INDIANAPOLIS – It’s almost an inevitability that the more success someone has, the further away from their roots they get.
Not Gonzaga. Now a card-carrying member of men’s college basketball’s bluebloods, the ‘Zags remain that little team that could from Spokane, Wash. Endearingly so.
This is the sixth consecutive tournament that Gonzaga has reached the Sweet 16, the only school that can currently claim such consistent excellence. The Bulldogs are also the overall No. 1 seed, looking to become the first unbeaten men’s team since Indiana in 1976. Yet there the ‘Zags were Monday afternoon, as pumped to be moving on as the first Gonzaga team to do it, back in 1999.
“Man,” Drew Timme said as he took a seat for the news conference after Gonzaga’s 87-71 win over eighth-seeded Oklahoma. “It feels good to go to the Sweet 16.”
When Mark Few arrived a few minutes later, his hair was wet. Yes, he confirmed, his players had doused him in celebration. He wouldn’t confirm if he’s done his trademark celebratory handstand yet – but he wouldn’t deny it, either.
Gonzaga later posted video proof that the handstand did, indeed, occur.
That winning feeling ?? pic.twitter.com/6vtv09ihUS
“We've been celebrating every one of these wins,” Few said. “You know, Zags go really, really hard and they prepare really hard, and after a win we celebrate hard and we know how to have a great time. And I think that's one of the things that makes our program so special.”
Maintaining that innocent enthusiasm after you’ve reached the pinnacle is not easy. Sustaining success is hard work, and the heightened expectations can become a grind. What was once considered a historic season becomes the standard, and momentous achievements become the assumption.
Sure, there’s satisfaction in there somewhere. But mostly it’s a ticking of boxes, making sure you’re doing all the things people know to expect of you. Think about a Duke or a Kentucky. You know what I’m talking about. There might be fun along the way, but is there room for joy?
Corey Kispert and Jalen Suggs of the Gonzaga Bulldogs react to beating the Oklahoma Sooners in the second round game of the 2021 NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament at Hinkle Fieldhouse on March 22, 2021. (Photo: Gregory Shamus, Getty Images)
Few has somehow managed to ensure there is.
It starts by never letting his teams forget that, in the timeline of college basketball, it wasn’t so long ago that the ‘Zags were underdogs. That what they once did to other, more established teams could just as easily be done to them.
“We're treating this game like we're a 16 seed,” Timme said. “You've got to bring that fire, because all it takes is one good game and you can be out, so we're bringing our all every single game.”
A season like this was either going to test Few’s ability to build cohesion or showcase it in its purest form and, honestly, he wasn’t sure early on which way it was going to go.
Despite the lofty expectations for Gonzaga, this was an unproven team. It had lost four of its six players who scored in double figures last season, including scorer Filip Petrusev, who also led Gonzaga in rebounds.
“I don't think at the start of the year people realized how much changeover we had,” Few said. “We lost a lot of key components from the year before.”
But the upheaval caused by COVID-19 helped Gonzaga establish chemistry, Few said.
Frankly, the ‘Zags didn’t have a choice. They haven’t been able to see their families much, if at all, the last year because of COVID restrictions, and players were wary of doing anything in their free time that could put themselves, and their team, in jeopardy.
Asked what the Gonzaga players are going to do with almost a week before their next game, Timme mentioned Xbox, saying it’s one way the team can hang out together and interact while still socially distancing.
“There is a genuine fondness between these guys, to the point – they love each other. That's not corny stuff, it's real. They care deeply about each other,” Few said. “Also, there's a tremendous amount of compatibility. There's a ton of fun-loving dudes that just love to have fun, but yet are ferocious competitors when you're keeping score. So the combination of that, I think, has worked just magic with us this entire year, and that's why it's been so fun.”
That's the point of all of this, after all. It's refreshing to see that, even now, Gonzaga hasn't lost sight of that.
Follow USA TODAY Sports columnist Nancy Armour on Twitter @nrarmour.
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