The unique way Mark Few and his staff built Gonzaga into a juggernaut
There is no one “right” way to build a team in college basketball.
What works at Kentucky (recruiting “one-and-done” guys) would never fly at Villanova, where they recruit almost exclusively four-year players. Yet both teams can still win at an insanely high clip, as each has taken home national championships in the past six seasons.
Still, when it comes to “roster building” there might not be a club that — at least in this specific season — has had a more unique approach than Gonzaga. Take some four-year high school players, sprinkle in some European talent, add a few transfers and throw in a potential one-and-done for good measure, and you have a club good enough to win a national championship.
“There are different ways to be successful,” assistant coach Tommy Lloyd said Sunday in Glendale, referencing all the ways which the school has attracted players. “It’s just a different model.”
Gonzaga’s roster bears that out. It features four players who began careers at other four-year schools, with guys from as far away as Poland, France, Denmark and Japan filling out the roster. Then, of course, there are several who come from traditional American high schools, including freshman phenom Zach Collins.
This year specifically, the Zags have played the transfer market near-perfectly, with Nigel Williams-Goss (Washington), Jordan Mathews (California) and Johnathan Williams (Missouri) all taking on big roles with this team.
Those three are also a great example of why not every transfer is necessarily a “bad” thing. In a world where folks believe there is a “transfer epidemic” in college basketball (with over 700 players switching schools last offseason), it’s the opposite at Gonzaga.
Williams-Goss’ numbers are basically on par with what he was doing at Washington two years ago, while the numbers of Mathews and Williams have gone down since arriving in Spokane. Despite it, all three seem perfectly happy to trade glory for the success the team is having this year.
“Sometimes transfers get a bad rap, just because there are so many,” Williams-Goss said. “But I do think each one of us is in a unique position. I think those of us that have transferred here have done it with a common goal to win at a high level.
“We understood it was going to take sacrifices, maybe not as many minutes, maybe not as many shots that we’d get in the past. But I think if you transfer for the right reasons it can be really productive.”
Then there are the international players.
Through the years, Lloyd has become known as a bit of a savant in college basketball circles, as the recruiter who has lured everyone from Ronny Turiaf (France), Kelly Olynyk (Canada) and Domantas Sabonis (Lithuania) to Spokane. This year’s roster is buoyed by senior star Przemek Karnowski (Poland) and freshman Killian Tillie (France), the player who hit two key free throws to ice the game late in Saturday’s semifinal win over South Carolina.
Going international has given the Zags a distinct edge. They can bring NBA-caliber talent to Spokane without having to fight off the Kentucky’s, Duke’s and Kansas’s to get them.
“Some of these guys are McDonald’s All-American-talent,” Lloyd said. “You can’t tell me Sabonis wouldn’t have been a McDonald’s All-American. [Przemek] Karnowski was a great player when he was young. [Former Gonzaga guard Kevin] Pangos was a great player when he was young.”
Add it all up and you’ve got the team you see today, a club with the size, skill and talent to match-up with — and beat — just about anyone in college basketball.
The best part? Despite all the new faces and all those unique backgrounds, the roster has come together for one common goal: To win a national championship.
“Just when you start maybe thinking — and I’m as guilty of this as anybody — that the generation of kids coming up are entitled and spoiled and don’t want to do this and don’t want to do that,” Mark Few said Sunday. “The sacrifices these guys have made on this team to put us in this position — and every one has made a sacrifice because we’re deep and good.
“I’ve got seven or eight guys that can score 15, 16 points a game on you. But it’s not going to all happen on the same night. And these guys have really bought into that. And it’s just been a special, special year because of that.”