GLENDALE, ARIZ. – Getting a chance to spend a few days watching his former program reach its first national title game has been rewarding for former Gonzaga coach Dan Monson.
Monson said he has no regrets about leaving for the University of Minnesota after the Zags reached the Elite Eight in 1999. They weren’t showing signs of becoming elite like they are now under his former assistant Mark Few.
Regardless of the outcome of Monday’s NCAA championship game against North Carolina at University of Phoenix Stadium, Gonzaga will be back competing on this stage again, Monson says.
“One of the big reasons why I came to Minnesota is because I thought you could sustain it better there,” the Long Beach State coach said. “Even more incredible than sustaining it now, what Gonzaga has done is gotten better inch by inch. Mark keeps saying block by block of building the house. Because I think in the last 15 years I’ve said probably 10 times to him that this was his best team. This one is a little bit better than the team that went to the Elite Eight two years ago. And this team is a little bit better than the team that was a No. 1 seed four years ago.”
Monson, who was Gonzaga's coach for two seasons from 1997-99 and an assistant from 1988-1997, couldn't imagine it becoming an elite program back then. But the Zags are "just playing at a different level as far as finances, as far as exposure, as far as the talent that we were realistically could get,” he said.
But that’s not the case anymore.
“The product, the brand, the players, the team that we're putting out there on the floor we feel can compete with anybody in the country,” Few said. “We understand we don't have that tradition that dates back 40, 50, 60 years. And so we defer to that. But we also think that this is the national brand and national entity and we're not going anywhere.”
Gonzaga’s recruiting class ranked 15th nationally last year, including the first ever McDonald’s All-American to sign with the Zags out of high school. Zach Collins, a 7-foot freshman from Colorado, is arguably the team’s most talented player and NBA prospect.
Collins and French native Killian Tillie were the only members of the class to see significant playing time. You know you’re an elite program when you make national championship game after redshirting a couple of four-star prospects in guard Zach Norvell Jr. and 6-11 Jacob Larsen, who suffered a knee injury in the preseason.
The first ever Japanese player to be in the Final Four, 6-8 freshman Rui Hachimura, was also part of the 2017 recruiting class. And Few said last week that Hachimura has “got probably as high an upside as anybody in our program.”
Monson couldn’t even imagine recruiting four-star players, let alone top international prospects back when he was a Gonzaga assistant and eventually the head coach. Few said the resources and money put into the Zags now went from “Zero to 500 percent” from back then, which is proof with the team’s $7.4 million operating budget. North Carolina’s is $7.5 million annually.
The best thing Monson had going for him in recruiting in the 1990s was using alum John Stockton’s name and presence around the Gonzaga program.
“Stockton was huge,” he said. “Because he was prominent in the NBA and he was such a Zag. He would do anything within the rules to help recruiting wise. Back then things were really stringent that way. But he played pickup games in the offseason with the guys all of the time. That in itself was very instrumental. Guys would come on a visit and see him playing with our guys.”
You hardly have heard Stockton’s name even mentioned much at the Final Four. It’s about Few and what he’s built since Monson left him the reigns.
So can Gonzaga make it to the title game again? The Zags only have two seniors in Przemek Karnowski and Jordan Matthews. All-American guard Nigel Williams-Goss and leading rebounder Jonathan Williams are juniors. Collins has a chance to be special if he's not a One-and-Done player.
Monson said it’s possible, but it has to be the right matchups again.
“It’s not just who has the best team,” Monson said. “You look at Gonzaga’s draw this year. It’s by far been the most favorable for them. They’ve taken advantage of it. They’ve got a really good team.”
UNC guard could've played with a Gopher
North Carolina guard Kenny Williams remembers how excited he was to be part of Shaka Smart’s Virginia Commonwealth 2015 recruiting class with Jordan Murphy.
Williams and Murphy were both expecting to be impact freshmen together at VCU, but Smart changed their plans after he left for the Texas job two years ago Sunday.
“It kind of shocked us when it happened,” Williams said from the Final Four. “I texted back and forth with (Murphy and Tevin Mack) when it happened to see what they were going to do. We talked about it a little bit. We all kind of had a mindset about getting our release. We wished each other luck and were gone from there. It kind of hit us all hard when he left. It was a rough time.”
It turned out to be best thing for Murphy and Williams, not so much for Mack.
The 6-foot-6 forward from South Carolina followed Smart to Texas. He averaged a team-best 14.8 points in the first 15 games for the Longhorns this season, but he left the program after being suspended twice.
Murphy, a 6-6 forward, signed with the Gophers and ended up earning All-Big Ten freshman team honors last season. He took a step forward with Minnesota this year, earning All-Big Ten honors on an NCAA tournament team.
“I had seen him play when we all signed,” Williams said of Murphy. “I knew he had a great game. It’s kind of no surprise now seeing what he’s doing on the court.”
Williams, a 6-foot-4 sophomore from Virginia, averaged 6.2 points and 3.3 rebounds this season. He was arguably the team’s best perimeter defender. He suffered a right knee injury in practice in mid-February and was lost for the season. But Williams has enjoyed the Final Four experience for the second straight season and seeing teammates get a chance to play for a national title again.
“When you come here that’s kind of what you expect to make tournament runs and to win a championship,” he said. “I got lucky. We were just talking about it in practice, being appreciative of being able to be here again. Some people don’t get to go once. And we’re here two years in a row.”
Gophers coaches at Final Four
Three former Gophers coaches are at the Final Four with Monson, Clem Haskins and Tubby Smith. But Minnesota's current coach Richard Pitino decided not to make the trip to Phoenix.
"I don’t usually go unless a team I’m coaching or Louisville is in it," he said. "I’d rather stay home and spend some time with the family."