Gonzaga made the Elite Eight in 1999, the same year a sweet-shooting forward named Wally Szczerbiak lead Miami (Ohio) to the Sweet 16. That's how long the Bulldogs have been a national power in basketball. Mark Few took over the next season, leading Gonzaga to 13 straight NCAA Tournament appearances and 11 conference championships.
However, a funny thing happened along the way. As Few's teams became more talented, they starting having less success in March. Gonzaga made the Sweet 16 three straight years from 1999-2001; in the 10 years since, they've made only two more. As a result, one of the more remarkable coaching jobs in recent college basketball history has slipped somewhat under the national radar.
Few's first teams in Spokane didn't have much NBA talent. Richie Frahm, a sweet-shooting combo guard, had a five-year career in the NBA, but he wasn't drafted, and didn't make the league until he was 26 years old. And if Few hadn't been able to attract elite players, Gonzaga would have slipped back into the pack of mid-major teams who had a moment in the sun in March.
Instead, a small private school in the Pacific Northwest whose basketball history began and ended with John Stockton suddenly became an NBA factory. Over the last eight years, Adam Morrison, Austin Daye and Dan Dickau have been drafted in the first round, Ronny Turiaf and Robert Sacre were taken in the second while Jeremy Pargo has stuck in the league as an undrafted free agent.
Now, 14 years after Gonzaga was five points away from upsetting eventual national champ UConn in the Elite Eight, Few has assembled the most talented team in school history. The secret to his success has been his ability to find international talent: Turiaf is from France and Sacre hails from Canada. This season, the Bulldogs have players from Canada, the United States, the Ivory Coast, Poland and Germany.
Gonzaga is never going to be able to beat out the blue-chip programs for McDonald's All-Americans, so Few and his staff have become adept at finding talent all over the world. That's easier said than done: Not only do they have to worry about the types of amateurism violations that eventually sunk Enes Kanter's career at Kentucky, but they have to sell kids who could be making six-figure salaries on becoming (and staying) college students far away from home.
Their success with international players has created a virtuous cycle, as they can pitch future prospects with a culture and locker room unlike any other school in the country. To become an elite program at a school without many natural resources, you have to be somewhat of a contrarian. Jim Boeheim used the 2-3 zone to turn Syracuse into a national power; Few used foreign players to do the same at Gonzaga.
But, like Boeheim, until his team wins "the big one," Few's reputation won't catch up with his accomplishments. Before the NCAA Tournament begins, college basketball is a fairly minor sport, with very little of what happens between November-February garnering much national attention. As a result, coaches and teams are judged almost solely by how they play in a one-and-done elimination tournament.
That dynamic adds an incredible amount of dramatic tension in March, but it's not a great way to judge an entire season. After all, the whole point of "March Madness" is that anything can happen. There's a lot of room for variance in a one-and-done elimination tournament with 40-minute games and a 35-second shot clock. It isn't the NBA playoffs; it's very rare for the best team in the country to cut down the nets at the Final Four.
As a fan, all you can hope for is that your team is in a position to make a deep run in the Tournament and that the ball bounces your way from there. That's Few's most impressive achievement at Gonzaga: he's never won fewer than 23 games in a season, and despite not being able to count on many signature wins in conference play, his teams are ranked in the Top 25 and in the mix for a good seed every year. It's one thing for David to beat a Goliath; it's another thing entirely for him to become one.
Here are our scouting reports on Gonzaga's top NBA Draft prospects this season.
Shot creation: Karnowski is a 7'1, 305-pound freshman center from Poland with surprisingly quick feet and a great feel for the game. He has a fairly advanced low-post game and knows how to use his bulk to create easy shots in the paint. He's got great touch around the rim, although his lack of explosiveness will make finishing more of a problem at the next level. He's valuable off the ball as well, as he has great hands and knows how to find open spots on the floor and draw fouls. (Averaging nine points on 67 percent shooting, attempting 3.5 free throws a game)
Outside shot: He rarely takes shots outside of the paint, a smart move considering how efficient he is in college but something he'll need to improve in the NBA. Not having confidence in a 10-15 foot jumper makes the game a lot harder for a center, particularly a player like Karnowski who plays mostly below the rim. His free throw percentage is shockingly low, something he'll need to address before he goes to the next level. (Shooting 67/0/35)
Defense: Karnowski has elite size for an NBA center, much less a collegiate one. While you would expect him to be a liability on pick-and-roll defense, he moves his feet well and he should develop into at least a serviceable defender in space. Even though he doesn't have great athleticism, his sheer size allows him to block shots and he knows how to play defense with his hands straight up. (Averaging 0.5 blocks a game in 14 minutes)
Rebounding: Like most of his statistics, Karnowski's rebounding numbers are artificially depressed by sharing minutes on a deep Gonzaga frontline. His defensive rebounding percentage (14.1) needs to improve, but his size already makes a huge impact on the offensive end (13.3). (Averaging 3.3 rebounds a game)
Passing: His statistics may not show it yet, but Karnowski a very gifted passer who can have offense run through him in the high or the low post. He has a very European game: he knows where everyone is on the floor and he has surprised his teammates at times with some of his passes. (Averaging 0.5 assists on 1.2 turnovers a game)
Best case: Marc Gasol
Worst case: Kosta Koufos
Shot creation: Olynyk is a 7', 240-pound big man from Canada who likes to spot up on the three-point line and use the threat of his jumper to attack off the dribble. It sounds ridiculous and it isn't always graceful but he's managed to become a very effective offensive player. After taking a redshirt season last year, he's reshaped his body and become more comfortable playing in the paint. He's also developed a turnaround jumper he can use to score with his back-to-the-basket. (Averaging 15 points on 68 percent shooting, attempting 2.5 free throws a game)
Shooting: The strength of Olynyk's game, although he has worked diligently to expand his offensive arsenal beyond spotting up. He's taken only six three-pointers this season, but he went 12-27 from beyond the arc two seasons ago. Andrew Bynum would be jealous: Olynyk is a legit stretch 5. (Shooting 68/17/70)
Defense: Olynyk doesn't have great defensive instincts, either on the perimeter or in the paint, but his size and athleticism should eventually make him at least decent defensively. To become a starter at the next level, Olynyk will need to be able to hold his ground as a low-post defender at the 5 or be effective enough offensively that the team can live with his defense at the 4. (Averaging 0.8 blocks a game in 25 minutes)
Rebounding: As Olynyk has played closer to the basket in his time in Spokane, he's become much more of an asset on the boards. He's a much stronger and more physical player than he was two to three years ago. (Averaging 6.6 rebounds a game)
Passing: Olynyk is comfortable playing with the ball in his hands, but he's not a guy who can make too many plays for others. He struggles with double-teams and he'll need to get stronger with the ball as the year goes on. (Averaging 1.0 assists and 2.8 turnovers a game)
Best case: Mehmet Okur
Worst case: Byron Mullens
Elias Harris: He's a fourth-year senior whose grown his game considerably in that time, but unless he develops a consistent outside shot, he has little chance of playing in the NBA. At 6'7 and 220 pounds, he's a mismatch nightmare in college, posting up smaller players and taking bigger ones off the dribble. However, he'll have to play primarily at the three in the NBA and the only way a player with his athletic ability can survive there is with a good outside shot.. He'd be an asset offensively, especially on a second unit, if he could force defenses to guard him out to the three-point line, so he might be able to play his way into the NBA later in his professional career. (16 points, 8 rebounds and 2 assists on 55/21/76 shooting)
Sam Dower: His production in limited minutes is similar to Karnowski's, but because his size (6'9, 255 pounds) doesn't immediately translate to the next level, you'd like to see what he can do with a bigger role. A junior power forward with NBA-caliber size and athleticism as well as a good-looking perimeter shot, he's been squeezed by sharing time with so many other elite big men in his time at Gonzaga. Dower would get 30-35 minutes a game at almost any school in the country. (8 points and 4 rebounds on 62/0/60 shooting)
Gary Bell Jr.: Bell is a very efficient offensive player with a good amount of athleticism, but it's hard to get a great feel for his NBA chances because he plays so much off the ball. A 6'1, 205-pound sophomore, he'd have to play as a PG at the next level. However, even if he isn't a true PG, he may be able to carve out a pro career as a scoring point who can play great defense at the position. (10 points and 2 assists on 45/39/76 shooting)
Kevin Pangos: The sophomore guard is an explosive scorer with a good skill-set, but at 6'2 and 180 pounds and without a great wingspan, he's going to have a lot of problems defensively at the next level. As a result, he'll need his game to be completely polished to play in the NBA, where he would probably be a back-up PG. Playing for the Canadian national team may help him grow as a player as well. (10 points and 4 assists on 38/36/79 shooting)
David Stockton: He's not really an NBA prospect, but I'm going to give him a shout-out anyway because he's a very fun player to watch. John's son is a daring passer with great court vision, but at 5'10 and 165 pounds, the redshirt junior is small and unathletic for college, much less the NBA. (4 points, 3 assists on 43/38/42 shooting)