An NCAA Tournament constant is at a crossroads. Can Gonzaga reconjure its magic?

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SPOKANE, Wash. — It is 45 degrees and damp like an old cellar and Nolan Hickman needs more cookies. He has done brisk business handing out treats, and this is before reaching the tent city of Gonzaga students on the swampish Quad Field. They are camping out ahead of a rivalry game against Saint Mary’s. Their men’s basketball team is walking over, en masse, to deliver 18 boxes of Costco goodies as a gesture of goodwill. Everyone is excited for everything that’s next.
Hickman commandeers a resupply. “Cookies heeeaaaah!” the junior guard then shouts, ballpark vendor-style. It’s an alarm that does not require sounding. Tent dwellers greet the players shortly after 4 p.m., primed for chocolate chips and many selfies. Hickman quickly goes dry again and is left to shimmy to a Travis Porter tune as he follows teammate Ben Gregg through the aisles. All cookies are gone in roughly 10 minutes. A local television crew records one tent group in a chorus of “Go Zags!” near the end of the visit.
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In a little more than 24 hours, drink cups and rally towels rain upon the arena floor in frustration. Players and coaches exhort fans to stop while the P.A. announcer notes that violators are subject to ejection. Victorious Saint Mary’s players walk to the locker room, delivering trash-talk daggers, as Gonzaga players pull their jerseys over their faces.
What’s next? That goes from a source of hope to a trigger for angst along the Spokane River.
For the first time this millennium, Gonzaga may not make the NCAA Tournament. Mark Few remains, as one peer put it, one of the best coaches of the last 20 years. The Zags are comfortably a top 30 group, according to metrics that matter. They also have zero top-end wins or surefire NBA prospects. They are not what they have been lately. Gonzaga is left to chase its own ghost.
“Every single year,” Hickman says, “we somehow figure it out.”
Anton Watson and the Zags have three Quad 1 games remaining before the postseason; one is against Kentucky at Rupp Arena on Saturday. (William Mancebo / Getty Images)
The Jesuit school in eastern Washington with fewer than 5,000 undergraduates has reached 24 consecutive men’s NCAA Tournaments. (Twenty-five, if you count the automatic bid earned before a pandemic erased the rest of March 2020. Which Few does.) Gonzaga has won 84.3 percent of its games over that span, reaching 13 Sweet 16s, six Elite Eights and two national title games. It shed the mid-major tag long ago by acting like the powerhouse it has become; the school spent nearly $12 million on men’s hoops in 2021-22, according to U.S. Department of Education data. That’s more than 10 Big Ten schools reported in the same period. A hype video before games at the McCarthey Athletic Center proclaims it one of the great college basketball stories of all time.
It’s not wrong.
When there are next steps to take, Gonzaga takes them. The step back? That’s a new one. A natural occurrence almost everywhere but here for a quarter-century. “I’ve said all along, it’s such a special thing to be able to win a conference championship and get your name announced on Selection Sunday,” Few says, sitting in an office with massive trophies to his right and framed magazine covers to his left. “You don’t just wiggle your nose and it magically happens every year. But these poor students, they don’t know any different, their whole life.
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“No, no, no. You have to earn your way into this thing. It’s a long, arduous, hard journey for all of us, whether you’re fighting for 1 seeds like we have, or years like this, when you’re fighting to get in. But I think it’s healthy for everybody outside the program to begin to understand that, too. Maybe after a while, you just take things for granted.”
The Zags returned 34.7 percent of the minutes from an Elite Eight team – 217th nationally in continuity, per KenPom.com – most notably losing the program’s all-time leading scorer (Drew Timme) and a first-round NBA Draft pick (Julian Strawther). A projected starter, former five-star recruit Hunter Sallis, startlingly transferred to Wake Forest, where he’s averaging 17.9 points and shooting 39 percent from 3-point range. Incoming transfer Steele Venters, a career 40 percent 3-point shooter, tore his ACL in the preseason. Gonzaga’s standard front-loaded schedule – which included Connecticut and Purdue, currently the nation’s No. 1 and No. 2 teams – provided no runway to jell.
Thus they begin the first full week of February with a NET ranking of 27 and an 0-5 record in Quad 1 games. A solid team, with one resume line like a cannonball tied to its ankle. “This is not an ideal year for Gonzaga basketball,” says forward Graham Ike, the team’s leading scorer, who transferred in from Wyoming in the offseason. “But it’s also our first year together. It’s OK. There’s going to be some hiccups.”
For a tidier thumbnail? Take offense.
The Zags buried opponents with pace and skill and led the nation in efficiency in four of the last five seasons. They ranked 28th following the loss to Saint Mary’s. Stay there, and it’s the least efficient Gonzaga has been, relative to the rest of the country, in a decade. Roster upheaval begat unfamiliarity, which bogged down flow and explosiveness. “Early in the year it was just one action, iso,” says transfer point guard Ryan Nembhard. “One action, take a tough shot. Now we’re starting to get our pace and we’re trusting guys.” The overall assist percentage (50.4) is effectively identical to that of last year’s group (50.5). How much the Zags move the ball is not always the culprit. But the 3-point shooting (33.1 percent) is the worst in Few’s tenure, at least partly the result of a lineup lacking a dynamic wing. “You got Ben Gregg out there now, he’s trying to be more comfortable on the perimeter,” says one WCC coach, granted anonymity in exchange for an honest appraisal, “when the last two years he was playing the spot (Anton) Watson is playing at.”
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And, ultimately, there’s no Timme to mesmerize defenses with a ballet act on the block. Which can lead to struggles like missing 11 of their last 12 shots in a loss at Washington, among other late-game swoons. “I mean, we had the best player in college basketball on our team last year,” Gregg says. “We knew (this year) we didn’t have someone we could just throw it to, and he’d get 40 for us every game.”
This is Gonzaga’s bruising reality. Before home games, video boards file through “Zags In The NBA” graphics. The most recent Sports Illustrated cover in Few’s office features four players; two became first-round NBA Draft picks and one scored 2,307 points here. Whether any rotation player from this group will add to that lineage is debatable.
“Obviously, there’s an issue with roster talent, right?” says one head coach whose team faced the Zags this year, granted anonymity for his feedback. “The best teams have a couple of pros on them. A couple guys ready to go in the NBA – not future prospects who will go there someday. And that’s it. They run the same stuff. It’s the same pace. It’s the players, right? They’re good, but they’re missing that Drew Timme paired with (Corey Kispert), paired with Jalen Suggs, with Chet (Holmgren). I mean, think about that.”
Casually ask Few if he’s hanging in, and the head coach laughs. He’s been here awhile. He’s seen some things. He’s all good. “You know how fragile those great years were, too,” Few says.
He’s spent the last 24 hours or so reminding his players that mighty Gonzaga was in this spot as recently as 2016, coming off a home loss to Saint Mary’s even later in February and everyone on edge about NCAA Tournament hopes. That group lost by three to Syracuse in the Sweet 16. So it’s not quite an existential crisis, because the team isn’t bad and Gonzaga has been here before. And it’s not like championship windows are soldered shut, because a program like this is usually one or two recruits away from anything being possible.
Still, it might be an inflection point. Growth shifting to adaptation. Gonzaga, addressing some forces afflicting its identity.
It’s been there before, too. College athletes became eligible to profit off themselves, and the small school in a Pacific Northwest city of fewer than 230,000 people found a way. “We were set up great to fight it initially, when it was truly Name, Image and Likeness,” Few says. “If you look at Drew and Chet, they had national brand deals like crazy.” The bastardization of NIL into something closer to pay-for-play is another thing. Gonzaga, again, is no mom-and-pop operation. But some version of revenue sharing, Few says, would help in a place like this. Otherwise, Gonzaga might have to accept a broader interpretation of NIL to woo the talent necessary to compete at an elite level.
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“We’re going to have to step up and continue to adapt in that direction,” Few says. “The best thing is, we’re open-minded. The beauty of this program, the beauty of this school, of this community, is that everybody kind of pulls the rope in the same direction.”
The tug of conference affiliation likewise will be a consideration until it isn’t. Gonzaga (17-6, 8-2 West Coast Conference) has just three Quad 1 games remaining before the postseason – and one of those is Kentucky at Rupp Arena on Saturday. Usually the league’s lack of high-value opportunities isn’t a drag; the Zags collect enough of those wins before January. Didn’t happen this year. In another conference, though? Chances to make up ground present themselves weekly. “Obviously we’re deep into conversations with other entities, as well we should be,” Few says. “We’ve been able to work with this thing for 25 years now. We’ll continue to operate on that. If we go another direction, we’ll have to learn how to operate in that world.”
Maybe it’s as simple as Gonzaga being less impervious than people imagine it to be. The Sallis departure is a version of that; no player primed for a large role leaves Spokane. They bide time until they’re great. “Every dog has its day here,” is how Few puts it. But the sport’s transitory nature finally affected the Zags’ established culture. It’s unsettling to those unaware that Gonzaga didn’t have it easy once upon a time, regularly accumulating dirt under its fingernails, scraping its way ahead.
That 2016 group had its players-only catharsis after the Saint Mary’s loss at home. This team had its moment on the Monday after losing to San Diego State, when strength and conditioning coach Travis Knight told everyone to get everything off their chest. “Brutally honest” is how Gregg describes the session. “To hear a player, your friend, call you out, it kind of hits a little different,” the junior forward says. “But it’s what we needed to hear.”
On a different timeline, the Zags are in the same place. That’s how Few put it to Ike, anyway. “He was like, ‘Man, (that team) just said screw it,’” Ike says. Emotionally and philosophically, there’s no other choice. Not after a night in early February that feeds into the nerves instead of resetting them.
After arguably its best performance in a 34-point win over Loyola Marymount and with the crowd at full tilt – the first “F— Saint Mary’s” chant begins an hour and a half before tipoff, but more on that later – the Zags can’t find any flow. They record five assists on 24 buckets. Before a tip-in by Anton Watson at the final buzzer, Gonzaga hits two shots from the field in nearly seven minutes. Still, it’s an eminently winnable game. It’s detoured, basically, by a late 3-pointer from redshirt freshman Braden Huff that rims out and one blown call; officials miss Gaels guard Aidan Mahaney stepping on the baseline while saving a ball to teammate Augustas Marciulionis, who subsequently drains a 3-pointer for a six-point lead with 48.5 seconds left.
During a review of the timing of the shot, the overhead scoreboard replays Mahaney’s foot tapping the end line. Then come the cups. And towels. And pieces of paper. Hurled onto the surface in frustration. Within 48 hours, the school dispatches an email to the student body condemning “numerous incidents of inappropriate behavior.” Few is set to record a video about fan conduct to play before home games. “That’s not what we do,” he says in his office two days later, still piqued by the scene.
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It is, at its core, a crowd reaction borne of entitlement. Gonzaga doesn’t miss the big shots. Gonzaga doesn’t get the raw end of a call at home.
And yet.
“It’s crazy,” Few says. “Come on – you make a shot or they call a guy out of bounds, you’re thinking your stuff doesn’t stink. But neither one of them is true. The sky isn’t falling and yeah, your stuff still does stink in some areas. That’s a basketball season, though, man. In the incredible ones, they go in. You’ve gotta enjoy the fight and kind of scratch and claw and then you gotta make it happen. And we’ve been able to make it happen.”
The story does not have its ending. The Zags have a nationally televised opportunity Saturday against Kentucky. There is a rematch with Saint Mary’s. The automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament is available at the WCC Tournament. Gonzaga has a chance.
Whether Gonzaga should have more than that, after all this time, is up to the beholder.
On Monday, for example, Ike stopped by Starbucks for a caffeine jolt. A barista named Victor noted that he’s been a fan since the days of Kyle Wiltjer and Domantas Sabonis. Victor said he appreciated how the Zags played, even in the weekend’s loss. He told Ike he loved the energy and effort.
At least one guy is still in it with them, Ike thought. Someone who hasn’t quit on what’s possible. “If you get too stuck in the past,” Ike says later, “you’ll stay there.”
(Illustration: Daniel Goldfarb / The Athletic; photos: William Mancebo, Brian Rothmuller, Robert Johnson / Getty Images)

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