What Gonzaga's first Final Four means to Mark Few's legacy

SAN JOSE, Calif. -- When the Gonzaga Bulldogs arrive at the Final Four in Phoenix this week, they will do so at the head of a large navy and red cavalcade. You can almost picture an actual procession: coaches; players; trainers; staffers; students; former players; former students; family members; fans; fishing buddies; the entire city of Spokane, Washington; the whole of the West Coast Conference; the Bulldog Band; Spike the mascot -- all skipping along in a giddy cartoon caravan.

You can almost see it, right? And if you could, you would see Gonzaga coach Mark Few, the man responsible for the Carthaginian scope of this retinue, leading the convoy from the front.

What you would not see, whether riding along on Few's back or skulking along at the rear, is a monkey. You would not see a monkey anywhere.

If this imaginary road trip has one rule, that is it: No primates allowed.

Few's path to his first Final Four has been decades in the making, enough to turn what began as an upstart Cinderella story into a cliched tale of a great coach who, for whatever reason, couldn't ascend the final ladder to the Final Four, and who must carry that weight at all times. Which is where Few sat last week, just after his team's brutal 61-58 win over West Virginia, as the tiresome question appeared in a news conference yet again:

Like you said earlier, 40 minutes away from a Final Four. What would it mean for you to finally get that monkey off your back?

"First of all, I don't know that I have a monkey on my back," Few replied. "I certainly don't wake up with one or walk around with one. I don't think these guys think I have one. I don't think my wife thinks I have one, or anybody in my family, close friends. Fishing buddies never talk about it. So those are the only people that really matter to me.

"It would be phenomenal to get these guys, this team that I love deeply, the experience to go to a Final Four," he said, before extending that status to former players and the surrounding community. "But it's not about me and my monkeys and my dogs and my cats. It's about them."

The ban on metaphorical monkeys isn't new. It is not a product of Gonzaga's long-awaited breakthrough against Xavier on Saturday, or of its arrival at the 2017 Final Four this week. For Few, it is a long-standing, sincerely felt maxim that no college basketball season can be defined solely by its end.

When it comes to the NCAA tournament -- or a coach's success, or his "legacy" writ large -- this is the only sane way to live.

COLLEGE BASKETBALL HAS never been smarter. From the inside out, the way it is discussed and played has never been more nuanced. The elegant simplicity of per-possession metrics has fueled the spread of "advanced" statistical analysis in a way that would have seemed far-fetched even a decade ago. Tools such as KenPom's system and Synergy have revolutionized the way coaches, scouts and writers understand how good teams are, and why, with mind-blowing specificity.

This infusion of data has likewise helped internalize the concept of sample size. If you're working with better data, you want more of it; the more of it you have, the better your evaluation will be. Gonzaga's sample size is rather large. The Bulldogs are KenPom's top-ranked team this season and have ranked in the top 25 in every season since 2012.

This is easy stuff. It's wonderfully straightforward. And it remains conveniently forgotten every time the calendar flips over into March.

Consider how often this has happened in the past three weeks alone. The ACC was the "best conference of all time" before it lost nine of its 10 tournament teams by the end of the first weekend. Kansas can win 13 straight Big 12 titles, an almost unthinkable testament to modern consistent success, and have to fend off dumb questions about NCAA tournament "struggles" after its ninth Elite Eight appearance in that span. Explanations like this shouldn't need to exist. Yet, despite it all, they remain necessary.

The truth is, the NCAA tournament is insane. It is a series of single-elimination games at mostly neutral sites. Its results are subject to the whims of seeding and geography and matchups and hot hands. Outcomes can have very little to do with process.

It is often said, possibly apocryphally, that after legendary UNC coach Dean Smith won his first national title in 1982, a reporter told him the victory validated his career, to which Smith scoffed.

"It's one and done," Kentucky coach John Calipari, who has been to more Elite Eights and Final Fours than any coach in the country since the start of his tenure at UK, said in 2012. "It's not best of seven. It's not best of five. It's not best of three. It's one game. ... If you're up at bat enough, you give yourself the best chance of doing it."

Most coaches recognize the fallacy of judging their team's season by how it ends. Some play along. Some -- perhaps those most driven to reach the valedictory milestone they are repeatedly told they lack -- even buy in.

Few never has. Not in 1999, when Gonzaga, where Few was a top assistant, broke through to the Elite Eight, planting the seeds for the next two decades of success. Not in 2006, after Few had assumed head duties and built the program into a consistent winner and saw his Adam Morrison-led team lose a Sweet 16 heartbreaker to UCLA. Not in 2013, when the Zags earned their first-ever No. 1 seed, only to catch red hot Final Four-bound Wichita State (which went 35-1 the following season, by the way) in the second round.

Not in 2015, when Few, with another elite team, was fully beset by silly narratives on tournament success and promptly offered the purest distillation of his philosophy on a misguided narrative.

"Are you kidding me?" Few said a few weeks before an Elite Eight loss to eventual champion Duke. "The tournament is a crapshoot. It shouldn't be everything. It's such a shallow thing to pin everything on."

THIS REFUSAL IS ABOUT more than the inherent insanity of the NCAA tournament. It's about who gets to draw the line between success and failure -- who gets to strap a monkey to your back.

For Few's program, which has spent 20 years doing things no small program hailing from the mid-major-sized West Coast Conference is supposed to be able to do, that line has shifted often. Which is why, at some point, as Few turned down job opportunities as alluring as blueblood Indiana and hometown favorite and alma mater Oregon, he set down much broader definition of where that line is.

"I'm schlepping along right now, like, vastly far behind my father, who is 54 years a Presbyterian minister, man," Few said. "He's saved thousands of souls. He's helped hundreds and thousands of people through all their tough times, you know? And that's kind of the legacy that I'm looking at. I've got a long ways to go to get to first base living up to that guy's standard. He's a titan of a man, talking about the impact he's had on people.

"I've always just wanted the guys to just have the best that they could possibly have at Gonzaga. The year they were there, the four years they were there, the five years they were there, the two years they were there, I want it to be absolutely the best. And that's all I cared about."

On Saturday, Gonzaga's 83-59 win over Xavier crossed the invisible line others had set down for it. Which, once accomplished, would have been the perfect time for Few, or at least his players, to finally come clean about how much the Final Four really meant to him.

Instead, it was clear Few's perspective had long since trickled down to his own team.

Guard Jordan Mathews, who made key shots to lift the Zags over West Virginia, was asked whether the Final Four served as "validation" for the program.

The standard answer here: Yes, we've quieted the doubters, what will they say now, etc. Instead?

"Definitely not," Mathews said. "Gonzaga's been a big-time program 20 years now. People look at Gonzaga. They know what it is. They know what that Bulldog means. It's not validation now they've made a Final Four. ... The Final Four doesn't validate or discredit a season. It's not an end-all-be-all. Gonzaga has been a great program, and we're just happy to keep carrying the torch."

(To which forward Johnathan Williams replied: "Amen, brother.")

Nigel Williams-Goss, who has written about his transfer from Washington as well as the many sides to Few's personality -- competitive, family-oriented, in possession of a friendly but terrifying German Shepherd named Stella, who obediently observes practices from the bench -- was asked to spill the beans after Saturday's win.

Sure, sure, but really: Deep down, how much did Coach Few crave this?

"I think what he says, he means," Williams-Goss said. "He's a very straightforward guy. I honestly don't think, if we wouldn't have gotten there, that it would have killed him. It would have killed him as a competitor, but it wouldn't have killed him for any of the reasons that the outside world would made have made a big deal of about him not getting to the Final Four."

Even Few, as he described the "absolute tears of joy" he shed as the final seconds of the clock ticked down and the "total, total feeling of elation and joy" at his team's accomplishment, refused to revise, in the face of convenient events, his past statements on the nature of the NCAA tournament.

"This tournament's a crapshoot," Few said again, wearing his navy and red "Cut the Nets" tee, having just guided a 36-1 No. 1 seed to the Final Four. "It's a crapshoot."

Few has never wavered from this stance, nor should he, and he's not about to start now.

THE DAY AFTER his team's win over No. 2 seed Arizona, Xavier coach Chris Mack caught what Few had said the night before -- the whole mildly annoyed riff about the nonexistent metaphorical monkey everyone said was supposedly on his back. At his news conference previewing the matchup with the Zags, Mack couldn't resist.

"I got off the elevator today and was coming to the bus to come over to the arena," Mack said. "And I saw this monkey running around, and I picked him up. And so if anybody sees Coach Few later on, if they want to return that monkey, it's in our locker room for him."

When the news conference moderator complimented the gag with "well played," Mack said: "That was some funny stuff that he had the other day."

One night later, Mack's Musketeers had borne the full relentless brunt of the Zags' offense and defense and depth by the time he returned to the podium.

"I know I joked about it the other day," Mack said, "But for Coach Few to have to even answer a question about a monkey on his back -- I mean, like, he's at a small Jesuit school in a league that gets one or two teams to the NCAA tournament every year."

Few's success at Gonzaga has made it easy to lose sight of that fact. At some point in the past decade, it became easy to assume that tournament disappointments had created some devastating competitive burden, some jagged shoulder-adjacent chip, fueling Few at every turn. Instead, Few always understood the inherent insanity of the NCAA tournament, and how insane it would be to boil whole seasons of work down to a few bounces here or there in March.

"I desperately want it for this group of guys," Few said before beating Xavier. "I desperately want it for everybody who has played at Gonzaga. ... But my legacy is going to be about other things, at least as far as I'm concerned."

When Few's Bulldogs march their giddy, imaginary cavalcade into Phoenix this week, there no will be no monkey, metaphorical or otherwise, among the cartoon menagerie.

Not because the monkey became unwelcome Saturday. Because the monkey has never been there at all.