Bulldog Basketball: A Decade Of Success

Nov. 6, 2007

By NICK GERANIOS
Associated Press Writer

SPOKANE, Wash. - Not many people noticed what happened at the Top of the World Classic in November 1997. After all, the tournament doesn't draw much attention.

But those three days in Fairbanks, Alaska, could be considered the start to the "Gonzaga Decade."

The wins over Tulsa, Mississippi State and No. 5 Clemson earned the Zags the first-place trophy and provided the jumping off point to a 10-year run that included nine straight NCAA tournament appearances and an almost weekly Top 25 ranking.

A team from a conference that might not have even qualified for mid-major status was suddenly producing NBA draft picks, getting within a win of the Final Four and hanging with the likes of Duke, North Carolina and UCLA.

"You always have a dream," said Gonzaga coach Mark Few, an assistant to Dan Monson 10 years ago. "The thoughts in my mind, and as a staff, were we didn't want to be a one-hit wonder."

One-hit wonders don't go on to compile a record of 263-69 and reach the NCAA tournament round of 16 four times in the next 10 years.

"Others have done what they have done, but not the longevity," said Monson, who coached Gonzaga to the title in Fairbanks and led the Bulldogs to the Elite Eight the next year before leaving for Minnesota.

Monson was replaced by Few, who has yet to miss an NCAA tournament. Few said it has been more difficult to sustain the run than it was to start it.

"It's much harder because everybody is shooting for you, you get everybody's best effort," Few said. "You've got to be good, and be lucky."

ESPN's Dick Vitale sees no reason the Zags' success has to end, as the team plays a national schedule that leads to the continued high visibility and recruiting success.

"The sign of an outstanding program and success is the test of time," Vitale said. "It could continue and continue and continue."


 

 

Few, whose name is thrown about every time there is a major coaching opening, has an .802 winning percentage, tied with Roy Williams of North Carolina for highest among active Division I coaches.

He insists he isn't interested in another job.

"I love what I'm doing and I love where I'm at," Few said.

The Zags have been downright dominant in the West Coast Conference over the 10 years, going 122-18 and winning 10 straight league titles. Since 1992, the Zags have the most wins and highest winning percentage of any program on the West Coast, topping UCLA and Stanford. In this century, their overall winning percentage of .791 is second nationally only to Duke's .824.

There is always the complaint that the WCC inflates the Zags' winning percentage. Few counters with nonconference scheduling that borders on the ridiculous. This year they will play at the Great Alaska Shootout, and meet Saint Joseph's, Connecticut, Washington State, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Utah, Georgia and Memphis.

"In my mind, we play the toughest nonconference schedule in the country," Few said.

The Zags are 8-3 all-time against teams from the Atlantic Coast Conference. The victory list in recent years included UCLA, St. John's, North Carolina, Washington, Virginia, Texas, North Carolina State, Cincinnati, Maryland, Missouri, Georgia Tech, Oklahoma State, Michigan State, Stanford and Indiana.

Gonzaga has had its brush with the problems usually associated with the big-time programs.

Adam Morrison left a year early for the NBA after being a unanimous selection to the All-America team.

When Gonzaga's decade of success began, the then-4,500-student Jesuit school was known for Bing Crosby and John Stockton, not necessarily in that order. The 3,000-seat bandbox known as "The Kennel," has been replaced by the 6,000-seat arena that is always sold out. With 6,300 students and a community of about 450,000 people that are wild for the Zags, a ticket is a hot commodity.

The Gonzaga decade had its roots in the early 1990s, when Monson, Few and Bill Grier were hired as assistants by Dan Fitzgerald.

"I think Mark is the one who really believed," said Grier, who this season became head coach at San Diego. "He didn't see any reason why we couldn't do some of the things that other places had done."

The young coaches started landing good recruits like Richie Frahm, Bakari Hendrix and Matt Santangelo, a point guard they stole from Stanford.

"The outside world was like `Why are you recruiting him?"' Grier recalled. "Mark kept on him and kept on him and kept on him."

Those three became the core players of the team that won in Fairbanks and finished 24-10, but was ignored by the NCAA selection committee.

The following season the Zags went 28-7, and shocked the basketball establishment by beating Minnesota, Stanford and Florida in the NCAA tournament before losing to eventual champion Connecticut 67-62 in the Elite Eight.

It was the feel-good basketball story of the year. But Monson left and many figured the Zags would decline.

Instead, the Zags won at least 23 games each of the next eight seasons, behind players like Casey Calvary, Dan Dickau, Cory Violette, Ronny Turiaf, Blake Stepp and Morrison.

The Zags first appeared in the AP poll on Nov. 8, 1999, and have made appearances every year since. They were ranked as high as No. 3 in 2004, and spent most of the 2005-06 season in the Top 10.

"We tried to amp up the recruiting," Few said. "And with the cooperation of the administration we were able to amp up everything about the program, from the facility to how we traveled to the budget."

The Zags' popularity brought them plenty of exposure on national television. All of their games are televised, at least in the Spokane market.

The run appeared to be at an end last season, after a series of road losses in December dropped the Zags from the Top 25.

The Zags rallied to make the NCAA tournament, where they lost to Indiana in the first round.

Monson, in his first season at Long Beach State, said he gets calls every year from athletic directors asking how to import the Gonzaga program to their school.

"Everybody's looking for the magic potion Gonzaga found," Monson said.

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