Gonzaga takes Vegas: A week on and off the court with college basketball's most fascinating team

ByMyron Medcalf ESPN logo
Monday, November 29, 2021

LAS VEGAS -- Seven hours before its 84-81 loss to No. 5 Duke at T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas, No. 1 Gonzaga's players, coaches and staffers launch half-court shots at the end of a pregame shootaround.

Minutes earlier, assistant coach Roger Powell Jr. was talking trash to freshman Nolan Hickman in their ongoing series of shooting contests. Powell missed his next shot and lost -- again.

On the other side of the court, Mark Few was questioning his veteran star's jewelry.

"I thought we were done with the 50-year-old, gold chain look?" he asked Drew Timme.

The half-court shooting contest is a tradition for the program, which prefers to keep things light in between the rigors of the college basketball season. Games against No. 8 Texas the previous week and No. 2 UCLA on Tuesday preceded the monumental matchup against Duke. No. 10 Alabama and Texas Tech are on the schedule in the weeks ahead.

But the concerns about the team's high-stakes schedule, in Vegas and after, can wait.

Everyone's at midcourt, ready to start the competition. Evan Manning, a grad assistant and the son of former Wake Forest coach Danny Manning, nails a shot. Chet Holmgren, the projected No. 1 pick in the 2022 NBA draft per ESPN, does too. But a shot by sophomore Dominick Harris, who is currently sidelined by a foot injury, clanks off the rim.

"Ohhhhh!" Timme yelled as Few, who always shoots last, air balls his shot.

One-by-one, players come over to look at the sheet and see where they stand in the competition throughout the season. "These numbers are garbage," Harris said of his numbers. "I gotta get it together."

A few years ago, the tally record was misplaced by a staffer and players "allegedly" inflated their numbers. That's why this sheet of paper matters so much to these guys, who value their half-court shooting marks. It's the only record they trust. Julian Strawther tops the leaderboard. Few? He's near the bottom.

This is Gonzaga basketball. With a game against Duke in a few hours, the program does not break character. Balance is all it knows.

The Bulldogs have spent the past five years just a handful of plays from capturing the school's first national championship. In 2017, they lost to North Carolina in the title game. In 2019, they lost to Texas Tech in the Elite Eight. A year later, a 31-win squad never got the chance to chase its dream when COVID-19 canceled the NCAA tournament. And last season, they were dominated by a veteran Baylor squad in the final.

They've been so close, which has only magnified the anticipation around this season. Yet their goals have not outweighed their determination to enjoy the journey.

The Zags can play tough. Just see their dominant 20-point win over No. 2 UCLA on Tuesday. They also showed heart in their three-point loss toPaolo Banchero, the projected No. 2 pick in the 2022 NBA draft per ESPN, and Duke three days later. But they refuse to take themselves too seriously, which has helped Mark Few's teams keep the proper perspective throughout the season.

"We've always been that," Few said. "That's just kind of Gonzaga. That's just kind of how we roll. All of our teams have been like that."

In the bowels of T-Mobile Arena, there is a problem.

Prior to his team's matchup against Central Michigan -- the undercard to a hectic week -- assistant coach Brian Michaelson is concerned about the setup in the locker room.

"I mean, it says 'Gonzaga,'" he told an arena staffer, pointing to a sign outside the door, "but there are no chairs, and there is no white board."

The staffer gives Michaelson the "I just work here" shrug before he goes back into the room. He returns with an update.

"OK, there was another door," Michaelson said. "It was sort of in the back. I found it. We're good."

It's a big week for Gonzaga, and any mishap or obstacle, big or small, could impact the team.

Meticulousness has turned this program into a powerhouse over the course of a 22-year run that started with a magical trip to the Elite Eight in 1999. Since then, Gonzaga has gone from surprising underdog to perennial contender.

In college basketball, the Zags are rock stars.

They have to take a discreet exit underneath a loading dock behind their hotel to get to and from the arena, to avoid the legion of Bulldogs fans who are in town. At the 6,000-seat McCarthey Athletic Center in Spokane, Washington, tickets -- both season tickets and single-game tickets -- are sold out. For many, Las Vegas and other nonconference events are their only opportunity to see their favorite team live.

Throughout the building, team videographers and photographers linger, hoping for behind-the-scenes footage and photos to send to the 500,000 followers spread across the team's official accounts on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.

They capture Timme -- the national player of the year candidate -- making the Jameis Winston "W" with his hands after their 107-54 victory over Central Michigan on Monday and yelling into one of the cameras: "Eat those! Eat those!"

"I think [Few] gives our leaders the freedom to be themselves," he later told ESPN.

Timme is the soundtrack to the entire program. You can hear the forward wherever you go. In the hallways. On the street. During games. At practice. You hear more Timme than anyone who isn't a coach -- sometimes more than coaches.

But it's not all jokes. His teammates have a level of respect for the veteran that approaches reverence.

"The coaches have challenged him with his leadership this year," Holmgren said. "He's stepped up and done a great job."

He can also galvanize the group when necessary.

At halftime against UCLA on Tuesday -- a rematch of the Zags' thrilling win against the Bruins in last season's Final Four -- Timme gathers everyone around him in the hallway. They're up by double digits, but the team's excitement about their first half is measured. They don't want to take anything for granted.

"They're gonna hit some crazy s---, but as long as we do what we do, it won't matter," Timme emphasized to the team. "Fresh 20 minutes!"

Few emerges from the locker room. "I hope we get another half like that one," he added.

They do. A 20-point win over the Bruins establishes the Bulldogs as America's best team. But Duke is coming. Although Tuesday was No. 1 vs. No. 2, it still feels like a setup for Friday and the Blue Devils.

Before a light practice on Wednesday, players gather around the basket to see how many basketballs they can fit in the net. "There is some space on top," Timme told his teammates.

They get up to 11, a new team record.

"Is this all we're doing?" Joe Few, the coach's son and a freshman walk-on with the program, asked following a casual start to practice. "Until when?"

During a drill, Holmgren slaps Timme in the chest after he scores.

"Owwwwww!" the junior yelled.

Meanwhile, practice has just started and Strawther is exhausted: "I have, like, no legs."

Andrew Nembhard acts as the responsible sibling in the family -- he always has the look of a player who wonders what he has gotten himself into with this team and its strong personalities.

Timme's boisterous persona contrasts the reserved demeanor of Holmgren, his co-star on this team. Holmgren seems to speak only when he has something compelling to say. The seven-footer is an advanced basketball player who can do things few players his size can mimic (see his around-the-back dribble and dunk against the Bruins on Tuesday). But he's still a freshman with more questions than answers.

"They're saying I stepped out of bounds," Holmgren said, referring to a call from the UCLA game, when the center crossed the baseline.

"You did," Michaelson and Stephen Gentry, both assistants, replied in unison.

They often speak in code here. Every player has a nickname. Holmgren is "Chester." A.J. Few, one of the coach's sons and also a grad assistant, is "Turtle." Andrew Nembhard, who is from Ontario, is "CFL," after the Canadian Football League.

Through the ribbing and wisecracks, however, there is also instruction. Constant instruction. The message from coaches before the Duke game is clear: Play tough or we lose.

Earlier in the week, Few had told his team to "get your shoulder pads on and get ready to rock 'n roll." And when players are working on drills underneath the basket, Powell will often shout "BBQ chicken!"

"Basically, [BBQ chicken is] you're going to eat," Powell later explained. "You're going to dominate. You're going to be aggressive. That's pretty much what that means. It's time to eat. We're not leaving any meat on the bone."

That attitude has translated to two decades of success on the court.

"Everybody just gels so well," said Strawther, a Las Vegas native who is playing in front of his friends and family all week. "We're all so different. We all have our own swag from our hometowns. Everybody just has fun. Even the staff is out here having fun."

The mood within the team changes on Thanksgiving, though.

Players have planned to spend time with their families, in Vegas with them, later that night. But there's clearly more than basketball on their minds.

During practice earlier in the day, Few was demanding sharper, cleaner basketball, after seeing his guys miss assignments, move out of position and fail to communicate the way he expects. He doesn't like long practices, but he expects them to be crisp.

When Few doesn't hear his players calling "ball" to signify that they're guarding an opposing ball handler in a scrimmage, he gets upset.

"I've been on your asses for three months about calling 'ball,'" Few said. "You've gotta get out of your own personalities off the court. That's selfish s---."

While the stakes have clearly elevated the intensity, Timme is still Timme. When the Dallas Cowboys fan learns his team is losing to the Las Vegas Raiders midway through practice, he's not happy.

"We have the worst defense in the entire NFL," Timme told a staffer before returning to his drill. "We're going to end up 8-8 like every year."

On Friday, preparations begin for Gonzaga's mega-matchup against Duke, which will feature the top two NBA prospects (Holmgren and Banchero) in America. On Selection Sunday, this could be the game that grants its winner the No. 1 overall seed and the most favorable path to the Final Four.

It's a big deal. So there's a strong police presence around T-Mobile Arena. Streets are blocked off. The most expensive courtside seats are going for more than $8,000, per Vivid Seats.

As the Zags move toward the building for their pregame shootaround, an elderly woman snaps a photo of the squad that last lost to Baylor in last year's national title game and is still hunting for its first national championship. The players seem comfortable with the attention. A middle-aged man in a Duke T-shirt jumps into the pack of players, takes his own photo and yells, "Good luck!"

The Bulldogs would need it. Banchero scored 20 points in the first half, while Mark Williams and Wendell Moore Jr. helped the Blue Devils outplay the Bulldogs in the final minutes of the game.

Gonzaga weathered foul trouble with both Timme and Holmgren but continued to fight -- there were eight lead changes in the second half -- in a game that lived up to the hype. Retired boxing star Floyd Mayweather Jr. and golfer Brooks Koepka both attended the matchup, which set a record for the largest basketball crowd in Nevada history (20,389).

"It was pretty amazing," Few said after the game. "I actually took a step back there and was proud of where my program is."

In Vegas, Gonzaga captured a win over one national title contender but also fell to another. The Bulldogs' matchups that week allowed them to see their potential and their flaws. They were too big and deep for UCLA, but they also didn't have an answer for Banchero and Co. If they see Duke again, what will they do?

It's clear Gonzaga will have to play better to make history.

And that will be the constant demand for this program, which aims to win its first national title without losing its playfulness amid the drama.

"We felt like we had a chance to win that game at the end and it was self-inflicted, we feel like," Timme said in the packed news conference on Friday night.

"We're a young team and we're still learning every day. I couldn't be more proud of this week. It's been a long week out here in Vegas. We've done a good job handling ourselves and staying focused."

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