Connect with us

Hi, what are you looking for?

NCAAB

Gene Warnick: Tracking Gonzaga’s transformation – Cinderella to Godzilla

Gene Warnick: Tracking Gonzaga’s transformation – Cinderella to Godzilla

SPOKANE, Washington — It started out, as it sometimes does, as a Cinderella story.

, the little Jesuit school from Spokane, Washington, with a name many seemed to pronounce wrong, advanced to the Elite Eight of the 1999 NCAA Tournament before falling to eventual national champion UConn.

But unlike Cinderella, Gonzaga hasn’t left the Big Dance in the two-plus decades since.

As announcer Gus Johnson bellowed back then, “The slipper still fits!”

But, my, how things have changed.

That 1999 team was made up of a bunch of kids from the Pacific Northwest.

Tuesday, the Zags open their season with the nation’s #3 recruiting class according to 247sports (behind and Michigan), led by the top overall prospect, 7-footer Chet Holmgren. He is aptly described as a “unicorn.”

Add combo guard Hunter Sallis and point guard Nolan Hickman, both five-star recruits and among ESPN’s top 25 players in the class, and you can see why GU is ranked #1 in the Associated Press’ preseason poll and a favorite to return to the national championship game, in which it suffered its only defeat last season — 86-70 to Baylor.

James Snook-USA TODAY Sports

“There’s no question who has recruited by far the best in America, that’s Mark Few and Gonzaga,” Kansas coach Bill Self said recently.

The Zags’ transformation into a recruiting blue blood didn’t happen overnight. They’ve only just reached that pinnacle.

Global Effort Build Brand

Former assistant Tommy Lloyd, now the head coach at Arizona, helped the Zags continue their streak of NCAA runs by recruiting worldwide, getting players from 17 different countries. Ronny Turiaf, Domantas Sabonis, Kelly Olynyk, Killian Tillie and Rui Hachimura are a few of the players who arrived with name tags and left as NBA draft picks.

“Necessity is the mother of invention,” Lloyd told Yahoo Sports. “Basically, we had to find a way to get more talented players than we were able to get in Eastern Washington. So we started putting time into international recruiting and developing relationships. We had guys come and be successful, so we developed a track record.”

But until guard Jalen Suggs came to Gonzaga a year ago, the only other top-50 recruits the Zags had landed were Austin Daye (#34 in 2007) and Zach Collins (#30 in 2016).

Collins helped Gonzaga break through and reach the 2017 NCAA title game, in which it narrowly lost to North Carolina, then became the program’s first one-and-done player (Suggs was the second). Collins was also the first Zags player selected in the top-10 in the NBA draft since Adam Morrison went #3 overall in 2006.

Newest NBA Talent Factory

Now the Zags produce a first-round pick nearly every year, including two in 2019 when Hachimura was selected ninth and Brandon Clarke 21st.

Sabonis, drafted 11th overall in 2016, became the first GU player to earn NBA All-Star accolades since Hall of Famer John Stockton.

And Suggs “slipped” to #5 in this year’s draft after being considered a likely top-three pick.

James Snook-USA TODAY Sports

“I think they’re going to get more top-tier players now,” Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim told Yahoo. “That’s why they’re not just good, they can win the tournament. That’s the difference. You have to have a couple of those guys who develop into NBA players. That’s the difference in their team.”

The Zags’ current roster has six of the top nine highest-rated recruits in school history.

The same day in mid-April that Suggs declared for the NBA draft, Holmgren, his former teammate at Minnehaha High in Minnesota, announced his commitment to the Zags.

“There were a lot of different factors,” said Holmgren, who figures to pair with reigning Karl Malone Award winner Drew Timme to give GU one of college’s top frontcourts. “How close I am with Jalen and him going there definitely played a part in it.”

Chemistry Remains Strong Factor

Few remains adamant about finding players that “fit” at Gonzaga, not just those that are highly rated.

“We kind of put the whole foundation of the program based on (chemistry) and player development,” Few said last spring. “When you come here, you’re going to have a key to the gym. Twenty-four hours a day, you can get in any time you want. Turn on the lights and shoot and work out and do whatever. Those have been the two pillars, and they are what is attractive to the guys that we end up getting.

“And we always end up getting those types of guys. That might mean not getting some other guys that we even wanted in the recruiting process. But we didn’t get them because maybe they didn’t really value that.”

James Snook-USA TODAY Sports

At first, Few wasn’t sure if Suggs was one of those players. But when the coach realized Suggs was serious about coming to GU, Few put on a full-court press to get him.

Maybe that was the move that transformed Gonzaga’s recruiting.

“It was OK to go to Gonzaga now,” Few said of Suggs’ effect. “It was cool to go to Gonzaga.”

–By Gene Warnick (@GeneWarnick), Field Level Media

Click to comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

PlayAction Podcast

SGPN | The Propcast | Week 4 NFL Player Props

NFL

Munaf Manji (@SportsNerd824) & Rod Villagomez (@rjvillagomez) of @TheSGPNetwork offer 5 player props each for Week 4.

SGPN | NFL Week 4 Afternoon Games & SNF Betting Preview
SGPN | NFL Week 4 Afternoon Games & SNF Betting Preview

NFL

The @SGPNNFL Pod covers the Week 4 late games as @SportsNerd824 & @ReichelRadio break down all four, including Tampa Bay & Kansas City.

SGPN | NFL Week 4 Picks
SGPN | NFL Week 4 Picks

NFL

The @GamblingPodcast guys pick every week 4 NFL game against the spread, including two locks, a ML dog and a three-team teaser

JetNation | Zach to Return vs Steelers
JetNation | Zach to Return vs Steelers

NFL

This week, @JetNation hosts Dylan Tereman & Glenn Naughton break down the Bengals loss, the return of QB Zach Wilson & the Steelers game.

SGPN | Diehard Eagles | Jaguars-Eagles Predictions
SGPN | Diehard Eagles | Jaguars-Eagles Predictions

NFL

The @DiehardEagles52 guys talk Philly's win over Wentz & WAS, Hurts' domination, rising expectations, 2nd half struggles,& picks vs JAX

Inside Pack Sports Live | NC State-Clemson Preview
Inside Pack Sports Live | NC State-Clemson Preview

NCAAF

The @InsidePackSport staff looks at tonight's NC State-Clemson showdown, matchups on both sides of the ball, key players & much more!

Buckeye Huddle | Is Michigan Football On Upset Alert & More
Buckeye Huddle | Is Michigan Football On Upset Alert & More

NCAAF

Tony Gerdeman of @BuckeyeHuddle joins host Tom Orr to break down Michigan-Iowa and the rest of this week’s biggest college football games.

SGPN | College Football Experience | Navy-Air Force Preview
SGPN | College Football Experience | Navy-Air Force Preview

NCAAF

SGPN's @TCEonSGPN previews Navy & Air Force. @TheColbyD is joined by AFA specialist @Falcon8fan of @HistoryFalcon to break it down.

SGPN | College Football Experience | Washington-UCLA Preview
SGPN | College Football Experience | Washington-UCLA Preview

NCAAF

SGPN's @TCEonSGPN previews Friday's Washington-UCLA game. @TheColbyD & @Scott_Bowser discuss whether Chip Kelly and UCLA will move to 5-0.