- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 17, 2004

People invest their emotions in an underdog. They invest their money, attention and respect — along with a high seed in the NCAA men’s basketball tournament — in an overdog.

Being an overdog, a position in which Gonzaga finds itself by virtue of its 27-2 record, No.2 national ranking and No.2 seed in the St. Louis region, is a lot more fun.

“It’s been fantastic,” athletic director Mike Roth said, speaking not only of the program’s success but its impact on the entire school.

With enrollment and donations up, with a new arena, new dormitories, classroom buildings and other structures completed or under construction, basketball literally has altered the landscape of the Spokane, Wash., campus since “the run,” as Roth calls it, happened five years ago.

What a run it was. The small (enrollment is about 5,200), Jesuit institution from the West Coast Conference, known mainly at the time as the alma mater of Bing Crosby and John Stockton, provided the feel-good story of the 1999 tournament. The Bulldogs (or Zags, their unofficial nickname) climbed from a No.10 seed all the way to the Elite 8 before losing to Connecticut, the eventual national champion, in the West Region finals.

Coached by Dan Monson, it was an endearing bunch of smart, scrappy players who were mostly unrecruited by bigger schools. Walk-ons were part of the rotation. The term “Cinderella” was ground into the fine dust of clichedom.

But this year’s team, which plays close to home in Seattle against Valparaiso tomorrow, appears to be much better. It has won 20 straight, the nation’s longest streak, and never has been seeded this high. “I was very happy people finally viewed us the way we view ourselves,” coach Mark Few said after the pairings were announced.

“This is, in my opinion, the best team they’ve ever had,” Valpo coach Homer Drew said, an opinion shared by many.

No one from the ‘99 team was drafted by the NBA and only sharpshooting guard Richie Frahm, a Seattle reserve signed as a free agent, is currently in the league. Today’s Zags feature a pair of potential first-round draft picks, power forward Ronny Turiaf and point guard Blake Stepp. Cory Violette is a load inside, and the rest of the squad is solid.

“There are a lot of guys sitting on the bench that would be starting on other teams,” Stepp told USA Today.

Gonzaga played in arguably the best game of last year’s tournament, a 96-95 double-overtime loss to Arizona in the second round. Since ‘99, the Zags have gone to the tournament every year, advancing past the first round four times and twice making the Sweet 16.

Hardly anyone saw this coming.

“To be the second-ranked team, the second seed, that wasn’t on our radar screen,” said Roth, who has been at Gonzaga for 17 years, the last seven as AD. “It was, ‘Let’s try to go to the NCAA tournament. Let’s try to win a game. Wouldn’t it be great to be where those other schools are?’”

Indeed it would. And is. Roth said the key to getting there was upgrading the schedule, committing to better facilities, promoting Few, who was an assistant, and retaining the rest of the staff after Monson parlayed Gonzaga’s success into the Minnesota head coaching job.

“Here’s a guy who had never been a head coach,” Roth said of Few. “All kinds of people were worried. ‘Oh, boy, what’s gonna happen?’ Mark was able to make them forget all that.

“He’d been an assistant for close to 10 years. He knew Gonzaga, he knew what we were trying to do. You don’t just hire someone to coach the game, you hire the person. We knew what we were getting. It was a no-brainer.”

Gonzaga, which beat Maryland and George Washington to win the BB&T; Classic in December, has become a hot item. And Few, who is 41 but doesn’t look much older than his players, has become a star. This week he traded quips on ESPN with longtime Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim, whose team won it all last year. Asked about being the defending champ, Boeheim instead professed to be irked that Few was late for the broadcast.

“It’s interesting you’ve got me on with Coach Few, the new champion,” Boeheim said. “I mean, geez, Gonzaga, I’m honored to be on the show with the Zag guys. Of course, it would have been nice if he got here on time, because now I’m 30 minutes late for dinner.”

Since taking over, Few has sunk his teeth into recruiting better players.

“We had a core group of coaches and individuals that were dedicated to what the coaches had laid out,” said former Zags walk-on Mark Spink, a key reserve on the ‘99 team. “We had the work ethic, desire and a passion to win. Once we got our foot in the door and started doing well, started getting a higher caliber player.”

Point guard Dan Dickau, who would become an All-American, transferred to Gonzaga. Stepp was recruited from high school. “Then we started getting guys like Ronny, who probably should have gone to an ACC school,” Spink said.

But Turiaf, who grew up in Martinique, preferred a lower-key, more comfortable basketball and academic environment, “where you can get your degree in four years and play on one of the best teams in the nation,” said Spink.

“I think,” Roth said, “that we’re showing that you can get there.”

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