ORLANDO - It was once deemed unthinkable for a school from a mid-major conference to be mentioned in the same breath as traditional national powers in Division I men’s college basketball. A deep run in the NCAA Tournament by schools with lower annual enrollment and bigger spending budgets was merely just a “Cinderella” story. Nobody truly felt they can sustain that level of success year in and year out.
That narrative has dramatically changed in recent years, thanks to the Gonzaga Bulldogs and their string of incredible success over the last two decades. Led by Mark Few, the school’s men’s basketball head coach since 1999, Gonzaga has defied the odds and transformed into one of the premier college basketball schools in the nation.
To accentuate just how amazing of an achievement this is, consider this: Currently, there are a little over 7,400 students enrolled at Gonzaga, located in Spokane, Washington. That’s roughly 62,000 fewer than the University of Central Florida, approximately 45,000 fewer than the University of Florida, and about 24,000 fewer than Florida State University.
The Bulldogs have held the top spot in the AP poll at various points in six of the last 10 seasons, including last year when they were undefeated through their first 31 games before losing in the national title game to the Baylor Bears. That squad was led by freshman sensation Jalen Suggs, now a guard for the Orlando Magic.
“One of a kind,” he said of his experience in his one year at the school. “Even though we didn’t have the outcome we wanted, I wouldn’t change anything for the world. The relationships that I built, the experiences that I got, the amount that they helped me grow up from a young high schooler to a young man – I couldn’t be more thankful for them. I had the year of my life.”
Suggs knew during his junior year of high school in Minneapolis that he was going to play at Gonzaga. He had to keep it a secret though until it was time to announce it a year later. The biggest draw for him was the family-like environment and how tied together everyone was in that community and around the college campus.
“For me, the biggest thing was the people,” he said. “Guys that you want to come in the gym with, be able to laugh and have a good time. It makes going to work that much easier, especially in a COVID season when that’s pretty much the only people you see. Then the coaching staff are amazing. I had COVID, and coach Few locked down the basement at his house and let me stay there. B. (Brian) Michaelson is like family. Our families talk all the time. Tommy (Lloyd), who is at Arizona now, is great people. We are all still connected, and we all talk. I think the family piece – and it truly is a family there – was the biggest influence for me.”
There are nine active players in the NBA who played at Gonzaga, including Indiana Pacers forward and two-time NBA All-Star Domantas Sabonis, Detroit Pistons forward Kelly Olynyk, Memphis Grizzlies forward Brandon Clarke, and three Washington Wizards -- sharpshooter Corey Kispert, forward Rui Hachimura, and two-way contract player Joel Ayayi. The most famous Bulldog of all time, though, is Hall of Famer John Stockton, who spent four seasons there in the early 1980s.
The first time Gonzaga made the NCAA Tournament was in 1995, under then head coach Dan Fitzgerald. Since Few replaced Dan Monson in 1999, they haven’t been left out of a single one. That’s 22 straight NCAA Tournament berths and counting. Last season was the second time in the school’s history they reached the national final. In 2017, also as a tournament No. 1 seed, they advanced that far, losing to the North Carolina Tar Heels in the championship game. The Bulldogs have advanced to at least the regional semifinals in the last six NCAA Tournaments. They were projected to be a No. 1 seed in the 2020 tournament, but that had to be cancelled because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
As anticipated, the Bulldogs are championship contenders again this year. At 19-2, with their only defeats so far coming against Duke and Alabama, they rank No. 2 in the nation behind 22-1 Auburn.
Suggs, averaging 12.6 points, 3.8 rebounds and 4.3 assists in his rookie NBA campaign through 34 games, isn’t at all surprised Gonzaga is again knocking on the door for their elusive first basketball title. With some of his college teammates still there, he is cheering them on from afar.
“It’s just great to be a part of that family and say I am a part of a group that went there and was able to get my education there, hoop, and be a part of the Bulldog family forever,” he said. “That means a lot to me because the guys that have come through there, they are all still close. Everyone comes back to Spokane some time during the summer, the offseason, or whenever they have time. That’s something I can’t wait to do this offseason. It means a lot to be a part of that group.”