As he sat in his office Tuesday afternoon reflecting on Gonzaga’s NCAA Tournament run to the Final Four, Boise State basketball coach Leon Rice felt like a proud father.
Rice spent 11 years as an assistant under Gonzaga head coach Mark Few and was the associate head coach from 2007-10. Gonzaga has consistently been one of the top programs in the nation, having won at least 23 games in each of Few’s first 17 years at the helm.
Despite the success, the Bulldogs have had plenty of heartbreak. There was always an asterisk when discussing Gonzaga as one of the nation’s elite programs.
The iconic shot of former Gonzaga star Adam Morrison crying on the floor after a 73-71 loss to UCLA in the 2006 Sweet Sixteen became one of the most well-known images of the decade.
Gonzaga has had a top-four seed in the NCAA Tournament six times under Few and made the tournament every year under his direction, but the team had made it past the Sweet Sixteen just once.
But Few’s 18th season is one to remember.
With a dominant 83-59 win over Xavier last weekend, No. 1 seeded Gonzaga (36-1) advanced to its first Final Four. As the Bulldogs prepare to take on No. 7 South Carolina (4:09 p.m. Saturday, CBS) with a berth in Monday’s national championship game on the line, Rice couldn’t help but remember the Bulldogs as a fledgling program.
Prior to Few being named head coach in 1999, Gonzaga had been to the NCAA Tournament twice in 48 years and had a total of eight 20-win seasons.
“We were sleeping in cars. We were driving from LA to Vegas because we couldn’t afford flights,” Rice said. “And now they’re in the Final Four? It’s one of the most remarkable stories in sports.”
Rice is not the only Boise basketball personality with Gonzaga connections.
Former Bishop Kelly High and Idaho Stampede star Cory Violette played four seasons at Gonzaga from 2000-2004, averaging 10.4 points and 6.8 rebounds per game. The Bulldogs made it to the Sweet Sixteen in Violette’s freshman season but failed to advance past the second round any of his other three years.
“It’s incredibly exciting. This community up here has stayed really close. Long time coming? Yeah, but we’re not thinking about it like that. We’re just excited that it’s happening. All the old guys get to feel like they’re a part,” Violette said. “I haven’t talked to too many Zags who aren’t going.”
The feeling of family, the sense that an invitation into Few’s hectic world is always open, is what has helped define Gonzaga’s success. Living in Spokane, Violette still stays in contact with Few; the two go fishing from time to time.
Even after winning the biggest game of his life, Few made sure to let Rice know he was along for the ride.
“When you win a game like that, you get hundreds and hundreds of texts. So I didn’t bother (texting Few). But then he reached out to me right away, like, ‘Hey, we’re making sure you’re getting down there,’ ” Rice said. “That kind of deal is pretty special. That’s who he is. He kind of always finds his way back to center.”
As for Gonzaga’s “breakthrough,” Rice and Violette attribute Gonzaga’s Final Four run to two things: defense and personnel.
“They’ve always been an elite offensive system,” Rice said. “But when they became an elite defensive system, that’s when it took another jump.”
The Bulldogs’ combination of guards and big men creates a roster with little to no weaknesses, according to Violette. Guards Nigel Williams-Goss (16.7 points per game) and Jordan Matthews (10.7) combined with 7-footers Przemek Karnowski (12.2) and Zach Collins (9.9) create a stellar rotation.
“They have all the pieces. They have an incredible backcourt, which Gonzaga has always had,” Violette said. “(But) they’re enormous. ... The NCAA tournament is a fickle game, but they match up with anybody. They’ve certainly got a chance to win a national title.”
Rice already arrived in Phoenix for the Final Four. He also has connections to two of the other national semifinalists: he served as an assistant at Oregon and his Boise State team played South Carolina two seasons ago.
But there is only one team in Arizona that has Rice’s heart.
“We all kind of got sentimental about it, looking back where we started, where it came from, where we started as coaches. Now Mark’s in the Final Four,” Rice said. “And it gets you excited about doing our jobs. It’s not an impossible task.”
ANOTHER LOCAL GONZAGA CONNECTION
Kyle Dranginis, who led Skyview High to a 4A state title in 2009, played 143 games for Gonzaga from 2011-16. He’s playing his first professional season in Denmark.
Dranginis averaged 6.5 points, 4.5 rebounds and 3.1 assists as a senior at Gonzaga, helping the Bulldogs reach the Sweet 16. He finished his career in Spokane tied for first in school history in career wins (122).
Men’s NCAA Final Four
▪ No. 7 South Carolina (26-10) vs. No. 1 Gonzaga (36-1), 4:09 p.m. Saturday, CBS
▪ No. 3 Oregon (33-5) vs. No. 1 North Carolina (31-7), 6:49 p.m. Saturday, CBS
▪ Championship game, 7 p.m. Monday, CBS