It’s mere weeks now -- less than 30 days -- until Gonzaga opens its 2017-18 men’s basketball season. The one after the big breakthrough.
I caught up with head coach Mark Few Wednesday to talk about life after the Final Four, after making the ’17 national-title game, after losing a nail-biter to North Carolina in Glendale, Ariz.
Does it feel different now, after the long-running narrative that Gonzaga, for all its cuddly underdog-ness over the years, hadn’t made a Final Four?
“Yeah, it feels different,” he said. “Obviously there was a lot of vindication in some people’s mind. It wasn’t really in my mind, but certainly in some. We were able to do something we had never done. (But) it’s also one of those deals, once you’ve done it, you’ve got to (get ready to) do it again. The world doesn’t stop. It does feel different, but I’m also kind of a realist, especially when you’re in any profession in sports. Give it a year, and the knock’ll be: ‘They haven’t won a national championship.’ ‘’
The Zags lost Nigel Williams-Goss, Przemek Karnowski, Zach Collins and Jordan Mathews, so it’s a recast -- if extremely talented -- team this year. I asked Few if the message is: That’s in the past, and you start anew.
“I don’t think you forget about it,” he said of the ’17 season, marked by a school-record 37 wins. “You try to draw on all the great experiences last year, but also figure out why we were so successful. There was a reason our defense was No. 1 in the country (in KenPom’s adjusted ratings), and that we were deadly efficient on the offensive end.
“We communicated fantastically out there on the floor. A lot of that was Nigel commanding it. We protected the rim great, we took care of the ball. We’re kind of going through that process of relearning why we were so good. A lot of that was personnel.
“One guy that probably never gets enough credit is Karnowski. He was just unbelievable. When he was healthy, he got us three or four minutes from a Final Four one year (in 2015) and to one last year.”
So in his heart of hearts, when he reflected back on 2017, did he recall the wonders of doing something magical, or is he nagged by the thought that inside the two-minute mark, the Zags had a one-point lead to win a national championship?
“Ninety percent the former,” he said, “10 percent the other. When you coach, that’s the game. Sometimes there’s a little breaks-of-the-game, luck, fortune. (But) it’s 90 percent, unbelievable what we’ve been able to do. We’ve been telling everybody we could win a national championship here, and we can. Standing on the sidelines, if we played a best-of-seven series (with North Carolina), it would go seven. It was two very evenly matched squads.”
Nearing completion at Gonzaga is the Volkar Center, to include a practice floor, academic center, strength and conditioning facility and hall-of-fame component. Describing what he called “massive facilities changes,” Few also cited improvements to the current locker room including the addition of hot and cold tubs, a kitchen area and changes to the shower room.
“To kind of keep that up to industry standards,” he said, adding, “I think we’ve always done a really good job of not getting carried away. We don’t need to be the fanciest house on the block.”
As he begins his 19th season as head coach at Gonzaga, some Few observations on personnel:
-- Johnathan Williams III, who entered his name in the NBA draft before opting out: “He’s somebody we’re going to have to run a lot of our stuff through. He’s kind of primed for a big year.”
-- Josh Perkins: “We’re trying to get him to look to score a little more. I think, for whatever reason, he’s undervalued just how well he shoots it and has always kind of fancied himself more of a playmaker and distributor. For a point guard, I think he shoots it at an elite level. The playmaking (for Perkins) needs to be kind of secondary.”
-- Jacob Larsen, the Dane coming off a redshirt season due to a knee injury: “He’s a work in progress, kind of ‘project-y.’ He had knee tendinitis when he was back home (before entering Gonzaga). He was one of those seven-foot kids that was a work in progress before all that.”
-- Rui Hachimura: “He’s great in the open court, great in space and just a physical specimen. But he’s got some ways to go to be able to function in the half-court and use all this God-given athleticism.”
-- Jeremy Jones: “He can really help us in that undersized small-forward role, getting him flying around. Defensively, he’s a real talent. We’re thinking we can put him 1 through 4 (defensively) and be pretty darned good.”
-- Zach Norvell: “He’s a streaky kind of kid. He does a nice job making plays with the basketball, but he’s still got some areas defensively to work on.”
-- Corey Kispert: “He’s going to be really good. He’s tough, athletic and has great size.”
This will be a different Gonzaga team, not as deep, not as imposing up front, and very likely, not as good. But the seasons change, all a little different from the last, and so it goes.
“We’re smaller, leaner, not nearly as much depth,” Few said. “Practices, we’re trying to be real cognizant of those (to stay healthy). We don’t have the bodies, the numbers we had last year. But we’re really athletic, especially on that front line.”