Gonzaga, Xavier ready for breakthrough


The Associated Press

SAN JOSE, Calif. — Gonzaga coach Mark Few did not like the question but answered it anyway.

His Zags had just held off West Virginia to reach the Elite Eight and he was asked if he felt like the monkey was off his back.

Few gave a long answer about no one believing there was a monkey there in the first place. Not him, his players, his wife, fishing buddies, not the people of Spokane.

At the end of his mini rant, Few shifted the focus to his players with this zinger: “It’s not about me and my monkeys and my dogs and my cats. It’s about them.”

The Elite Eight is not new territory for Gonzaga nor its opponent today, Xavier. Both teams have gone this deep twice before.

The next step is the big one: The Final Four in Arizona.

“It’s a credit to Gonzaga, it’s a credit to the guys up here and the guys in the locker room and the ones before them at Xavier, that both of these programs are in the position that we’re in,” Xavier coach Chris Mack said.

Few built one of college basketball’s most successful programs from scratch.

With limited resources and even less exposure, Few built the small Catholic school in Eastern Washington into a national powerhouse by recruiting high-character players who fit into his system — principles he still sticks to.

That has turned Gonzaga into one of the nation’s most consistent programs. The Zags have been to NCAA Tournament 19 straight seasons, fourth-longest in the nation, and have reached the Sweet 16 eight times. And this may be the best group of Few’s 18 seasons in Spokane.

“As far as going to a Final Four, I desperately want it for this group of guys,” Few said. “I desperately want it for everybody who has play at Gonzaga, the players who have been such a huge part of that.

Mack’s rise also came from humble beginnings.

He played his final two seasons at Xavier and returned to Cincinnati to coach girls junior varsity basketball because it was the only job he could find after a professional career overseas was cut short by injuries.

After six years coaching high school, he joined Skip Prosser’s staff at Xavier and followed him to Wake Forest. Mack returned to work on Sean Miller’s staff at Xavier and was named head coach when Miller left for Arizona in 2009.

Since then, he has elevated the program Miller kick-started.

Xavier has made the NCAA Tournament seven times in Mack’s eight seasons and reached the Elite Eight four times. The Musketeers battled a slew of injuries this season — point guard Edmond Sumner’s torn ACL was the big one — but kept scratching out victories to reach the doorstep of the Final Four.

“There’s always going to be some type of adversity through the year,” Mack said. “How your team handles it usually reveals the type of team that you have. And our team handled it extremely well and for that I’m really proud of our team.”

Now about that monkey on Few’s back. Mack says he found it.

“I got off the elevator today and was coming to the bus to come over to the arena. I saw this monkey running around, and I picked him up,” he said. “So if anybody sees coach Few later on, if they want to return that monkey, it’s in our locker room for him.”

STOPPING KARNOWSKI: Xavier’s biggest task today will be to stop the biggest player in college basketball: Gonzaga’s 7-foot-1, 300-pound center Przemek Karnowski . The Polish big man is not only 50 pounds heavier than anyone on Xavier’s roster, he’s an adept passer with good footwork. “He’s a load,” Mack said. “And he has a great touch, a unique ability to pass from his position.”

BLUIETT BLOOMING: Xavier could have folded when Sumner went out out for the season, but Trevon Bluiett has made sure they haven’t. The junior guard had his share of injuries late in the season, but is averaging 25 points per game in the NCAA Tournament and scored 18 in the first half of Xavier’s Sweet 16 win over Arizona.

MORE MURRAY: Xavier advancing will likely mean more Bill Murray sightings. Murray’s son, Luke, is an assistant to Mack and the actor has been in the stands cheering during the Musketeers’ memorable run.

MATTHEWS’ IMPACT: Point guard Nigel Williams-Goss he was the WCC player of the year after transferring from Washington, but the addition of Jordan Mathews has been just as important to the Zags’ run. The transfer from California is Gonzaga’s leading scorer in the tournament at 14.3 points and has nine 3-pointers so far, including the go-ahead basket with less than a minute left against West Virginia.

By Paul Wager

Leave a Reply