As Gonzaga went toe-to-toe Monday night with North Carolina in the NCAA tournament championship game, I found myself in an increasingly uncomfortable position. After beginning the tournament rooting for Anyone But Gonzaga, I ended up ... well, kinda sorta pulling for the Zags.
Trust me, I’m as stunned as you are. And I’m not gonna lie: It felt kinda gross.
It wasn’t because I got a sudden case of “Washington pride” or whatever it is that some fans of WSU or UW used to justify rooting for Gonzaga. I generally hope Washington and Gonzaga lose every sporting contest they play for the remainder of eternity.
Really, I still can’t stand them.
However, I fancy myself a fan who can appreciate excellence, even begrudgingly. And as I watched the game unfold, Gonzaga’s brand of excellence simply became irrefutable: Mark Few has built a program that could go 12 rounds with North Carolina. And not with a plucky band of overachievers — a la Gonzaga of years past or Butler of a few years ago — but with a roster that probably will send approximately the same number of guys to the NBA as the Tar Heels.
Let that sink in.
So file this away, people who call me a Gonzaga hater: I’m about to say some nice things about the Zags, and even Mark Few.
But first, let’s break out the HATERADE one more time. I’ve made no secret over the years of my disdain for Gonzaga, which more or less breaks down thusly:
- 5%: Annoyance with obnoxious fans. (Fortunately, I don’t live in Spokane, or I’m sure this would be much higher.)
- 25%: Rage over the cancellation of the annual series with WSU, in which Gonzaga stole a home payday in the process just because they could.
- 70%: Pure jealousy.
I’m not jealous of all the tournament appearances that, over the years, were sometimes aided by playing in an inferior conference. I have no illusions that kind of a run could ever happen at WSU when schools such as UNC, Kentucky and UCLA have all missed the tournament more recently than Gonzaga.
I’m actually jealous because when I look at what Gonzaga has built over the past two decades, I see no reason why WSU couldn’t have followed the same plan to build its own quality basketball program.
In fact, WSU was following that very same plan before inexplicably abandoning it. (Can you feel my blood starting to boil through the screen?) But we’ll come back to that a bit later.
There obviously are more differences than similarities between Gonzaga and WSU, and I won’t bother to enumerate them here since you’re probably familiar with them all. However, we’re still talking about two schools located in a region that isn’t exactly a hoops hotbed, and each had practically no historical basketball success until Gonzaga’s current surge.
And while I do like to say that Zags are a bit of a unicorn in what they’ve done — I mean, if it truly was replicable, there’d be more Gonzagas out there — there still are lessons that can be learned and applied from their long, slow, two-decade climb from being a David who could beat Goliath into a Philistine giant themselves.
A three-pronged approach to talent acquisition
If you’re not a blue blood program and you’d like to compete with them for an extended period of time, finding and exploiting undervalued talent streams is a must until your program can stand on its own.
And it takes a bit of time to make that transition. It took Gonzaga about five consecutive NCAA tournament appearances before top 100ish recruits from in state paid them any mind (starting with Josh Heytvelt and David Pendergraft); and it took a couple of more years before out-of-state top 100 guys (Matt Bouldin and Theo Davis) were willing to make the jump.
We don’t even need to look past our own school for evidence of this, either: Consider the thoroughly “meh” recruiting class* WSU put together on the heels of two consecutive tournament appearances, which I’ve been told is part of why Tony Bennett moved on when he did. If you’re not a blue blood, you’ve got to prove you’re not a flash in the pan before you can start beating out established programs for talent.
*Remember, Klay Thompson was a 3-star kid when he signed. He blew up as a senior.
So where do you start?
SUPERIOR TALENT EVALUATION: Since you can’t compete with the big boys for the best high school players, you better have a clear idea of what you want to do schematically, and you have to be better than anyone else at identifying guys who both fit that scheme and whom you believe you have a high probability of developing into exceptional players.
For Gonzaga, that meant finding and signing guys such as Richie Frahm, Matt Santangelo, Casey Calvary, Blake Stepp, Cory Violette, Adam Morrison, Derek Raivio — players who were lightly recruited elsewhere who formed the core of those teams in the first third of this run.
(Side note: What are the odds Josh Hawkinson would have played at Gonzaga had he been a high school senior 15 years ago instead of five years ago, when Few had stopped recruiting guys like him? Pretty good, I’d imagine.)
Eventually, Gonzaga moved away from this; as the school experienced more success — bolstered by the two strategies that followed — Gonzaga was able to set its sights higher. But even then, they experienced a stunning success rate with guys who were top 100 recruits (or thereabouts): Heytvelt, Jeremy Pargo, Bouldin, Austin Daye, Steven Gray, Demetri Goodson, Sam Dower, Gary Bell Jr., Josh Perkins, Zach Collins.
Among those players, Goodson was probably the weakest, and Dower was only so-so until a pretty strong senior season. And to some degree, putting superior athletes — the guys who become top 100 recruits — in the WCC is certain to reduce the bust rate. But still, I could really only find one top 100 recruit that washed out at Gonzaga: Davis, who was in Bouldin’s class in 2006 and would become most famous for being in a car with Heytvelt and a bunch of shrooms. That’s some pretty remarkable scouting.
“It's been this amazing, organic movement,” Morrison said last week. “The program really started to take off with that '99 tournament run, and it's just crazy that they could go from — how do I say this P.C. — slow white guys to McDonald's All-America type players? It's crazy.”
(Side note No. 2: Gonzaga signed two fringe top 100 kids who redshirted this year. Even without Przemek Karnowski and Jordan Mathews, the Zags aren’t going anywhere.)
INTERNATIONAL RECRUITING: You can’t build something special by simply targeting a handful of overlooked guys every year. After all, they’re overlooked for a reason, and some of these guys will never turn into anything. You’ve got to add talent from other places.
And starting with Ronny Turiaf in 2001-02, Gonzaga has had at least one impact international player on its roster pretty much every season: Turiaf (France) gave way to J.P. Batista (Brazil by way of junior college), who gave way to Robert Sacre (Canada), who gave way to Elias Harris (Germany), who gave way to Kelly Olynyk and Kevin Pangos (Canada), who gave way to Domantas Sabonis (Spain) and Karnowski (Poland), who probably will now give way to Killian Tillie (France).
There also were a lot of swings and misses at international guys who didn’t amount to much once they got to Spokane (hello, Pierre Marie Altidor-Cespedes, Mathis Monninghoff, Manny Arop, etc). But early on, Gonzaga really needed to take chances on those guys to supplement the American talent, and they were among the first programs to aggressively recruit that “market,” having enough success to justify it.
Now, it’s a huge part of what allows them to compete with the likes of North Carolina without landing three or four top 100 players each year.
The other part?
A HOME FOR TRANSFERS: Transfers continue to increase each offseason, but there was a time 15 years ago when it was pretty unusual for a player to move on to another Division I program. The year off was a deterrent for many, and a lot of coaches viewed transfers as damaged goods.
Not Mark Few. At the beginning of this run, Gonzaga had no prayer of landing a top 100 prospect out of high school — hence the need for superior scouting and development — but he came to realize that he could add that kind of physical talent by offering a soft landing spot that virtually guaranteed an NCAA appearance and high profile nonconference games against high major competition for guys who had decided their high-major school just wasn’t working out for them.
First, it was Dan Dickau and then Errol Knight from Washington. Then Micah Downs from Kansas. And even now, as transfers are a much more accepted commodity, Gonzaga continues to profit — more than ever, really: Kyle Wiltjer from Kentucky, Byron Wesley from USC, Nigel Williams-Goss from Washington, Johnathan Williams from Missouri and Jordan Mathews from Cal.
They’ve all worked out. Downs’ transformation was probably the most remarkable: He was considered by many to be damaged goods when he left Lawrence, and yet Gonzaga allowed him to thrive.
Few didn’t just take on anyone; he took on guys who could succeed.
Evolving with the game
Talent acquisition is only one part of equation, of course. And through the years, Mark Few has adjusted his approach to match both his talent and the changing college basketball landscape.
Early on, they had some decent offenses and pretty good defenses. Then, as they started landing more talent, the Zags skewed towards offense — the most extreme example being Adam Morrison’s junior season in 2005-06, in which they featured the No. 2 offense in adjusted efficiency but the No. 170 defense.
Now, Morrison will say that Few wanted them to play better defense, and they just couldn’t. I’d argue that they probably could have done a little better than No. 170 had they put their minds to it. But Few allowed the team to play to its strengths, letting Morrison do what he did.
Fast forward 11 years, and Gonzaga just got done posting the No. 1 defense in adjusted efficiency. Same coach, basically the same staff. How?
Morrison argues it’s simply talent.
“The biggest difference now is the depth, the big guards, and just the willingness to play defense,” he said. “They're unbelievable now — they rotate, guys talk, they switch and they don't have weaknesses. Even Przemek can move his feet in ballscreen defense and keep his hands high. We tried to play defense, but we just weren't very good at it.”
That’s definitely part of it. But a weird thing happened about four years ago.
Remember when Gonzaga bombed out of the tournament at the hands of Wichita State? The Shockers hit a crazy number of 3s, and Gonzaga suffered another tournament disappointment. I wrote a thing about that back then, but if you don’t want to read it (since you’re already 1500 words deep into this sucker), here’s the short version:
- As a matter of philosophy, Gonzaga used to allow opponents to shoot a lot of 3s with the intent of keeping opponents from making them;
- There’s a fair amount of research to suggest that defenses have much less control over opponents’ 3-point percentage than coaches think;
- Because of this, Gonzaga was always going to be susceptible to losses by hot shooting teams and was probably going to continue to suffer suboptimal results in a tournament that requires six consecutive wins.
That year — 2012-13 — Gonzaga opponents shot 3s on nearly 39 percent of their field goal attempts, 21st-most nationally. And while that was extreme, the Zags were regularly among the national “leaders” in 3-point field goal attempts allowed.
Sometimes when you roll the dice, you come up snake eyes. And if your charge is to win six consecutive games, you probably shouldn't be relying on all six of your opponents to miss a bunch of those threes you let them take. At some point, someone is going to have an outlier performance from deep against you, dramatically increasing your chances of suffering an upset.
If you don't like being called a "choker," don't roll the dice -- change the game to something that puts the probabilities more under your control. Until Gonzaga does that, they're going to be vulnerable to upsets like the one we saw last night.
Guess what changed the very next season?
That percentage dropped all the way to 31, the first time in Few’s career his team allowed a below average number of 3-point attempts. And it has stayed low: In the last three seasons, Gonzaga has allowed the 61st, 87th and, this year, 40th fewest 3-point attempts (as a percentage of overall field goal attempts).
Now, I’m not saying Gonzaga became the best defense in the country by limiting 3s. They actually became the best defense in the country by both limiting 3s and also being ridiculously effective at preventing 2s while also being one of the best defensive rebounding teams around.
Some of that is talent, as Morrison talked about. But it’s undeniable that Gonzaga underwent a significant philosophical shift, the likes of which are rarely — and I mean rarely — undertaken by long-tenured coaches. This is especially true of coaches that have been successful. They tend to dance with the one that brought them until the game finally passes them by and they fade into oblivion. [Waves at Bobby Knight.]
It would have been easy enough for Mark Few to just keep doing what he was doing. Instead, he adapted.
It’s the sort of thing that makes an article claiming Mark Few already has a hall of fame resumé seem at least a little less ridiculous.
As I mentioned at the top — and I’m sure you noticed as you read — WSU was on its way to employing a lot of this to great effect under Dick and Tony Bennett. The Cougs had a distinct philosophy and superior talent evaluation; they supplemented that with international players; and they even took on a transfer!
Of course, Tony left, and AD Jim Sterk made what turned out to be an awful hire. In the interest of full disclosure, it was one that I was behind at the time. But the combination of Ken Bone’s inability to recruit domestically, unwillingness to recruit internationally, and seeming reluctance to take on transfers (probably a result of the disaster he left behind at Portland State, which was largely fueled by transfers) made it plainly obvious to everyone what was required at WSU.
Everyone, that is, besides Bill Moos, who doubled down on Sterk’s mistake by firing Sterk’s bad hire for a grand total of $1.7 million and hiring another guy who didn’t fit the profile for the low, low price of $1.25 million annually for what is now a minimum of seven years.
The results have been predictable, if not outright worse than what was initially predicted.
And it absolutely sucks that a burgeoning basketball culture was neutered before it ever truly had a chance to take hold. When I see Gonzaga fill that glorified high school gym, and I think back to the 11,000 people that stuffed Beasley Coliseum for senior day in 2008, and then I look at this:
I still get pretty pissed off.
Someday, the inevitable will happen and Ernie Kent will finally fail to such a degree that WSU has no choice but to shell out millions of dollars to make him go away. At that point, Moos or Mike Marlow or whomever is the AD needs to take a long, hard look at WSU’s own history — which is underscored by the manner in which Gonzaga rose to its current position — in making the next hire.
I know that’s not as easy as it sounds. “Go find another Tony Bennett” ... I mean, duh. That’s hard. And I know Gonzaga has its own set of unique circumstances, which allowed it to do what it’s done, that WSU doesn’t possess — not the least of which is named “Mark Few.”
But process is so important. And WSU simply must do a better job with its next hire of finding someone who — at the very least — gives them a fighting chance to build something that can compete for tournament appearances on a regular basis. If it doesn’t work out, fine. But don’t screw yourself by hiring guys who have no chance of succeeding their way.
Because right now, in lieu of that ... hating on Gonzaga is about all I’ve got left.
And that’s becoming less and less easy to do.