It’s been more than two decades since Gonzaga introduced itself to America as the cuddly underdog. It was the Cinderella story of the 1999 NCAA Tournament, a team of unknown kids from the Pacific Northwest advancing to the Elite Eight.
As the years went by, and Gonzaga remained a March Madness fixture, it became less of a surprise to see the Zags playing deep into the tournament and more of an expectation.
Now, the cute factor is all but gone. Gonzaga has evolved into a national powerhouse, a New Blood instead of a Blue Blood, a program that believes it should compete for Final Four berths on a yearly basis.
“We’re taking it all this year,” the team’s star forward and National Player of the Year favorite, junior Drew Timme, told Gonzaga fans during its annual Kraziness in the Kennel event. “Just be ready.”
Cutting down the nets on the first Monday of April is all that is missing. Gonzaga has reached the national championship game in two of the past four tournaments, and has more wins (164) than anyone else in that time. Last year, it was one victory shy of becoming the first team to go undefeated since Indiana in 1975-76. Dating back to the 2019-20 season, Gonzaga has been ranked in the top three for 32 straight polls, 22 of them at No. 1.
The West Coast Conference school has gone dancing 22 straight times and last fell short of advancing to the second weekend in 2014. In July, it produced two top-15 draft picks for the first time in program history, and is back this year with another loaded group, one that was voted a runaway No. 1 in the preseason by the Associated Press.
Drew Timme is back for Gonzaga as they seek a national title.Getty Images
“There’s no step back for that program,” ESPN college basketball analyst Jay Bilas said. “It’s really a remarkable story and a remarkable achievement for Gonzaga to have been this good for this long, and they’re not going anywhere.”
For years, Gonzaga had depended on player development and unearthing international gems. It turned raw prospects like Ronny Turiaf, Domantas Sabonis, Kelly Olynyk, Killian Tillie and Rui Hachimura into NBA players. That still remains part of its success. Timme was one of college basketball’s breakout stars last year, going from a contributor off the bench to one of the sport’s premier forwards.
But the Zags have started to attract elite recruits now, too. Last year’s team was led by Jalen Suggs, a one-and-done point guard who was taken fifth overall in the NBA draft. The five-star’s success under Mark Few helped Gonzaga land Suggs’ friend and high school teammate, 7-foot-1 forward Chet Holmgren, the top-rated incoming freshman in the country. A 3-point shooting, shot-blocking force, he is joined in the third-ranked recruiting class by top-30 recruits Hunter Sallis and Nolan Hickman.
“It’s a perfect marriage of things,” said Eric Bossi, the national basketball director for recruiting website 247Sports. “In order to get high-level kids, for the most part — there’s always an exception to the rule — they want to see a clear path to the NBA and they generally want to see a quick path to the NBA. So Gonzaga has not only been winning at a high level, but they are starting to show that path to the NBA.
“They are getting the big-time matchups during the season to kind of compensate for people knocking down the conference they are in. So the exposure is there. Their relevance is year-long, not just in the NCAA Tournament or at the end of the year. Because of that, recruits are taking them a lot more seriously.”
Despite the big recruiting wins, it wasn’t a completely smooth offseason in Spokane. Few’s longtime lieutenant, Tommy Lloyd, left to take over his own program at Arizona. Few plead guilty to misdemeanor driving under the influence in Idaho in early September and was suspended for two exhibition games and the regular-season opener against Dixie State. He has repeatedly apologized for the incident.
It will be 23 years this March since that first big run. So much has happened since for Gonzaga. Its roster is now filled with top recruits. Few’s non-conference schedule is loaded, featuring contenders such as Texas, Duke, Alabama and UCLA. A new practice facility was built three years ago that included a Hall of Fame, and the team has taken chartered flights to road games and on recruiting trips for quite some time.
Expectations begin and end with a national championship. The team leader said as much recently in his bold statement at the fan event.
“Why wouldn’t I be confident?” Timme told reporters during the preseason. “I feel like we’re the best team in the country and I’m going to stand by that for as long as I live.”
Source by nypost.com