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How Gonzaga built itself into men's college basketball’s best program

Krysten Peek and Pete Thamel
·6-min read

Chet Holmgren, the No. 1 high school player in the country, is a heavy lean to attend Gonzaga next season. He’s expected to make the inevitable official in the next few weeks, which will seal Gonzaga’s status as the favorite to win the 2022 national championship.

As the Zags entered their second Final Four this weekend and aim for the school’s first national championship, Gonzaga appears to be trending toward an unusual designation for a school outside of a major conference that reached its first NCAA men's tournament in 1995.

Amid unprecedented success, Gonzaga has made a loud argument that coach Mark Few’s program has emerged as the most dominant in all of men's college basketball. The Zags are the only team in the sport to win 30 games or more in five consecutive seasons and also the only team to reach the Sweet 16 in each of the past six NCAA men's tournaments.

“I'm 18 years old,” Holmgren told Yahoo Sports. “Gonzaga has made the tournament the last 22 years, so I've grown up knowing they're a dominant program.”

An uptick to the highest echelon of recruiting and the chance at the school’s first national championship have Gonzaga trending toward a place few thought possible when it stormed to the Sweet 16 as a Cinderella in 1999. The Zags are no longer upstarts; rather they’re on a trajectory to becoming one of the sport’s blue bloods.

“Mark built it to where I think they can sustain Final Four aspirations every year for a few years,” Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim told Yahoo Sports.

The way Gonzaga has built its program to the highest levels of the sport is unprecedented. It began with regional recruiting, which evolved into successful international recruiting. And once Gonzaga’s success, player development, facilities and reputation all evolved, the Zags became prolific national recruiters for the country’s top prospects.

LAS VEGAS, NV - MARCH 09: Gonzaga forward Joel Ayayi (11) celebrates with Gonzaga guard Jalen Suggs (1) and Gonzaga forward Corey Kispert (24) during the championship game of the men's West Coast Conference basketball tournament between the BYU Cougars and the Gonzaga Bulldogs on March 9, 2021, at the Orleans Arena in Las Vegas, NV. (Photo by Brian Rothmuller/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
Gonzaga forward Joel Ayayi (11) celebrates with Gonzaga guard Jalen Suggs (1) and Gonzaga forward Corey Kispert (24) during the championship game of the men's West Coast Conference basketball tournament March 9, 2021, at the Orleans Arena in Las Vegas. (Photo by Brian Rothmuller/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

The international recruiting helped Gonzaga bridge to enough success where top talent like Jalen Suggs, the country’s No. 11 recruit, headed to Spokane from Minneapolis. He chose the Zags over virtually every team in the country, as his father felt the presence of older players like senior wing Corey Kispert and junior guard Andrew Nembhard would ease his son’s transition.

Suggs’ commitment could end up helping pave the way for Holmgren, as they attended the same high school (Minnehaha Academy) and played for the same AAU program (Team Sizzle). Suggs is a consensus top-three NBA draft pick, and if Gonzaga does continue to entrench itself in the Final Four, his commitment could end up being viewed as the pivot point for the Zags someday being considered a blue blood.

Gonzaga got a commitment last week from the Rivals.com No. 7 player, Hunter Sallis, an Omaha native who picked the Zags over Kentucky, Kansas, UNC and UCLA. He’s the highest-rated player in school history, a 6-foot-5 wing who’ll be able to make an immediate impact taking over some of Kispert’s minutes. (UNC transfer Walker Kessler is also expected to heavily consider the Zags.)

Sallis’ title of highest-ranked recruit in school history could be upended by Holmgren when he makes his announcement. Holmgren is a 7-foot, 190-pound wing who resonates as one of the most intriguing American basketball prospects in years. He’s got a feathery wing game and a tight handle that conjures images of a young Kevin Durant.

Suggs and Holmgren have been close since third grade, and the Zags star point guard could be remembered for leaving one giant assist to the program.

“One-hundred percent, Jalen definitely validated that you can be highly rated and have NBA potential and you can go to Gonzaga and be one-and-done or whatever you are looking for,” Zags associate head coach Tommy Lloyd said of Suggs.

The bizarre part of Gonzaga’s road to the top of the sport is that it required a dog-eared passport. Winning always attracts talent, but Gonzaga took a counter-intuitive path by becoming the top destination for foreign talent in college basketball before growing into a magnet for the top domestic talent.

Some of the best players in Gonzaga history are foreign imports, which allowed Gonzaga to evolve from WCC stalwart to regional power to Final Four semi-regular. Consider some of the array of foreign talent that Few has attracted — Kevin Pangos (Canada), Ronny Turiaf (France), Elias Harris (Germany), Przemek Karnowski (Poland), Domantas Sabonis (Lithuania), Robert Sacre (Canada), Killian Tillie (France), Kelly Olynyk (Canada), Rui Hachimura (Japan) and Filip Petrusev (Serbia).

“Necessity is the mother of invention,” Lloyd said. “Basically, we had to find a way to get more talented players than we were able to get in Eastern Washington. So we started putting time into international recruiting and developing relationships. We had guys come and be successful, so we developed a track record.”

CHANDLER, AZ - NOVEMBER 08: Chet Holmgren, from Minnehaha High School, drives to the basket during the Pangos All-American Festival on November 8, 2020 at AZ Compass Prep in Chandler, AZ. (Photo by Brian Rothmuller/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
Chet Holmgren, from Minnehaha Academy, drives to the basket during the Pangos All-American Festival on Nov. 8, 2020, at AZ Compass Prep in Chandler, Arizona. (Photo by Brian Rothmuller/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Gonzaga earned as high as a No. 2 seed in the NCAA men's tournament all the way back in 2004. But Boeheim pointed out that despite the player development and innovative schemes, the Zags eventually ran into more talented teams. The Zags lost as a No. 2 seed in the Round of 32 in 2004, a No. 1 seed in the Round of 32 in 2013 and in the Round of 32 as a No. 3 in 2005.

But the postseason results have coincided with the talent uptick, as the Zags broke through to the Final Four in 2017, losing to UNC in a foul-plagued national title game. And that’s helped push them to a new paradigm.

“I think they’re going to get more top-tier players now,” Boeheim said. “That’s why they’re not just good, they can win the tournament. That’s the difference. You have to have a couple of those guys who develop into NBA players. That’s the difference in their team.”

With the highest-rated recruit in school history committed and perhaps the first No. 1 recruit in school history on the way, Gonzaga is amid the final paradigm shift. Even if Holmgren isn’t sure how to define it.

“I don't really know all about the criteria of what goes into a blue-blood program, but Gonzaga is definitely at the top every year and they've done a lot of great things over there,” Holmgren said. “I don't know if I'd call them a blue blood or not, but they're definitely a great program.”

As more top recruits like Holmgren acknowledge this, the Zags will be able to further lodge themselves in the sport’s penthouse. The long road through foreign land has found them atop both the AP ranking and, finally, the recruiting rankings.

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