Gonzaga and Arizona is a rematch of a classic
SAN DIEGO — Hanging on the walls of Gonzaga’s basketball office is photo of a Blake Stepp’s missed shot in the 2003 NCAA Tournament game against Arizona.
A picture of one of the best games in college basketball history and that ended one of the Bulldogs’ best seasons.
“We get to see that quite often,” Gonzaga head coach Mark Few said. “It’s of the best player we’ve ever had at Gonzaga, Blake Stepp, squaring up for about an eight footer that would have won the game that I think he could have made in his sleep.”
This year’s meeting between the two schools has a similar feel to the 96-95 double-overtime game 11 years ago.
Arizona's Luke Walton and Rick Anderson attempt to rebound a missed shot over Gonzaga's Blake Stepp. Arizona defeated Gonzaga 96-95 in double overtime during the second round of the NCAA tournament in Salt Lake City on March 22, 2003.
“I don’t know why we have it hanging in our office,” Few said. “It’s kind of a sad moment.”
Gonzaga is once again taking on a No. 1 seed Arizona team in the Round of 32 and is looking for the biggest upset in school history.
(1) Arizona vs. (8) Gonzaga
When: Sunday, approx. 6:40 p.m. MST/PDT
Where the two schools have been since that game has put them at the top of the west coast basketball totem pole.
“It all starts with their coach,” Arizona point guard T.J. McConnell said. “Mark Few has been one of the best coaches in the country year in and year out, he recruits the right players. … That’s why they’re so successful every year.”
Few took over the Bulldogs program in 1999, but was an assistant at Gonzaga for 10 years prior to becoming the head coach.
Since 1999 he has posted a 401-99 overall record and has turned Spokane, Wash. into one of biggest college basketball towns in America.
Wildcats’ head coach Sean Miller, the former head coach of mid-major Xavier, and Few both agreed that there isn’t much of a difference in resources between a so-called mid-major and major basketball university.
“Those universities put all eggs in that basket to be as good as they possibly can be,” Miller said. “It started maybe a decade or two ago with a pace like Gonzaga, like Dayton, like Xavier, Creighton and when you look at them there isn’t much of a difference between them and anybody who is playing in the tournament.”
Though Few has one of the best current coaching records of all-time, he has never made it farther than the Elite Eight in the NCAA Tournament, as either a head coach or as an assistant. But he has had plenty of disappointing trips to the dance.
In 1999 the Bulldogs lost to the eventual tournament winners, UConn, in the Sweet 16.
In 2000 and 2001 he lost again in the Sweet 16. And in 2002 Gonzaga posted a 29-win season but doesn’t make it farther than the Round of 32.
Once again in 2003, the team won 29 games and had of the best players in the West Coast Conference and country in Stepp but lost in a tight Round of 32 game against Arizona.
“Players were exhausted and helping each other up afterwards because [they] had so much respect for the battle that had just played out,” Few said. “It was an epic college game.”
Sunday, the now No. 8-seeded Bulldogs are led by a group of guards who can shoot the lights out. They have size but not the depth to overpower Arizona’s toughness and size.
McConnell said he expects Gonzaga to play fast and want to run up and down the court.
Few wouldn’t give any insight to a game plan or how the game will play out but did say he received an ironic text from Miller that might be foretelling.
“Two or three weeks ago Sean [Miller] texted me in the middle of the night,” Few said. “He was watching … that Zag/Arizona game. So we were texting back and forth laughing about it. And he said yesterday I think we jinxed each other by doing that, we ended up playing each other again.”
— Follow Luke Della @LukeDella