MORGANTOWN, W. Va. — Once upon a time, Gonzaga was the little Roman Catholic school near Seattle that was always the trendy underdog pick come NCAA tournament time.
It all began in 1999, under former head coach Dan Monson, who guided the Bulldogs to the Elite Eight as a No. 10 seed with victories over Minnesota, second-seeded Stanford and sixth-seeded Florida, before going toe-to-toe with eventual national champion Connecticut.
Monson left after that season to become the head coach at Minnesota (he’s now at Long Beach State) and longtime assistant Mark Few was handed the keys to a program that is no longer that cute little underdog.
“People forget that they were on probation and Dan was the one who really got them going,” said West Virginia head coach Bob Huggins, who will lead the 11h-ranked Mountaineers against No. 1 Gonzaga today in the Jimmy V Classic in Indianapolis. “Fewey has taken it to another level, without a question.”
What Few has accomplished is more than just remarkable. During his first 21 seasons, the Bulldogs reached the NCAA tournament 20 times, with COVID-19 being the reason for the only absence. The Zags reached the Sweet 16 in each of his first two seasons. They’ve failed to get past the first round just three times, with the last one coming in 2008. There have been nine Sweet 16s in all under Few, three Elite Eights and one Final Four.
NBA Draft picks? Very few NCAA coaches out there can boast the kinds of numbers Few has produced. He’s had eight players taken in the first round over his first 21 seasons and five more selected in the second round. Five of his eight first-rounders have been lottery picks.
Gonzaga (2-0) seems on track to add to that legacy this season with forwards Drew Timme and Corey Kispert combining for 50 points per game and a 5-star freshman running the show in Jalen Suggs. It is rather easy to see the Bulldogs as a national power now, and we just assume they’ve done it with top 20 recruiting classes and 5-star prodigies.
Not really, especially early in Few’s tenure.
“He was probably at the forefront of taking transfers,” Huggins continued about Few. “He did a great job of bringing transfers in and having them fit into what they do.”
Few was also in the forefront of scouting and enrolling international players, something he continues today. Junior guard Joel Ayayi is from France and is averaging 10.0 points and 8.0 rebounds per game. He’s had other foreign-born players in the past make major contributions, like Ronny Turiaf, Robert Sacre, Kelly Olynyk and Rui Hachimura.
And, more recently, Few is beginning to recruit on a level comparable to the blue bloods of the sport. His 2020 class was ranked No. 13 overall and Suggs became the highest-ranked player (6th overall, according to ESPN ) to ever sign with the Bulldogs. The class also includes 4-star freshmen Dominick Harris and Julian Strawther. His 2019 class was also ranked 13th overall, which included Timme and forward Anton Watson, both 4-star recruits at the time. Kispert was a 4-star recruit that was part of Few’s 2017 class that was not nationally ranked.
Few has two 4-star forwards signed for next season, too, but in his first 21 seasons, the Bulldogs have had just three top 20 recruiting classes, so much of Few’s success has been built through innovation and determination.
“He’s done a great job of doing whatever it takes,” Huggins said. “He’s taken freshmen, he’s taken junior-college guys and he’s taken transfers and he’s melted them all together.”
So, as we look ahead to West Virginia’s 16th game against a No. 1-ranked team, here’s what you need to know:
TV: ESPN (Comcast 35, 850 HD; DirecTV 206; DISH 140) for the 7 p.m. tip-off. Betting line: Gonzaga is favored by 9 points.
WHAT DOES BOB HUGGINS HAVE TO SAY?
Huggins had some interesting tidbits, including his thoughts on the NCAA possibly allowing all transfers to play right away without having to sit out one season.
“It’s the worse idea the NCAA has had since the APR (Academic Progress Rate),” he said. Basically, Huggins believes allowing immediate eligibility will open up a Pandora’s box to recruiting. He once joked that teams would recruit players during the handshake line after games.
He also spoke on how there really aren’t very many pure point guards to be found in today’s game, saying there aren’t any more John Stocktons — a Gonzaga grad — running around out there.
TAKING A LOOK AT GONZAGA
While Timme and Kispert grab the headlines with their scoring, it’s really the play of Suggs that makes the Bulldogs go.
His first college game was against Kansas and he got in early foul trouble. He still came back strong in the second half and finished with 24 points, eight assists and four rebounds.
The thing to know about Gonzaga is the Bulldogs haven’t shot a ton of threes and haven’t made a lot when they do shoot them. Instead, the Zags score mostly by playing fast and getting out on transition and scoring off the other’s teams turnovers and mistakes.
When you get a lot of lay-up attempts, well, that sort of explains how Gonzaga is shooting 58.5% from the field as a team and scoring nearly 100 points per game.
“We just have to stop them on fast breaks and don’t give up easy points,” WVU guard Taz Sherman said. “They like to get out fast. They average 96 points a game and half of those are on fast-break points. We’re really focusing on stopping the ball early and don’t give up easy transition points. We can’t let them do what they want to do.”
PROJECTED STARTING LINEUPS
WEST VIRGINIA (3-0)
F–Derek Culver, 6-10, jr., 15.0 ppg, 10.0 rpg
F–Oscar Tshiebwe, 6-9, soph., 7.7 ppg, 8.7 rpg
F–Emmitt Matthews Jr., 6-7, jr., 6.0 ppg, 2.3 rpg
G–Deuce McBride, 6-2, soph., 16.3 ppg, 3.3 apg
G–Sean McNeil, 6-3, jr., 13.7 ppg, 3.3 rpg
F–Anton Watson, 6-8, soph., 4.0 ppg, 4.5 rpg
F–Drew Timme, 6-10, soph., 26.5 ppg, 8.0 rpg
F–Corey Kispert, 6-7, sr., 24.0 ppg, 5.0 rpg
G–Jalen Suggs, 6-4, fr., 18.0 ppg, 7.0 apg
G–Joel Ayayi, 6-5, jr., 10.0 ppg, 8.0 rpg
After losing to Gonzaga in the first game of the season, Kansas head coach Bill Self compared the Zags to the 2014-15 Kentucky team, which went 38-0 before losing to Wisconsin in the Final Four. That certainly catches the eye. Gonzaga appears to be in March form, while the Mountaineers are still working on cohesion and Huggins hasn’t exactly been thrilled with the way WVU has guarded. That’s not great news going up against a team that averages 96 points a game.
Doubtful the Zags near that point total tonight in Indianapolis, but I think the Bulldogs will have more moments in this game than the Mountaineers.
Gonzaga wins and covers, 82-70.
Justin’s season picks against the spread: 2-1.