SAN JOSE, Calif. — Once it became clear that his program had achieved the one milestone that had eluded it the past two decades, Gonzaga coach Mark Few walked from one end of his bench to the other congratulating the players who made history Saturday evening.
Something Few repeated in between embraces resonated in the mind of freshman center Zach Collins.
“He kept saying, ‘Might as well win it all. Might as well win it all,'” Collins said.
A national championship is undeniably an attainable goal for Gonzaga now that it has snapped its string of near misses and advanced to college basketball’s biggest stage. The top-seeded Zags performed like a title contender from start to finish too, clobbering 11th-seeded Xavier 83-59 in a West Regional title game that was never in doubt the whole second half.
If Gonzaga arrives in Phoenix eager to inflict more damage instead of content with what it has already accomplished, the Zags have the firepower and defensive prowess to take advantage of a potentially favorable path to the national title game. They’ll either face a seventh-seeded South Carolina team nobody expected to play this deep into March or a fourth-seeded Florida team they already defeated by five in Orlando on Thanksgiving weekend.
“I think my team is going to respond like they’ve responded all year,” Few said. “They don’t know anything different. I mean, they’ve just been unbelievably consistent. We’ll have a great time tonight, I’ll get up and go to church tomorrow and then I think practices will be as good as they’ve ever been. Then we’ll go down there to try to win the thing.”
Before Gonzaga turns its attention to Phoenix, the Zags have certainly earned the right to spend a night celebrating taking Few to the first Final Four of his illustrious career. After all, it’s not easy to achieve something never done before at a program that has made 19 straight NCAA tournaments, reached the second round nine years in a row and advanced to the Sweet 16 or beyond three consecutive seasons.
A vastly improved defense had been the biggest difference between this year’s Gonzaga team and past editions, but on Saturday it was the Zags’ offense that carried them. They carved up Xavier’s trademark 1-3-1 zone and shredded the Musketeers’ man-to-man, opening up a 10-point halftime lead and extending it to 17 in the opening minutes of the second half.
When Xavier allowed Gonzaga’s frontcourt standouts to go 1-on-1 in the low post, Johnathan Williams and Przemek Karnowski often scored at will. When the Musketeers sent double teams, the Zags’ shooters made them pay, snapping out of a postseason shooting slump to drain 12 of 24 attempts from behind the arc.
“A couple of their guys shot a lot better percentage from 3 than they’re accustomed to,” Xavier coach Chris Mack said. “Especially early in the second half, I thought a couple of those 3s were highly contested ones and really backbreakers. It went from 10 to 15 really quick and then we were just fighting uphill.”
Gonzaga won its first three NCAA tournament games despite poor offensive games from Nigel Williams-Goss, but the Washington transfer made a greater impact Saturday, scoring a game-high 23 points. Williams, a Missouri transfer, was also dominant around the rim, scoring 19 points on an array of lob dunks, post moves and put-backs.
Williams-Goss and Williams were two of the nine newcomers Gonzaga welcomed this fall after losing four starters from last season including standouts Kyle Wiltjer and Domantas Sabonis. The new guys jelled quickly with the program’s three key returners, a product of their shared desire to make this season a memorable one.
“I walked out there on the practice floor before the season and I was like, ‘We’ve never started with this many new people,'” Few said. “I think they deserve all the credit in the world because they’re as connected as any team we’ve had that’s played together for four years.”
It’s fitting that Xavier was the last hurdle for Gonzaga in its quest for its first Final Four. These two Jesuit basketball powers separated by 2,000 miles have mirrored one another both in trajectory and accomplishment the past two decades, both rising from humble origins to emerge as perennial national powers.
When Xavier coach Chris Mack played for the Musketeers in the early 1990s, he and his teammates sometimes had to wear hats, gloves or heavy sweatshirts while practicing at the aging Cincinnati Gardens. There was a sheet of ice beneath the gym floor, yet the owners rarely turned on the heat in advance for the Musketeers.
In those days, Xavier was so anonymous nationally that broadcasters routinely mispronounced the school’s name as “Eggs-Avier” and print media often referred to them as “Xavier of Ohio” to avoid confusion. Since then, the Musketeers have steadily risen in stature, going from lords of the Midwestern Collegiate Conference in the early 1990s, to Atlantic 10 juggernaut for the next two decades, to upper-echelon Big East team the past four years.
Gonzaga’s ascension from WCC afterthought to national power is no less impressive.
When Mark Few served as an assistant at Gonzaga in the 1990s, head coach Dan Fitzgerald ordered his staff never to pursue prospects with Pac-10 offers because he thought it was a waste of time and money. What player would turn down a Pac-10 school to come to a remote WCC program with aging facilities, no track record of success and massive financial limitations?
Few was too ambitious to accept that policy and the program began to blossom as a result. Now Gonzaga has a budget, facilities and a winning tradition that few power-conference programs can match.
Maybe the craziest similarities between Xavier and Gonzaga were their NCAA tournament track records. They both entered Saturday’s game with 27 NCAA tournament wins, tied for the most without a Final Four. They both had reached eight Sweet 16s and three Elite Eights without advancing to the sport’s biggest stage.
Though their histories are similar, there was no comparison between Gonzaga and Xavier this season. This is a 36-1 Zags team that beat Florida, Arizona and Iowa State in non-league play, came up one game shy of an undefeated regular season and then survived a brawl of a Sweet 16 game against West Virginia to advance to the Final Four.
Almost weekly this season, Few has fielded questions about whether this Gonzaga team is the best that he has coached. He has hemmed and hawed for months, but there’s no denying the obvious anymore.
“Hey, they’ve proved it,” Few said. “Everybody was asking me is this your best team in November. It’s not fair. It’s not fair in December. It’s not fair in January. But they’re 36-1 and they’re going to a Final Four. So absolutely. It is.”
Few has his best team in the Final Four with a manageable draw. Might as well win it all.
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