Gonzaga, the preseason No. 1 for the first time in history, is built for an extended stay among the nation’s elite

Suggs, dribbling, in action against Auburn on Friday, Nov. 27. (Photo courtesy of Chris Tilley, Fort Myers Tip-Off)

Program building in the modern age of college basketball takes on a number of different guises. I say “modern age”, but I mean since the 2006–07 season, when the one-and-done rule implemented by the NBA meant players would henceforth have to be at least 19 years old, and one year removed from high school, before they could enter the league.

There is no strict rule that top players must play college basketball in that year after high school, but that has tended to be the path most NBA prospects have taken. This led to a rapid restructuring of the major programs around the country.

John Calipari was the first coach to capitalize upon the rule change. Coaching at Memphis when the one-and-done rule came into effect, Calipari quickly recruited Derrick Rose and Tyreke Evans in successive years. The Tigers reached the national championship game in Rose’s freshman season.

Moving on to Kentucky ahead of the ‘09–10 season, Calipari kicked his revolving door philosophy into overdrive, loading his Wildcats teams with blue-chip prospects who tended to stay the one year. Led by Anthony Davis and a starting five that featured no upperclassmen, Kentucky won the 2012 national championship.

Most of the elite programs have followed some form of this philosophy. The overarching idea, of course, is that if you are to enjoy extended success as an elite program, you have to get the best players. The trick is finding how to sustain success when there is such a high turnover rate.

That’s where Gonzaga makes such an interesting wrinkle. They are inimical among the nation’s current blue bloods, precisely for the way they’ve entered the hallowed elite. By all rights, Gonzaga shouldn’t be there. They are a small, private school with no football team whose games provide a substantive draw for recruits on an official visit. They play in a mid-major conference. That they have surpassed all these apparent impediments only speaks to the brilliance of the program’s architect, head coach Mark Few, and the coaches and administrators who have helped him realize the dream.

During a two-game tournament this past Thanksgiving week in Fort Myers, Fla., the Zags rolled out Jalen Suggs, a heralded freshman guard from Minnesota who is just the second McDonald’s All-American in program history. The last one, Zack Collins, helped the Bulldogs to the national championship game in his lone season before turning pro.

After bursting onto the national scene with a run to the Elite Eight in the 1999 NCAA tournament, Dan Monson left to become the head coach at Minnesota. Enter Mark Few, then an assistant coach. The Zags followed up that Cinderella run with Sweet 16 trips in their next two NCAA tournament appearances, cementing their status as a perennial March staple by bringing in solid players that fit their system.

Then, they found an edge—first, by becoming a destination for top international prospects—focusing upon a French connection, and various other European players. They also became a destination point for transfers, beginning with Dan Dickau ahead of the 2000–01 season. Dickau, who began his career at Washington, never felt at home in Seattle. Gonzaga, he was told by friends Zach Gourde and Blake Stepp, both on the team at the time, was close-knit. Family.

*Here’s a quick disclaimer. I attended Gonzaga, and in writing about the men’s and women’s college basketball teams, was continually struck by speaking to the coaches of those teams. They came to the campus later in life, but nearly every interview contained a segment in which they raved about how much they loved the family atmosphere. In fact, the assistant coach who recruited Dickau to Washington, Ray Giacoletti, had become an assistant coach at Gonzaga by my time there. He was one of the foremost advocates for life in Spokane and at the school.

The program steadily grew in the aughts. They were a top-25 mainstay, fielding teams replete with overseas prospects and diamond-in-the-rough finds that, most notably in the case of Adam Morrison, became stars. Even with Morrison, however, they appeared to have hit a ceiling—regular season dominance, particularly in their league play, then maybe grabbing a win or two in the NCAA tournament. They had a habit of running into the hottest teams in March, knocked out in the first round by a Steph Curry-led Davidson in ’08, and then in the second round by Jimmer Fredette’s BYU team in ’11.

Then came the redshirt. In the preseason portion of his junior year, Kelly Olynyk was hurt in practice and, rather than rush a recovery, decided to take a redshirt for 2011–12. He would emerge from the experience a 6–11 force of nature, with increased agility, quickness and drive that he paired with silky skills that extended to the perimeter.

During Olynyk’s return season, Gonzaga tore through the regular season and vaulted to the No. 1 ranking. Suddenly, they had another edge—Olynyk’s transformation from a role player into a future NBA lottery pick (the program’s second, after Morrison) became a serendipitous recruiting edge. The summer after Olynyk left for the NBA, Kyle Wiltjer transferred from Kentucky and immediately set about using his mandatory redshirt season to undergo a version of the Olynyk treatment.

A staggering standard of excellence that has been set. The quality on tap in a given season continues to tilt toward Elite. In the twenty-some years since Few took over as head coach, Gonzaga suffered just two double-digit loss seasons; in the eight seasons since Olynyk’s emergence, the Zags have lost five games or less six times.

The second aspect Gonzaga utilized to vault into the upper echelon of elite programs was another version of the one-and-done deal—the grad transfer rule. Players must sit out a year after transferring, if they have not finished an undergraduate degree. Naturally, this inspired a number of players to complete their degree in three years, and then transfer to another school for a senior year in which they’d be immediately eligible to play and could even begin working toward a graduate degree.

Since 2015–16, Gonzaga has featured at least one grad transfer on its team. This has joined a healthy number of the more standard transfer player, European star, and the regular collection of perfect fits that helped grow the program in the first place. For a program now undergoing the type of turnover rate of a Kentucky, the balance in Gonzaga’s roster is downright sublime.

During that first run to the national championship, in 2017, the culmination was on full display. The Zags were led by Nigel Williams-Goss, a transfer who, like Dickau before him, sat out a year after leaving Washington. Jonathan Williams, a savvy low-post presence who’d transferred from Missouri, paired with the precocious freshman, Collins, and 7–1 center Przemek Karnowski, of Polish stock, in the front court. Jordan Mathews, a grad transfer from Cal, who averaged 10.6 points and hit 2.2 threes in his lone Spokane season, was the fifth starter, out on the wing.

The next Gonzaga team to launch a challenge for a national title, in 2018–19, featured the next evolution: a pipeline toward the NBA. Three players on that roster were drafted that summer, including two first round picks in Brandon Clarke, a pogo-stick of a big man who transferred from San Jose State, rounding out his offensive arsenal during his redshirt season, and Rui Hachimura, who became the fifth lottery pick in program history (he was selected ninth by the Washington Wizards.) *Austin Daye, selected with the 15th pick in ’09, missed being the sixth by one draft place.

Now, America is witnessing the program out of that little school in Spokane become a perennial contender. They were again a national title contender a season ago, before the coronavirus cut the campaign short. Despite losing the conference player of the year, Filip Petrusev, to Mega Soccerbet of the Serbian professional league, they are once again the trendy pick to win it all next spring.

It seemed fitting that Gonzaga toasted its No. 1 preseason ranking with an opener against one of the game’s classic blue bloods, Kansas, which entered the season at No. 6 in the country. Save for a surge by the Jayhawks out of halftime, Gonzaga controlled the contest and coasted to a double-digit victory, once again showing off its vaunted precision offense (five players scored in double digits, including three with over 20 points)—the most notable of that trio the heralded freshman, Suggs, who in just 24 minutes finished with 24 points and eight assists.

In addition to Suggs, Gonzaga features a French guard, in Joel Ayayi, a senior swingman and preseason All-America candidate in Corey Kispert—both Kispert and Ayayi redshirted their freshman seasons—and a true sophomore forward in Drew Timme, who has emerged as one of the Zags’ best scoring options. Add in a grad transfer from Southern Illinois, in point guard Aaron Cook, and a Florida transfer in Aaron Nembhard who, despite being a junior, was granted immediate eligibility just two days before the Bulldogs began their season, and you’ve got a recipe for a historic campaign. The hodgepodge is alive and well.

According to nbadraft.net, Suggs is predicted to be the first pick in next year’s draft. It would be another first, for a program that can’t stop racking them up.

Game of life, with a twist—and shout. Twitter: @alleywhoops

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