LAS VEGAS — Gonzaga forged a rare human achievement in its 32-1 regular season and a No. 1 seed in the West Region. It took one of the most chronically disturbed subspecies in the species — that of American college basketball coach — and it deepened his sleep.
It’s almost shocking.
A team that “dominated like no team we’ve ever had,” said Gonzaga Coach Mark Few (who has helmed the Zags for 18 seasons), has left him in the arena hallways of March, mentioning but a trickle of semi-stressful flash points that came between Nov. 10 and March 7. He notes the 73-71 kerfuffle with Iowa State. He notes that Arizona did make that late run (but lost 69-62). Fleeting nuisance visited the Bulldogs’ last two wins here at the West Coast Conference Tournament, the final getting to 51-46 but winding up 74-56 over No. 19 St. Mary’s and what Few calls its “diabolical reads on the ball screens.” That made St. Mary’s the rare team with 75 percent of its losses — three out of four — to one team (Gonzaga).
Here’s a coach in a season with an average victory margin of 23.4, who can summarize the whole thing with “good from November 10 to March 7” and “haven’t taken any nights off” and “a bad 10 minutes against BYU.” Those last 10 minutes, on Feb. 27, did look chaotic and haunted, but Few basically got a trying 10 minutes tucked alongside a good 1,310.
“It’s been a sounder sleep than most years, I’ll give you that, it has been a sounder sleep, because I trust these guys so much,” he said.
They’ve had themselves a life experience even if, in their particular sport, their fellow countrymen and women value regular seasons decreasingly. It has been “a joy ride,” the chosen word of their on-floor pilot, Nigel Williams-Goss, who claims that while “a lot of teams consider themselves brothers and a brotherhood,” Gonzaga has “genuine love” such that, “I guarantee you you’ll never catch one of us without at least three or four other teammates, whether it’s at dinner, eating lunch, whatever it is, going to the movies. You’ll always find us in groups.”
Williams-Goss, who sat out last season after transferring from Washington, has been a kinetic wonder and a connoisseur’s pleasure, and when he made a spinning layup in traffic for a 31-13 lead Tuesday night, then skittered down the court conducting the crowd noise toward a timeout, he proved a dual-capacity maestro. Gonzaga spent the first half making St. Mary’s’ search for reasonable shots seem bleakly desperate, and spent the game showcasing its difficulty to guard with its various options, even as it tends to look first to go inside to 7-foot-1 Przemek Karnowski.
The radio analyst Matt Santangelo, Gonzaga’s point guard from 1996-2000, calls Williams-Goss “so cerebral,” and “a stat-filler,” and “just crafty,” and “dialed in as far as the details go,” and able to carry around “Option B and C in my back pocket” in the event of inconvenience. He then looses this fantabulous description of Williams-Goss’ effect on games: “Just, ‘I’m going to just tear you apart, little by little, and I’m going to end this game near a triple-double, and you’re going to know I’m the best player on the floor, but I’m not going to tell you I’m the best player on the floor. You’re just going to learn it on your own.’”
It fits, then, when Williams-Goss addresses Gonzaga’s recovery from its lone turn at subpar — those 10 minutes — he begins with, “Our way was just to go back to basics.” The lack of much inconvenience is built on the insistent management of detail. That management would seem Gonzaga’s best asset for the March wilds.
By now, it wouldn’t be March in America without Gonzaga amid those wilds. This will make 19 straight appearances, 18 straight under Few. Gonzaga has reached the Sweet 16 as a 10 seed, as a 12 seed, as a 3 seed, as a 4 seed and as an 11 seed, and it has made the Elite Eight as a 10 and as a 2. It has lost painfully in the second round in its lone turn as a 1: in 2013, to the Wichita State team that reached the Final Four and led eventual champion Louisville by 12 with 13 minutes left while there. In the lush Gonzaga path through the Marches of the 2000s — 21 wins in 38 games — some very scary villains do appear, as it lost to three championship teams, five other Final Four teams, to Stephen Curry (40 points) and to Jimmer Fredette (34 points).
In a mouthy country, the whole thing has made for a greatest hits of entrenched topics of which Gonzagans might just be sick. Year upon year, some years more than others, come the old tunes about Gonzaga’s nonelite conference, its absence from all Final Fours. It’s that program that cannot get to No. 1 without a discussion of whether it should be No. 1, as occurred this year when, for the second time ever, Gonzaga got to No. 1. (Santangelo did notice that this team seemed to want to own it more than did the last.) Oddly, Santangelo said, it might help that another Gonzaga annoyance, the East Coast bias that got written into the Declaration of Independence in 1776, might lessen some of the chatter around the Final Four dearth.
“It’s still, ‘Oh, hey, oh, Coach Few wins 90 percent of his games. That’s cute. That’s cute,’” Santangelo said. “‘You’re not a blue blood, you’re not a Final Four. It’s cute, what you guys are doing.’” Seventeen years after Santangelo finished up in a Sweet 16 loss to Purdue, he said, still, “I think we’re just a cute little side story.”
That’s some role to take after a season whose distinction was dominance.
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