- Bud Withers
As the Zags gear up for another March Madness appearance, it's an appropriate time for the Gonzaga faithful to look at the program's path forged over the better part of two decades.
Former Seattle P-I and Times sportswriter Bud Withers offers an extended retrospective of that time in his latest book, Glory Hounds. The Kennel confessional digs deeper into the personalities of those who have stayed at Gonzaga since Withers' 2002 book BraveHearts. And as the book elaborates, while things change around them, certain things remain constant.
"If 18 years is a generation, they've been playing high-level, NCAA Tournament-quality basketball for a generation now," Withers says. "So I just thought it was time to dig in on the personalities and the whole phenomenon."
As Withers covered Gonzaga basketball and prodded into the inner mechanics of what makes this program unique, he found a unified approach to building and maintaining it. "I'm amazed with the continuity in the coaching staff and the athletic administration," he says. "Brick by brick, they've been able to be a more appealing option to recruits."
Withers examines major program moments and personalities not only with hindsight, but also a level of present and prospective contemplation. A chapter dedicated to the fateful decision of head coach Mark Few to turn down a job offer from an old friend at the University of Oregon is followed by a revealing profile on potential coach-in-waiting Tommy Lloyd.
"If you go back to when Tommy was this hustling, young, aggressive assistant," Withers says, "him connecting with Ronny Turiaf kind of started the whole European and international influx, and that has been huge for Gonzaga. You could honestly make the argument that Gonzaga is the most proficient recruiter of international talent."
In terms of this year and this team, Withers sees a lot to be hopeful for in the NCAA Tournament: "I think overall, this team is more talented than any previous Gonzaga team."
There are several ways to build a successful team in the tournament, but defense is a great place to start. This season, the Zags do have a great defense, holding opponents to a 36.8 field goal percentage, the second lowest in Division I basketball. That should serve them well, Withers says.
"They've had teams — let's face it — that couldn't stop people enough," he says. "I think there's a collective chip on their shoulder."
Withers sees the Zags as having many desirable components for a team looking to go on an NCAA Tournament run: "You need balance. Some people say you need three NBA-quality guys. Przemek [Karnowski] can and will play on an NBA team if he chooses to, rather than go to Europe. I think the two kids coming off of the bench in [Zach] Collins and [Killian] Tillie are NBA-quality, even though they're freshmen. We don't know about [Nigel] Williams-Goss, but he's certainly a high-level college guy that you can win with."
In looking back at how the program has grown in its 19-year tournament streak, the expectations for a Jesuit school with 7,000 students in isolated Spokane seem varied.
"To satisfy critics, the obvious thing is to go farther in the tournament at least once," Withers says. "As mundane as it sounds, just to keep the thing going is a really formidable accomplishment. The idea that this school could go to 18, and now 19, straight tournaments is absurd. Sure, it would be a new frontier to get to a Final Four, but just the sustenance of what they've done in itself continues to be a major accomplishment." ♦