GLENDALE, Ariz. -- There is a beautiful irony to this Gonzaga basketball team.
Mark Few, the son of a preacher who spent 54 years with the same tiny congregation in Creswell, Oregon, has made staying put a familial trait, his career calling card his flat-out refusal to be an upwardly mobile coach.
And yet he has finally realized the promised land of not just a Final Four, but now a shot at a national championship because of a group of transient transfers and world travelers, a veritable basketball Tower of Babel that found a very simple common denominator: winning basketball games.
Win No. 37 (out of 38 games) currently ranks as the biggest in Gonzaga history: the Bulldogs' 77-73 win over pesky South Carolina on Saturday in the Final Four. That game, however, might have a rather short shelf life, what with the national championship game on tap Monday.
Ultimately, this will be the story of the little engine that could, the tiny Catholic school that grew a basketball program amid ridiculous odds.
Right now this is about the team that shouldn't, a group of people and personalities so disparate that they ought to have opened the season with "Hello, My Name Is" tags and a translator.
Przemek Karnowski will drop into his native Polish when he face times friends and family back home in Poland. Freshman Rui Hachimura still isn't great at English, far more comfortable speaking Japanese. Johnathan Williams, who came to Gonzaga from Missouri, isn't much of a talker at all, and Jordan Mathews, the cynical Los Angeles kid who came as a transfer from Cal, couldn't help but cock an eyebrow and ask suspiciously, "Why are you all being so nice to me?"
So with more differences than similarities, the Zags did what kids of their generation do -- they started a group text. Sometimes it's goofy, with funny pictures and jokes that no one else would get. Other times it's motivational, like back when the Zags dropped their only game of the season and Nigel Williams-Goss shared the old, infamous video of a sobbing Adam Morrison as Gonzaga lost to UCLA in the 2006 tournament. "Not this year, fellas,'' Williams-Goss wrote.
But it was there, an electronic thread that got the players through the awkward getting-to-know-you opening months, spanned a team-building camping trip that turned more into a how-not-to-camp guide, and through the electric but pressure-packed weeks when, on top of their regular baggage, the Bulldogs carted around an undefeated record.
"And the story with these guys is it truly is -- and I think it's been kind of under-talked about -- is how they came together,'' Few said. "We had eight, nine guys that were new to the program. On Sept. 1, I mean when Jordan showed up, that's when we were finally complete as a team. [Josh] Perkins and [Silas] Melson were the only ones that played the year before significant minutes. But yet from the jump, these guys have jumped into roles. They haven't fought anything.''
The separate-turned-equal dynamic is why Gonzaga beat South Carolina, the parts that have meshed together leading to the win. Williams-Goss, who took a leap of faith, transferring from Power 5 Washington to the major program in the mid-major league, scored 23 points and dished six assists, his energy and points pushing the Bulldogs to a 14-point lead.
Zach Collins, a 7-foot freshman from Las Vegas who admitted he "could have gone anywhere in the West,'' came off the bench after Karnowski took a Chris Silva face palm to his eyeball and finished with a career-first double-double of 14 points, 13 rebounds and 6 blocks.
Karnowski, the bearded behemoth from Poland, came back into the game in the second half and pulled Gonzaga out of a disaster. In less than four minutes, the Bulldogs gave back all of their 14-point lead and trailed 67-65. But a Collins 3-pointer followed by a pair of buckets from Karnowski restored the Bulldogs' lead, which they never relinquished.
And finally with the game on the line, Killian Tillie, a freshman from France who played only the final 12 seconds of the second half, calmly stepped to the free throw line and sunk both to ice the biggest victory in Gonzaga history.
"Of course I was [nervous],'' Tillie said. "I was kind of nervous when I was on the free throw line. I just didn't think about anything."
It might be the only time this team has been nervous all season.
Despite its unique combination of personalities, Gonzaga has more than stared down its challenges this year; it's dared them. A team that has been dogged for years for playing in a weak conference, whose inability to crash through to the Final Four held as evidence of its inferiority, went out and won 29 games in a row. The Bulldogs didn't shy away from the big goose egg, they embraced it. They loved it. They even had the audacity to believe they could carry through to the end of the season.
It seems so illogical, that a group of guys who barely knew one another could not only tote the impossible burden of an undefeated record along, but also ignore their own 19-year history of November-through-February success, followed by March failure.
"None of it was ever a burden for these guys,'' athletic director Mike Roth said. "They loved it.''
They loved it because they saw it. Stuck in their dorm room, held out by the NCAA transfer rule, Williams-Goss and Williams would talk about what they'd do next season.
"Get to Phoenix,'' was the mantra.
"We didn't shy away from it," Williams-Goss said. "We wanted to win a national championship. That's what we talked about. That was our goal.''
A nervy, if not crazy, goal for a team filled with more differences than similarities, for a bunch of transient transfers and world travelers led by a man with roots deeper than an oak tree.
But this Gonzaga team always had one important thing in common: It knows how to win basketball games.