical engineering, public relations, journalism . . . what's that, five? There's one more in there somewhere. I can't remember them all anymore."
His teammates revere him. "He's been around so long, he's become kind of a father figure for the team," Fox said. "Got yelled at by Coach? Go to Zach. Got a problem with a girl? Go to Zach. Need advice on which class to take? Go to Zach -- he's probably taken it."
And Gourde also remembers where the program came from. Several players thought the media attention has perhaps made the team more susceptible to letdowns. The day before a gutsy 69-60 victory over North Carolina State on Dec. 17, Gourde pointedly criticized the team's work ethic in losses to Indiana, Kentucky and Georgia and overtime wins over Washington and Washington State.
"We're getting closer," Gourde said afterward. "Playing harder than the other guys is what made this program what it is."