Gonzaga has been building to this point for over two decades.
It began as the cute mid-major Cinderella that would stun high-major programs in March and eventually morphed into this fully operational powerhouse that became one of those high majors.
By reaching Monday night’s championship game undefeated, Gonzaga became the first program since Indiana State in 1979 to do so. The Zags were back in the final for the second time in four tournaments.
This, however, isn’t an apex. Mark Few and the Zags aren’t going anywhere. They will be a March factor for years to come.
Just look at the roster, even if the big four of Jalen Suggs, Corey Kispert, Drew Timme and Joel Ayayi all go pro. Starting guard Andrew Nembhard has star potential, a savvy sophomore who shoots the ball at a high level and rarely coughs it up. The bench includes two top-75 recruits, Julian Strawther and Dominick Harris, freshmen who would likely be significant contributors on most other programs. Reserve forward Anton Watson averaged 7.0 points in 19.1 minutes per game. A major leap seems very attainable, particularly with how much better players seem to get year-to-year under Few and his staff.
Next year’s recruiting class includes two high-level prospects: five-star guard Hunter Sallis and four-star forward Kaden Perry.
Sallis, from Omaha, Neb., is actually ranked higher (sixth) than Suggs (11) was coming out of high school. It is also firmly in the mix with highly regarded North Carolina transfer forward Walker Kessler and top-rated 2021 recruit, 7-footer Chet Holmgren.
Gonzaga was always able to win because of its player development, coaching and execution. Now it is starting to recruit at an elite level, too, whether it is landing top transfers or high school prospects. Last year’s class was ranked sixth. The year before’s group was 13th.
Suggs’ season had an impact on Sallis, he told the Spokesman Review, seeing a top recruit excel at the school. Suggs was the Zags’ highest-rated recruit before Sallis committed to Gonzaga.
“That was also a big part of it,” Sallis said. “Watching Jalen play this year and see how he’s playing and I’ll be able to fill that role. That’s why I wanted to watch this season to see how well he fit.”
The school backed up its early success under Few with financial commitments, ensuring he stayed. In 2004, a new arena was built. The team began taking chartered flights to road games and on recruiting trips. Three years ago, a new practice facility was built that included a Hall of Fame. Gonzaga may play in the West Coast Conference, but it has the facilities, recent history and record of a major-conference program.
In the offseason, Few likes to spend his free time fly fishing. During those quiet moments, he thinks about how far his program has come, with six straight Sweet 16 berths, 21 tournament bids in a row, three No. 2 seeds in the last four tournaments, and 14 consecutive 25-win seasons.
“I always tell everybody at the end of the year when I’m standing in a river all by myself somewhere in Montana or Idaho, Alaska, somewhere, then you kind of start laughing by yourself to where we were in ’89, ’90, to where we are now, it’s unbelievable,” he said.
And this remarkable run Gonzaga is showing no sign of slowing down. It’s getting to the point where the Zags are expected to contend for the Final Four on an annual basis.
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