Dave Boling

Zags leave college hoops forever changed

Gonzaga’s Nigel Williams-Goss (5) shoots over North Carolina’s Justin Jackson (44) during the second half in the NCAA championship game.
Gonzaga’s Nigel Williams-Goss (5) shoots over North Carolina’s Justin Jackson (44) during the second half in the NCAA championship game. The Associated Press

In some very important ways, Gonzaga forever changed college basketball.

Mostly, they took away everybody’s excuses.

Maybe it’s unfair, but getting to the Final Four this first time probably altered the public perception of the Zags more than the cumulative sustained excellence shown by their 19 consecutive seasons of NCAA Tournament appearances.

During that span, the business of college basketball has gone through phases, at times some thought that you had to cut corners on academics or cheat to win big.

The little guy couldn’t recruit against the big guy without resources, and that perpetuated the myth of the competitive pecking order.

Gonzaga was a nice story, and a great program in so many ways, but not totally top-shelf, right?

Wrong. And now you know it.

You think you’re too small to open doors recruiting? When coach Mark Few and Dan Monson were GU assistants back in the 1980s and early ’90s, people for some reason thought they represented “Gonzales University” when they were on the road.

They not only couldn’t pronounce it, they’d never heard of it.

And when they booked recruiting trips, they’d first ask their buddies from bigger schools where they were headed, and piggy-backed their itinerary so they could mooch a night here and there on the couches in their hotel rooms.

Maybe you’ve got to get creative in other ways. The Zags have been powered by international stars in recent years, but they took baby steps in that direction to get to their first NCAA Tournament in 1995.

They finished fourth in the West Coast Conference (starting 0-6 in the WCC), but fueled by a couple of Australians they brought in from Northwest junior colleges – marksman John Rillie and 7-footer Paul Rogers – they rallied to win the conference tournament.

Gonzaga expanded its range and global reach by unleashing assistant coach Tommy Lloyd on the world. He gets on prospects early, builds a relationship, and finds kids who might not be as concerned about the remoteness of Spokane or the reputation of the conference.

And once the Zags land the right player, via recruiting or transfer, they coach them up. Senior Nigel Williams-Goss is the latest example, having gone from a second-team All-Pac-12 point guard at Washington to an All-American at GU.

A better example, though, might be Kelly Olynyk, a gangly recruit from Kamloops, British Columbia, who had some ball skills on the perimeter, but almost no inside ability for a 7-footer. He averaged 5.8 points a game as a sophomore.

The Zags staff decided to redshirt him his third year so he they could get him the weight room and work on his inside moves. When he returned for his junior season, he was a complete player, a first-team All-American and the No. 13 overall pick in the 2013 NBA draft.

Top programs have had to change their approach to roster construction. If they aim for the best prep players, they have to know that they could be gone to the NBA in just a year.

How do you build a cohesive team with that kind of roster churn?

The Zags have had players go early, but freshman Zach Collins could be the first one-and-done talent. It remains to be seen if he’ll turn pro or not.

Their approach is to use him off the bench and ripen this season rather than toss him in and shape the team around him. His 14 points, 13 rebounds and six blocks against South Carolina in the national semifinals attest to his talents.

But the fact that he has been melded into the team setting and is comfortable with his backup role allowed the Zags to flourish rather than be disrupted by a short-timer.

Mark Few, himself, killed the notion that coaching jobs in the non-power conferences are just career stepping stones.

He committed to staying at GU (now in his 18th season) despite far more lucrative offers. The athletic department obviously did what it could to keep him happy.

If a coach now considers leaping jobs solely for the money, he might consider how well stability and commitment ultimately worked out for Few.

College basketball has a new look. Few and the Zags forced it to change.