It’s been a long time coming for Gonzaga. The question now is if they have one more in them to go even further.
Since the late 1990s, Gonzaga has been the clear best team in the West Coast Conference and then some. They made a big splash by running to the Elite Eight in 1999, but weren’t just a flash in the pan. They became more than just the alma mater of John Stockton, as they started beating good teams in non-conference every year as well. They would be a lock to reach the NCAA Tournament, helping the WCC become a two-bid league in many recent years as other programs had to get better to compete with them.
One thing that has eluded the Zags during this time has been another deep NCAA Tournament run. To a degree, it’s almost been expected that they will bow out relatively early. Whereas they were first known as a team that would bust brackets, it got to where they were the cause of them by not getting as far as expected, even though they reached the Sweet 16 four times before this year since then. It’s not to the point that they are the butt of jokes when people fill out brackets, or where Mark Few has felt any heat from the school administration for not advancing further (which is a very good thing), but despite prognosticators saying “This is the year they’ll get to the Final Four” a couple of times, they haven’t made it back to the Elite Eight since 1999.
Until now, that is.
This year, Gonzaga has perhaps their best team yet. They have a lot going for them, starting with a talented and experienced backcourt, which is a big key coming tournament time. The frontcourt is likewise deep and talented, and it includes a player with an NCAA championship ring in Kyle Wiltjer, who started his college career at Kentucky. And after handling UCLA 74-62, they will play for a trip to the Final Four on Sunday.
It was one of those big men, Polish import Przemek Karnowski, who led them on Friday night with 18 points and nine rebounds. He’s been tough to handle since he got to Spokane, and he’s just gotten better all along. He plays off the guards so well, including with his passing, and is one of several from outside the United States on this team. That’s another testament to this team’s ability to recruit, even as their program has grown to where they beat Pac-12 programs for players.
Few was an assistant coach on that 1999 team under Dan Monson, taking over in the top spot once Monson left for Minnesota after that season. He’s happy where he is, and no matter what job his name seems to come up for, he isn’t budging. He took what he helped establish under Monson and turned it into a powerhouse. This year’s team has been the best yet, as they nearly knocked off Arizona in Tucson and lost to BYU at home late in the season as the only blemishes.
Gonzaga will take on Duke in what should be quite a matchup. Duke held off Utah 63-57 behind a big double-double from freshman Justise Winslow. The schools have only met two other times, both coming in the past ten years and both at Madison Square Garden. Duke won both meetings, the second one a 76-41 thrashing. But this is a new year and two new teams, though both still have the same great coaches.
In fact, the four winning coaches on Friday night are a highly distinguished bunch, as they have a combined 2,666 wins. At the bottom of that list is Few, with 438 – which just tells you more about that entire group. Few is the only one of those four without a Final Four appearance or a national championship. He can change one of those on Sunday.
In Syracuse, No. 4 Louisville rode sterling performances by Montrezl Harrell (24 points on 9-12 shooting) and Terry Rozier (17 points, 14 rebounds) to pull away from No. 8 NC State 75-65. The Cardinals also got important production from guards Quentin Snider (14 points) and Anton Gill (seven points on 3-3 shooting in 11 minutes) and held NC State to 38.3 percent shooting. They will take on No. 7 Michigan State, who continued their run by knocking off No. 3 Oklahoma 62-58 behind Travis Trice’s 24 points.
There was a quarterfinal game in the CIT on Friday night, and it was a dandy as Northern Arizona edged Kent State 74-73 in overtime in Flagstaff. It didn’t come easily for the Lumberjacks, as they scored the last six points of the game in 32 seconds to advance.
In recent days, reports suggested that St. John’s and head coach Steve Lavin were working on a contract extension. That turned out to be misinformation, however, as on Friday afternoon the two mutually agreed to part ways after Lavin was at the helm for five seasons. Since he missed most of the 2011-12 season dealing with treatment for prostate cancer, his time was more like four-plus seasons, during which he went 92-72. The Red Storm made the NCAA Tournament twice, but was never a contender in the Big East under Lavin, and they expect better. (You can keep track of all of the coaching changes right here.)
East Tennessee State hired Wichita State assistant Steve Forbes (no, not the editor in chief of the business and investing magazine) as head coach, replacing Murry Bartow. The move came a matter of hours after the Shockers were eliminated in the regional semifinal by Notre Dame. Forbes has spent some time in the state before as an assistant to Bruce Pearl at Tennessee for five seasons, before he became head coach at Northwest Florida State for two seasons and then came to Wichita for the past two seasons.
Also filling a vacancy and creating another one is Bradley, as they hired Brian Wardle away from Green Bay. Wardle went 95-65 in five seasons at Green Bay, reaching the NIT the past two seasons. He will replace Geno Ford, who was fired less than a week ago. Bradley is trying to regain relevance after a Sweet 16 appearance in 2006 was the peak of what became a steady decline.
Maryland got a nice boost for next season with the commitment of big man Diamond Stone. The 6’10” center from Dominican High School in Milwaukee should help the Terrapins stay right in the mix for the top of the Big Ten next season.
By the end of the day, we will know half of the Final Four. And we have two dandy matchups in front of ourselves to get there.
- First up, at 6:09 p.m. Eastern, is the West Regional Final with No. 2 Arizona taking on No. 1 Wisconsin, a rematch from last year. Both teams enter playing very well, having won a conference tournament championship before this.
- Following that, at 8:49 p.m. Eastern, is the Midwest Regional Final with No. 3 Notre Dame taking on No. 1 Kentucky in what should be a great game. Notre Dame is capable of giving the Wildcats a hard time with their ability to move the ball and shoot, and it’s a matchup some have seen coming since the beginning.
- There is also a CIT quarterfinal game on tap, with Canisius visiting NJIT at 7:30 p.m.