The last time I went to a UCLA game it was to talk with Lonzo Ball, freshman superstar and center of the basketball universe. I sat courtside with him at Pauley Pavilion the day before and talked about his family and him. With the banners and names and decorations around the arena, you wondered if this kid had any idea what UCLA basketball history was about. Turns out, he did.
The last time I went to a Gonzaga game was, well, never. I talked with coach Mark Few on the phone once or twice about what it’s like trying to turn a Cinderella program into a lasting blueblood when you can’t recruit the elite high school players and your games are played after so much of the country has turned off the TV and gone to bed. It was about development, time together and family atmosphere.
So now Gonzaga will play UCLA in the Final Four on Saturday, and it’ll be the No. 1 team trying to join the all-time greats vs. a team that got into the draw as one of the last four teams in an expanded tournament. That little engine of a team has surprised everyone.
And it’s a sure sign that the world has turned upside down that Gonzaga will be the blueblood in this game and UCLA the Cinderella. UCLA is the perfect victim now for Gonzaga’s narrative. Gonzaga beat USC 85-66 Tuesday to reach the Final Four. UCLA beat Michigan 51-49.
It looks like this season really was about Gonzaga all along. This whole year has pointed toward Gonzaga beating Baylor in the championship game, and Baylor will play Houston in the other semifinal.
Gonzaga has already done the impossible, turning the ultimate underdog into one of the nation’s elites. I can understand why that’s so hard in football, but you only need two studs on a team to win in basketball.
In 1999, Gonzaga was to the NCAA Tournament what Loyola-Chicago has been the past few years. And Butler before that and George Mason. Back then, the Zags made it to the Elite Eight, with a school (Gonzaga), from a town (Spokane) and a coach (Dan Monson) that nobody was even sure how to pronounce. Few was the associate head coach, having already been an assistant at Gonzaga for a decade.
Monson then left for Minnesota and Few has been the head coach ever since.
Two years ago, Gonzaga athletic director Mike Roth told The Ringer that the place looked like a Division III athletic department in 1982 when he arrived as an assistant basketball coach.
“Our head coaches in sports other than men’s basketball were also in charge of intramurals,’’ Roth said. “We played in a gym, not in an arena. We rarely sold out. If we sold out, it was because of the opponent we were playing.’’
The most amazing thing about that is that Roth was at Gonzaga in 1982. He’s now in his 23rd year as the athletic director. And Few has been at Gonzaga since the 1980s.
The Zags have reached the Sweet 16 in the past six tournaments. No one else has. They are trying to be the first team to go undefeated and win the national championship since the NCAA Tournament field was expanded to 64 teams (and now 68, luckily for UCLA). By now, Gonzaga can recruit anyone.
Gonzaga used to be thought of as a mid-major, and mid-majors with major-major success do not hang on to their coaches.
Maybe that’s the biggest key of all in getting a mid-major to the elite for good. Continuity. Butler reached two national championship games in a row, but then Brad Stevens left for the Boston Celtics and Butler hasn’t been the same.
Loyola reached the Final Four in 2018 and then beat No. 1 seed Illinois to get to the Sweet 16 this year. The talk in Chicago is whether coach Porter Moser will stay.
The bluebloods in college basketball had a rough year with Duke and Kentucky not reaching the NCAA Tournament. And the NBA seems ready to eliminate the rule requiring high school students to wait a year, theoretically going to college, before they can come to the league. Meanwhile, some of those high school stars who don’t want to go to college can go to the NBA’s developmental league.
The bluebloods are in for a change, and the next Gonzaga might come along. But while Gonzaga has reached a national championship game, it has yet to win a title. This year will be seen as the final validation if the Zags can do it. But the truth is that they’ve already proven the point.
UCLA would be the perfect team, symbolically, for Gonzaga to beat. UCLA won the national championship in 1964. It also won in 1965, 1967, 1968, 1969, 1970, 1971, 1972, 1973 and 1975 (not to mention 1995). That is what you call a dynasty, under coach John Wooden.
Today, Gonzaga’s Corey Kispert is one of five finalists to be named national player of the year, the John Wooden Award. And the Zags have three finalists for the Wooden all-American team.
And if this really is the year for Gonzaga, then maybe the center of the college basketball universe, the former Cinderella and Few can live happily ever after together.
Speaking of legendary, ere’s the deal: Bet $5 on any of the Final Four teams to win their game outright, and if they succeed, you’ll profit $200. That represents an unbelievable 40-to-1 odds boost, available after you make your initial deposit. New users can lock in this offer NOW by clicking this link.