PITTSBURGH – At some point they stopped being the annual springtime surprise. This was early on in the run that has gone for 14 years to a level where a 22-point NCAA tournament victory over a Big East school shouldn’t even be a surprise.
Where this happened no one seems clear. Maybe it was the arrival of Ronny Turiaf or Adam Morrison or when the country started saying Gon-zag-ah rather than Gon-zah-ga . But enough Marches have passed now that no one should be stunned if the Zags beat Ohio State in the third round Saturday.
What’s strange is that Gonzaga didn’t fall off the way a mid-major often does after a brief rise in the tournament. Where Butler went from back-to-back national title games to mediocrity in the Horizon League, the Zags are in a place where only Kansas, Duke and Michigan State have longer current streaks of consecutive NCAA appearances.
Much of that is continuity. When Dan Monson left for Minnesota after coaching Gonzaga to the Final Eight in 1999, he was replaced by Few, who has refused offers to go to bigger places. But even in the sameness there had to be an evolution.
For a time, Few seemed to believe he had to chase the same players as the bigger schools. Gonzaga famously tried to bring in point guard Ricky Clemons, who had a history of troubles, until athletic director Mike Roth denied the attempt. A few years later, forward Josh Heytvelt was charged with felony possession of a controlled substance after being found with marijuana and psychedelic mushrooms. Although Heytvelt eventually returned to the team, it signaled the end of an era in which the Zags took risks in recruiting.
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“It’s been kind of a pendulum,” said Jerry Krause the team’s longtime director of basketball operations who has been with Gonzaga for the entire run. “It swung one way and now it’s kind of swung back.”
Rather than chase AAU superstars, the Zags are again looking for good players who are highly recruited but not necessarily the best recruits.
“We can figure out the guys who are not going to work out,” Few said. “I don’t think the highest-level guys that are high-maintenance are going to work out at Gonzaga.”
Coming to understand this while maintaining an NCAA tournament run is more remarkable. Mid-major teams usually can’t afford recruiting mistakes. Classes have to be perfect or they don’t get back to the postseason.
Perhaps no game signaled a philosophical change for Gonzaga than the Sweet 16 loss three years into its run, when Michigan State outrebounded it by 20 and sent a message that the Zags were going to have to be more physical than they had previously been.
“That was a wake-up call in terms of rebounding,” Krause said. “That’s when we knew we needed more rebounding.”
There also came a time when Gonzaga realized it was probably going to need to be more of a defensive-based program as well. In the beginning, it was so crisp offensively – especially during the rise of players such as Morrison and Dan Dickau and Blake Stepp – that it didn’t emphasize defense nearly as much. Occasional teams were better at it than others but in the years of big offensive stars, the points came so easily that Gonzaga continued to be known more for scoring.
“We were a bit of a paper tiger on defense,” Krause said.
Over the years that has changed to the point now where the Bulldogs 7-foot center Robert Sacre was named the West Coast Conference defensive player of the year, while guards Kevin Pangos and Gary Bell have great reputations as defenders as well.
Now the Zags have what Few calls “a meat and potatoes” team, one that defends well, can score at times but is hardly flashy. It didn’t win the WCC tournament and the automatic bid, instead making this tournament on a non-conference schedule that included Michigan State, Illinois and Notre Dame. It earned them a No. 7 seed, the school’s best since 2009.
And after the blowout of West Virginia on Thursday, it looks just a little like the one of many years ago when this run first started, back when it was a March surprise and not the NCAA tournament regular it has become.
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