SALT LAKE CITY — Here begins a two-week collision course of unimaginable pressure and certain heartbreak. Here begins an opportunity to forever smash a narrative and untangle a name from the best/worst label in all of college basketball.
Gonzaga’s Mark Few or Arizona’s Sean Miller? Take your pick between them as the best active coach never to lead a team to the Final Four. The former has 498 wins and 18 consecutive NCAA tournament berths without a trip to the promised land while building the standard-bearer for all programs outside the college athletics power structure. The latter has tasted the Elite Eight four times in the past nine seasons but has gone home each time increasingly devastated and impatient over how close he is to breaking through.
As the NCAA tournament begins here at Vivint Smart Home Arena, the roadmap for either Few or Miller to remove the biggest asterisk on their records has seemingly been laid out for each of them. Coaching the heavily favored No. 1 and No. 2 seeds in the West Region, respectively, it almost seems destined for one of them to earn a career-defining victory at the other’s expense on March 25 in San Jose. Gonzaga opens Thursday against South Dakota State, and Arizona faces North Dakota.
While the heartbreak Arizona and Gonzaga have experienced in recent years binds their programs and fan bases, Few and Miller approach the subject from very different directions. While Miller outwardly burns to coach in a Final Four, almost obsessed with the basket here or coaching decision there that could have changed his destiny, Few is almost Zen-like in how he views the bigger picture.
Sure, he’d like to get Gonzaga to a Final Four. But whether he does, it won’t change much about how he views his career.
“I want it as much as anybody,” Few told USA TODAY Sports outside the Gonzaga locker room Wednesday as it prepared to play No. 16 seed South Dakota State. “I’d love to do it, but not for me. I’d love to do it for the guys in the room, for the guys that played before them, for all the people at the school. But at the same time I’m never a guy that puts all my eggs in one basket. I enjoy every phase of the journey, starting way back when we recruited these guys. You can’t just say, the only thing that matters is the NCAA tournament and winning a national championship or making a Final Four.”
Unfortunately for Few, however, the appreciation for Gonzaga’s incredible consistency over nearly two decades has given way to a perception it can’t finish the job in March. Even last season, when the Bulldogs were a mostly forgotten 11 seed entering the tournament, they were remembered less for raising another Sweet 16 banner than blowing a late lead to Syracuse, scoring just three points in the final six minutes as another shot in the Elite Eight slipped away.
This season, Gonzaga enters the 32-1 and has been so dominant statistically, it ranks No. 1 in both the Sagarin and Pomeroy ratings. Still, the memory of 2013 lingers when Gonzaga came to this same arena as the No. 1 overall seed, struggled in the Round of 64 against Southern and then lost to Wichita State two days later.
Asked about the line between satisfaction of what they’ve built at Gonzaga and frustration over not making the Final Four, Gonzaga athletics director Mike Roth pointed to the rafters here and the No. 12 jersey worn by former Gonzaga great John Stockton, whose Utah Jazz teams came up short twice to the Michael Jordan-era Chicago Bulls.
“I’m sure he desperately wanted to win one, but is his life unfulfilled because he didn’t? No,” Roth said. “Mark’s the same way. He wants to get to that Final Four and win a championship as much or more than any other coach, and it will be great when we get there and when we get there we’ll want to go back. Don’t take what Mark says like he’s satisfied, but we won’t let it define us.”
For Miller, it’s not as easy to take the more global view. At blueblood Arizona, which went to four Final Fours under Lute Olson and has been the dominant recruiting power on the West Coast since Miller arrived in 2009, there’s a different urgency to the task. While Miller also talks about appreciating the process, he knows he can’t run from the conversation about what he hasn’t accomplished — even if three Elite Eights in the last six years at Arizona is unfairly taken for granted.
“The success of the entire journey, the entire regular season has to be taken into consideration,” Miller said. “But at the end of the day, you know, all of us are judged by what happens in March and for us to duck that or look at that as not being the case is somewhat unrealistic. For us, you want to take advantage of a good seed, you want to play your best basketball in March and if that happens and you still don’t advance, all of us walk away with our head held high and we’ll put our ball away and come back next year. But clearly, the goal is to get all the way to the end.”
Just 48, it seems like it’s only a matter of time for Miller. With three Pac-12 titles in the last four years and more blue-chippers coming in next season including a consensus top-five player in forward DeAndre Ayton, Miller will have plenty more at-bats before he’s through.
“We have such a storied tradition, you can almost be made to feel like it’s a given,” Miller said. “But because of the parity in this game and the (roster) change from one season to the next, all of us fight hard to be able to return each year.”
It does not take a great coach to make the Final Four. Any club that includes John Brady and Paul Hewitt but not Gene Keady or Norm Stewart is automatically an imperfect, and perhaps unfair, measure of coaching careers. But until either Miller or Few gets to one, it’s going to be part of the discussion every March. Then it will go away forever, revealing the underlying reality that very little changed in their lives or for their programs except for the noise.
“One of my closest friends in this deal is Billy Donovan, and he basically reiterated that,” Few said. “Your life doesn’t change. It’s great for a couple weeks, and then it’s right back to recruiting and building your team up and then it’s like, well, are you going to get back to a Final Four? It’s just kind of the nature of the deal.”