Iowa Men's Basketball

LeBron James and the basketball world know Gonzaga is tough

No. 1 Zags to face No. 3 Iowa Saturday in Sioux Falls, S.D.

Gonzaga coach Mark Few talks with the team during a timeout in the first half of an NCAA college basketball game against
Gonzaga coach Mark Few talks with the team during a timeout in the first half of an NCAA college basketball game against West Virginia, Wednesday, Dec. 2, 2020, in Indianapolis. (AP Photo/Darron Cummings)

Gonzaga is the men’s basketball “mid-major” that never needs an introduction.

This month, none other than LeBron James lauded the Zags on Twitter, saying “They tough!!! Love the way they play. Amazing pace on makes or misses, ball movement, some dogs and guys that just know how to play the game!”

The Zags — whose official nickname is the Bulldogs — bring quite a pedigree with their No. 1 ranking to Sioux Falls, S.D., Saturday when they play No. 3 Iowa.

Gonzaga won 31 or more games in each of the last four seasons and six of the last eight. It was ranked No. 1 for five weeks two seasons ago and for four weeks last season. It also enjoyed a few weeks of life at the top in 2013 and 2017.

You sometimes hear arguments about the best current golfer never to have won a major championship. In men’s college basketball, there’s no argument about the best recent program that hasn’t won an NCAA title. It’s Gonzaga.

Not that the Zags haven’t come close. They reached the 2017 title game, falling 71-65 to North Carolina. They got to the Elite Eight at the most recent NCAA tourney, in 2019. They have been to nine NCAA Sweet 16s since the last time Iowa reached one, in 1999.

In fact, Gonzaga denied the Hawkeyes a Sweet 16 berth in 2015 when it rolled over them in an NCAA second-round game in Seattle, 87-68.

Mark Few has sustained a dynasty in Spokane, Wash., at a Catholic university of about 7,500 students. Few’s record is 602-124. In his 21-plus years as the Zags’ coach, they are 291-31 in West Coast Conference regular-season competition and have won 19 WCC regular-season titles and 16 WCC tournaments.

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But Few has always tried to schedule plenty of nonconference games like Saturday’s. Last year, his team faced Oregon, Michigan, Arizona and North Carolina before starting league play.

Over Few’s tenure, the Zags have beaten three teams that were ranked No. 3 at the time, one that was No. 2, and two seasons ago they knocked off No. 1 Duke to win the Maui Invitational.

Gonzaga’s last five scheduled games were canceled because of a COVID-19 issue in the program, including one with No. 2 Baylor in Indianapolis. The Zags had already defeated ranked teams Kansas and West Virginia before they paused the season, supporting their No. 1 preseason ranking.

Since Few became the Zags’ head coach in 1999, eight of his players have been first-round NBA draft choices, four since 2016. Iowa hasn’t had a player drafted since Aaron White in 2015 and hasn’t had a first-rounder since Ricky Davis in 1998.

Gonzaga’s two 2019 first-round draftees, Rui Hachimura and Brandon Clarke, are from Japan and Canada, respectively. This season’s Zags have players from six different nations.

Gonzaga basketball is known far and wide. The Hawkeyes have as good an early-season measuring stick as they could want Saturday in Sioux Falls.

Comments: (319) 368-8840; mike.hlas@thegazette.com

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