Tommy Lloyd, a longtime assistant basketball coach at Gonzaga, called late Thursday afternoon. Two days had passed since the Bulldogs’ surprising 60-47 loss to Saint Mary’s in the West Coast Conference tournament championship, so I chose my words carefully in asking how he was doing. Lloyd let out a big sigh.
“Well, I’m in Mexico City,” he said. “Somebody has to get sent away when we lose.”
Lloyd paused for comedic effect. Then Lloyd laughed, and if there was any concern that Gonzaga would carry the setback into the NCAA tournament, it faded with each giggle.
Beware of writing off the Bulldogs (30-3) just because they lost for the first time in three months and failed to win their seventh straight conference tournament title. For as much as Gonzaga has done to transcend the WCC and establish itself as a perennial national behemoth, it is still judged too critically by what happens in conference play, which creates a predicament. Stomp the competition, and the Zags are perceived to be untested. Stub a toe, and, oh, it proves they’re overrated and fatally flawed. They can’t win, even though they keep winning.
Two decades of excellence haven’t changed the pre-tournament instincts of all of their critics. Neither has the loaded nonconference schedule that Coach Mark Few annually plays to challenge his team. Still, the program keeps growing. It has been 20 years since former coach Dan Monson led Gonzaga to the Elite Eight. Cinderella doesn’t need the fairy godmother anymore. Cinderella hasn’t needed her for a long time.
So listen closely if one loss has you feeling iffy about Gonzaga, which was still awarded a No. 1 seed in the West Region on Sunday evening: Ignore the urge to doubt. It is impossible to feel certain of how any team will fare in the wildest tournament in sports, but the Zags are as safe a bet as the other contenders. They haven’t been exposed. They’re not perfect, but they remain as capable of greatness as they were during the Maui Invitational in November, when they shattered the notion of Duke’s invincibility. They have a wonderful mix of size, shooting, passing, shot-blocking, offensive and defensive balance and, most potent of all, experience.
By nature, college basketball is a sport of volatility. Rosters are guaranteed to change, and in the current era of one-and-done NBA prospects and impatient transfers, the transience is greater and more accepted than ever. But in many ways, Gonzaga is an enviable outlier because it still builds with a measure of continuity. It doesn’t recruit microwaveable teams, but it still finds NBA talent.
The current squad is a testament to the Gonzaga way. Two years ago, when the Zags finished 37-2 and advanced to the title game before losing to North Carolina, Josh Perkins was a redshirt sophomore sharing point guard duties alongside Nigel Williams-Goss. Forward Killian Tillie was a freshman who averaged just 12.2 minutes. Forward Rui Hachimura averaged just 4.6 minutes. Guard Zach Norvell Jr. redshirted. Now they’ve grown up to be the standout players on another team with Final Four potential.
That’s old-school program building, complete with skill development and players who had the humility and self-confidence not to seek instant gratification. Hachimura, the son of a Beninese father and Japanese mother, is considered a first-round NBA draft pick. Perkins, as a fifth-year senior, is the heart of the team. Norvell is the floor-spacing shooting guard, and even though injuries have limited him to 11 games, Tillie is a versatile modern big man.
The Zags don’t lack for talent anywhere on the roster. We haven’t even mentioned the efficiency and defensive prowess of Brandon Clarke, who makes 69.3 percent of his field goal attempts and blocks three shots per game. But the players who lead this team had to sacrifice, improve and learn how to win before getting their opportunity to stand out. It’s reminiscent of the way Villanova won two of the past three titles. And in today’s game, such stability is precious.
“Two years ago, Rui wasn’t ready to play,” said Lloyd, who has been at Gonzaga for 18 years despite having the chops and reputation to be a head coach. “Tillie was a role player. Norvell got injured and sat out. Perkins started, but it wasn’t his show. They were patient, and now they’re the main pieces. That’s the thing college basketball should be about. These guys were bit players, and now they’re in leading roles, and we’re still one of the best teams in the country. It goes against the current culture.”
The Zags are proud, but they resist getting cocky. They are simply doing what works for them. Self-awareness is their weapon. Over the past two decades, they have remained true to themselves. Many aspiring programs talk about going to the next level, and they end up losing themselves in the pursuit. The Zags keep climbing without reinventing the wheel.
They’re such a respected program now that they can go to Chicago and entice Norvell to come to Spokane, Wash. They can go to Las Vegas and win a battle for one-and-done Zach Collins, who was the No. 10 pick in the 2017 NBA draft after his freshman season. But they still go after the underrated prospects who fit their system. They still are among the best at finding athletes who outplay their high school ranking. And they still prioritize international recruiting, which is Lloyd’s specialty.
In fact, Lloyd was in Mexico City last week to check on a player. For the record, Few didn’t banish him after the Saint Mary’s loss.
“Honestly, what we do is not that different from the beginning,” Lloyd said. “If you know Coach Few, he’s a pretty simple, straightforward guy. We don’t spend a lot of time worrying about the past, and we don’t look too far in the future. We try to stay the same. Same approach. Same mentality.
“A lot of these programs, they want everything front-loaded. They want everything set up perfectly so that they can go out and win. At Gonzaga, we’ve never front-loaded anything. Things have come to us over time as we’ve earned them — our facilities, our arena. And as we’ve won and gotten access to better players, our approach hasn’t changed.”
In 20 seasons at Gonzaga, Few has won 565 games. He has an .824 winning percentage. For as consistent as the program has been, the Zags have experienced another spike the past seven years. They have won at least 30 games five times during this period. They have been a No. 1 seed three times. They have made four straight Sweet 16 appearances and advanced even deeper twice: to the Elite Eight in 2015 (their first since 1999) and to the title game in 2017.
Late-season WCC losses haven’t stopped them, either. In 2017, Gonzaga was 29-0 before a home loss to BYU in the regular season finale. In 2015, BYU also ruined the Bulldogs’ regular season finale. Do you see a connection? The later they have lost a conference game, the longer they have danced in the NCAA tournament.
“We’ve had emotional, gut-wrenching late losses and bounced back from that,” Lloyd said. “We’ve seen it all.”
And Gonzaga has done it all, except lift that trophy on a Monday night in early April. In trying to guess their tournament fate this March, that motivating factor might matter more than a late slip-up.
For more by Jerry Brewer, visit washingtonpost.com/brewer.