Is this the year Mark Few and Gonzaga finally breaks through?

The following statements are irrefutably true and seemingly forever at odds:

1. Gonzaga’s Mark Few is the winningest active head coach in Division I basketball. Since he took over the team in 1999, his teams have won 81 percent of their games, captured 15 West Coast Conference regular season titles, and made the NCAA Tournament all 16 seasons.

2. Mark Few’s coaching drives every hardcore Gonzaga basketball fan I know (and I know a lot of them; I’m an alum) absolutely, completely, maddeningly insane.

As Gonzaga heads to KeyArena this week for the first two rounds of the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament, things look promising. The Bulldogs only dropped two games this season, earning them a #2 seed in the South region. They have a loaded roster with everything a college hoops team would want: an elite battle-tested senior point guard (Kevin Pangos), the highly-skilled size of two foreign big men (Przemek Karnowski and Domantas Sabonis), a Player of the Year candidate at power forward who can drain 3s and work with his back to the basket, and depth galore. But despite having the most talented team in school history and favorable tourney draw, there’s an uneasy feeling in Zags fans’ respective stomachs. How is Mark Few gonna screw it up this time?

Gonzaga needs sweet shooting senior point guard Kevin Pangos to play like an All-American to make the Final Four.

Before we get too deep, know that this isn’t a “Fire Mark Few” manifesto. In fact, Few excels at almost everything a university could want from its head basketball coach. He wins consistently. He’s as good of a “face of the university” coach as there is in the country; a mild-mannered family man whose teams have never had any NCAA violations and who has raised over $1 million dollars for cancer-related charities. Despite rarely landing blue chip players, Gonzaga’s recruiting efforts have been stellar. The Zags get guys that are right for their system and do a great job developing them (particularly when it comes to big men). And Few has done all that at a tiny Jesuit school in Spokane, Washington, that plays in a mid-major conference. That’s nearly impossible. Few has created a program unlike anything else in the sport’s history.

So what’s the problem? The easy answer would be tournament performance. Despite being nationally relevant for 16 years, Few has never led a team to the Elite Eight, let alone the Final Four.

But the real problem that chips away at devoted Gonzaga supporters is his in-game coaching. To say watching Mark Few coach is tough as a longtime Zags fan is like saying listening to anything post-Maladroit is tough for a longtime Weezer fan. It should basically go without saying.

There are three issues that really stick out with regards to Few’s in-game management:

1. First and foremost, Few’s game management is shaky. During the flow of the game, things can often go awry. There are so many stretches where the offense just stalls from lack of post feeds and spending too much time essentially handing off the ball behind the arc. Say the phrase “the Pargo Play” to a Gonzaga fan and they’ll instantly have flashbacks to years of point guard Jeremy Pargo dribbling out the clock at the end of a half before throwing up a horrible isolation shot. It was the same call every time and worked once or twice at most. The predictability of it was what was truly infuriating. Defensively, the GU big men are often asked to switch on guards behind the 3-point line, which really only worked when Robert Sacre was around. When teams start raining in 3s, the defense doesn’t usually adjust to get out on shooters. In general, Few has an amazing knack for seeming to react to souring situations one or two plays too late, whether sticking in a zone D too long or calling timeouts one or two buckets too late to stop the opponent’s momentum. It’s not the mistakes, but the repetition of these mistakes that drives many Zag fans crazy.

2. Confusing lineup usage plagues Few’ teams. Now admittedly, there’s plenty of practice that fans never see, but we do see what happens on the court. Over the years, Few has given a super long leash to some players while their much more talented counterparts waste away minutes on the bench. The prime example is Micah Downs, a former McDonald’s All-American and Kansas transfer who Few buried as a bench player despite arguably having the best overall tools of any Gonzaga player during Few’s tenure (obviously speaking only it terms of potential, not performance). He’d make one semi-questionable play and immediately be pulled from the game. After his senior campaign on Gonzaga’s bench, Downs went on to be the man cut in Boston Celtics training camp (back when the Celtics were still title contenders). Meanwhile, a player like Demetri Goodson hardly ever got pulled despite consistent boneheaded plays. And those were hardly isolated cases. Even smaller lineup management decisions—like this year’s trend of leaving starters in during the final minutes of blowouts and hence risking injury—prove irksome.

3. Gonzaga has a sneaky habit of losing in the exact same way every time, especially once the NCAA tournament rolls around. The primary culprit is the team’s interior-based defensive strategy. They make it very difficult for teams to make 2-pointers by clogging space, but as a result 3-point shooters can find open space to shoot. It’s essentially a “we’ll make them beat us with 3s” mentality. You know how teams get upset in the NCAA Tournament most of the time? The other team beats them with 3s. It’s hard to see the same script play out year after year with a rewrite.

Off the court, there are a few hang-ups with Gonzaga’s recruiting. Few has an affinity for undersized guards. And while those guards’ talent can tear up the West Coast Conference, the lack of size and/or athleticism very often rears its ugly head when the Zags face off against major conference foes (primarily in the tournament). Over the years, these small guards have made a habit of being overwhelmed by their opponents’ size and strength and shrinking away from the moment.

There’s also the discussion of just how much credit Few can claim for some of Gonzaga’s recruiting. Most head coaches get the bulk of recruiting credit even if they defer most of the recruiting to assistants, but most head coaches don’t have an ace up their proverbial selves like Few has in assistant coach Tommy Lloyd. He’s the man who lands the international recruits, which, if you’ve been paying attention to the program for the past 16 years, accounts for many of the program’s most impactful players: Canadians Kelly Olynyk, Robert Sacre, and Pangos, Karnowski from Poland, France’s Ronny Turiaf, Lithuanian Domantas Sabonis, German Elias Harris, and many more. By most accounts, Lloyd is a one-man international recruiting superstar with a knack for finding gems. Each offseason it seems like Few lets him loose with freedom to do his thing. (IF YOU ARE AN ATHLETIC DIRECTOR AT ANOTHER SCHOOL PLEASE STOP READING THIS PARENTHETICAL: I have no idea why another team hasn’t made Lloyd a substantial head coaching offer just for his international recruiting prowess alone.)

But the larger discussion of Few’s shortcomings begins and ends with that glaring number of Elite Eight appearances: 0. If college basketball were viewed solely through the lens of the regular season and conference tournament play, Few would have a near-flawless record. But that’s not the reality. Teams are judged by how far they advance in the NCAA Tournament. (There’s something great to European soccer leagues putting greater emphasis on the season over tournament play, but that’s not how we do things in the U.S.) It’s something that the rational brain says is completely unfair. After all, randomness and luck play a major factor in any single-elimination tournament. But then the impassioned fan side of the brain screams “Seriously, how can we never make it to the Elite Eight? It only takes three tourney wins!”

It also stings that other mid-major programs have unexpectedly come from nowhere and done what Gonzaga has failed to do. The past nine NCAA Tournaments have seen Final Four appearances by George Mason, VCU, Wichita State, and back-to-back title game appearance by Butler. While all of those programs (with the possible exception of Butler) would trade these bursts of greatness for the longevity of Gonzaga’s consistent success, it’s still a bitter pill to swallow.

Unfortunately, Few's strength as a coach is not in-game strategy.

I don’t want to sugarcoat it, Gonzaga fans (myself certainly included) are spoiled rotten by the team’s success. Contextually, there’s no reason the excellence should’ve continued this long and we should be beaming with joy and pride most of the time. That said, it’s always hard as a fan when you feel like you’re running on a treadmill; always trying to take that next step but never moving forward. (It should be noted that this spoiled outlook of questioning a hugely successful coach isn’t unique to Gonzaga. When I spent a year in grad school at Syracuse, many of their fans has similar coaching complaints about Jim Boeheim. Their barbs were mainly directed at how his reliance on zone defense often doesn’t work in March and that he only won a title the year he had a transcendent freshman talent in Carmelo Anthony.)

It’s not just that Gonzaga fans want to finally make a deep tournament run for their own bliss, they also want it to silence the naysayers. Despite what Few has accomplished in a decade and a half, there are still legions of college basketball fans that doubt Gonzaga’s legitimacy. When Gonzaga receives high rankings, they immediately start attacking with hypotheticals: “Yeah, Gonzaga wins a lot in the WCC, but how many games would they win in the Big 10?” (Answer: Still a lot.) But because, again, everything is contextualized by the Big Dance, it’s hard to quiet critics when the school’s only Elite Eight appearance came the year before Few took over (1998–99).

In 15 years under Few, Gonzaga has put together an NCAA tournament record of 16-15. That might be in line with what most expect, but it should be noted the Zags are 10-5 when playing as the higher seed and 6-10 as the lower-seeded squad, and they’ve only had three first round exits (the same number that Duke has over the past eight seasons). That doesn’t exactly gel with the widely held perception of the team as perennial underachievers. Sure, there are some particularly bad losses in that bunch—the losses to Nevada (in the second round as a 2-seed in 2004) and Wyoming (in the first round as a 6-seed in 2002) sting the most—but Gonzaga has also had some rather cruel matchup luck which makes some of the other losses look less egregious then they might’ve seemed in the moment.

Just look at the teams that Gonzaga lost to in the past seven tournaments:

  • Three #1 seeds (Arizona, Syracuse, and a title-winning North Carolina)
  • One #2 seed (Ohio State)
  • A Wichita State team that went on to the Final Four and followed that up with an undefeated regular season the following year.
  • A Davidson team led by (probable NBA MVP) Stephen Curry that made an Elite Eight run. (Side note: Despite being the higher seed, Gonzaga had to play Davidson—a team that received a 10-seed despite being ranked in the top 25—in its home state of North Carolina. It’s one of the least fair selection committee decisions of all-time.)
  • A BYU team featuring National Player of the Year Jimmer Fredette

Those games are anything but cakewalks. Does Gonzaga really disappoint in the tournament or does their constant national spotlight just make it seem that way? Then again, Few-coached squads haven’t been able to break though with lower-seeded teams either. You know, that thing that’s synonymous with the NCAA Tournament.

Part of the comfort of Few as a coach comes from his permanence. He’s never going to take a job at another school. Period. He’s had the opportunity to jump to bigger conferences, but Gonzaga suits him perfectly. Why would he leave? Barring something absurd, he’s going to rack up wins, dominate in the WCC, recruit well, and make the NCAA Tournament every year. Besides that, he’s raised a family in Spokane, the city loves him, and the location provides him easy access to fly fishing (his favorite hobby). And despite his inherent coaching faults, would Gonzaga really be able to find anyone better? No. Gonzaga could find a better in-game coach, but not anyone who does all the other things right. It’s not like Brad Stevens is walking through that door. But that permanence also serves as an annoyance. This is the best option, but every March it still feels like the Bulldogs are treading water.

Kyle Dranginis contributes off the Gonzaga bench with his all-around game.

The next two weeks might be Gonzaga's best ever chance to make all the negative perceptions fade away. Few is three wins from getting that monkey off his back. The talent is in place. The draw is in place. But the coach is also in place. Would an Elite Eight or Final Four appearance make all the frustrations go away? No. Frustrating in-game coaching remains taxing regardless of the end result. But it’d be progress. Sweet, sweet progress.

NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament
Mar 20 & 22, KeyArena, Sold Out

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