STILLWATER, Okla. -- For the past few weeks, Mark Few’s friends, along with a handful of basketball analysts and fans, have been asking the Gonzaga coach the same question.
Is this your best team ever?
Always easy-going, Few smiles and offers a few nice comments about this year’s collection of Bulldogs. Deep down, though, he wishes the speculation would stop.
“It’s a little frustrating when everyone starts doing that [so early],” Few said. “That’s going to be determined in March.”
Still, if they continue to exhibit the toughness they showed in Monday’s 69-68 win over No. 22 Oklahoma State in Stillwater, not even Few will be surprised if the Zags live up to the lofty expectations that so many have already bestowed upon them.
Gary Bell's 3-pointer with 35.7 seconds remaining gave No. 10 Gonzaga a 67-65 lead and a momentum it would never relinquish in one of the most exciting games of the nonconference season.
Marcus Smart was fouled on Oklahoma State’s ensuing possession, but the Cowboys guard missed both free throws with nine seconds left. Kevin Pangos swished a pair of foul shots to make it 69-65 with four seconds remaining before OSU rounded out the scoring on a meaningless 3-pointer by Phil Forte at the buzzer.
“We’re feeling pretty good,” said 7-foot Gonzaga center Kelly Olynyk, who scored all 21 of his points in the second half. “But we’re definitely not at our peak right now. We still have a lot of things we can tighten up and improve on.”
That’s a scary thought for Gonzaga’s future foes -- and an encouraging one for Few. The 14th-year coach has captured 11 conference titles and advanced to four Sweet 16s.
Still, as good as the coach with the .796 winning percentage has been, the most glaring thing lacking from Few’s resumé is an appearance in the Final Four.
Perhaps this season more than any, Few has a chance to conquer that feat.
Not many teams in the country are as well-rounded as Gonzaga. The Zags have one of the country’s top scoring point guards in Pangos, the son of a high school coach who is praised for his basketball IQ. Pangos scored a team-high 23 points Monday and had 31 last week against Baylor. He’s made 11 of his past 17 3-pointers.
Alongside Pangos on the wing is Bell, a defensive standout who plays his best in big games. Wing Mike Hart averages just 1.9 points, but his hustle plays and willingness to do the little things are invaluable to the Zags. On Monday, it was Hart’s screen that freed up Bell to take the game-altering 3-pointer. Before Monday, Hart had just one turnover in 170 minutes of action.
Gonzaga’s biggest strength, however, is in the paint, where Olynyk and Elias Harris combine to average 30.6 points and 13.7 boards. The Zags out-rebounded Oklahoma State 37-21 and outscored the Cowboys 18-8 on second-chance points.
“At the end of the day,” Few said, “our bigs are our bread and butter. Sam and Kelly are fourth-year juniors. Elias is a senior. That experience helps. They’re legitimate tough guys.”
Few would never say it, but it’s almost as if Gonzaga doesn’t have any holes or major flaws. Athletes, scorers, height, strength, experience and depth.
What’s not to like?
“Well,” Few says, “sometimes we fall a little too in love with the jump shot.”
“But we’re good jump-shooters,” says Few, grinning just a bit. “These guys can do a bunch of different things. We can monkey around with different kinds of ball screens because we can pick and pop, our bigs can pass and we can power you and jam it in with all of those bigs. Tonight we had to play zone. We hadn’t had to do that much at all this year, but we did it on the fly and did a good job with it.
“It’s a very cerebral team. It lets me have fun coaching.”
Not to say that Few hasn’t had fun in the past. He’s coached plenty of good teams, and also some great ones. Those squads brought a lot of smiles. But there’s something about this group, Few says, something that gives him such a positive feeling that it almost seems spooky.
“There’s a legitimate chemistry on this team that you could see if you hung out with us for a day or two,” Few says. “I know a lot of coaches say that, but with this group it’s really, really strong.
“Nobody’s agenda is on the NBA, even though we’ve got some guys that will eventually play there. No one cares that Kelly got 21 tonight or that Kevin got 31 the other night. They just play for one another, for the team.
“They’re great guys to travel with. They’re fun to be around. I have no issues at all with any of them.”
Instead of going their separate ways after each practice, Gonzaga’s players hang out in the team lounge and watch television and play video games. Or they may gather at guard David Stockton's place -- “The Basketball House,” they call it -- where they take turns cooking dinner.
The Zags gained fame during the fall by producing a “trick shots” video that has been viewed nearly 97,000 times on YouTube.
“We just love being together,” Harris said. “We know every thing there is to know about one another. It helps on the court.”
That was obvious Monday, when the Zags maintained their poise in one of the most intimidating road environments in the country. Oklahoma State was 180-4 against nonconference opponents at Gallagher-Iba Arena dating back to 1987. The Cowboys have knocked off a ranked team at home in 14 straight seasons, and they did everything in their power to make Gonzaga the 15th victim Monday.
Billionaire booster T. Boone Pickens even bought 4,000 tickets and distributed them free to anyone who wanted to attend the game. Gallagher-Iba Arena was filled to near capacity with 13,611 fans, but none of it fazed the Zags in a game that featured eight ties and nine lead changes.
Pangos scored 18 of his team-high 23 points before intermission to give the Zags a 32-31 halftime lead. In the second half it was Olynyk who came up big with 12 straight points in the waning minutes, thwarting numerous attempts by Oklahoma State to seize control. The victory was Gonzaga’s fifth this season against a team from the Big 12.
The Zags, who improved to 13-1, open West Coast Conference play Thursday at Pepperdine.
“One through 15, we’re all really close,” Pangos said. “When you get into an environment like this, it brings you that much closer. You have that much more trust in your teammates.
“You go to war with them like they’re your family.”