Couple of days ago you talked about your early days with the program. You said they were simpler, more innocent times. I don't want to suggest that you would trade any of the success, but does a part of you look back and sort of desire to go back to those, maybe the purity of those days?
“Not really. No. I mean, we experienced it, you know? And it was part of this. And it's probably why we're here on this day. And if we hadn't went through that, we probably would have never prepared ourselves to do this. And so no, I mean, I'm enjoying the spot I'm in right now. Not to say I didn't enjoy that. Like I said, it was kind of foot loose and fancy free, and we didn't know any better. But I'm enjoying this phase now, too.”
Kind of along those lines, in terms of basketball resources, how would you compare where you are now, maybe, where you guys were when you started? And how much more do you hear "yes" now than maybe when you first started?
“Basketball resources, maybe 0 to, like, 500 percent. Like not even one percent. So business guys, it's not a 1X, a 2X. It's like a 10X deal where you wouldn't even recognize the place. Or they wouldn't recognize how we travel, how we recruit, how we operate. And that is 100 percent, all the credit goes to Gonzaga for my athletic director Mike Roth. Father Spitzer, and Thayne McCulloh, our Board of Trustees, has all realized if we invest in the program it's going to grow everything. So we owe it to them for that.”
What are your first impressions about North Carolina, and what is the biggest challenge they present to you guys?
“Like first impressions. First, I follow them. I've always followed Roy's teams. My first five, gosh, all the way into Turiaf years, maybe, you've got to help me on that saying, you wordsmiths out there -- imitation is the greatest form of flattery or whatever. Is that right or wrong or backwards or something? But it's meant the same way.
“We called it the Kansas break. I ran the Kansas break for my first seven years. Their whole transition deal. I just copied it, boom. And that's all we did through our early years, just because I had so much respect for Roy. And it fit with what we're doing and our philosophies were the same as far as playing fast and just running the secondary break. And so I watch them a lot. I've probably watched them 15 times this year just because I'm a fan of his and a fan of theirs and root for him. I don't really have a first impression. I have about 100 impressions of them that are built in over the years.”
What do you think is the biggest challenge?
“The biggest challenge is that their transition defense is-- the transition, obviously. It's going to be the biggest challenge, getting back, and they're so fast and they're so good at it.
“And then obviously keeping them off the glass. They are -- they're as good as it gets in college basketball with offensive rebounding. And they have a plan and they do it well and their guys understand it. And so those two things, but then I don't want to undervalue or underrate their defense. There's a reason they're in the national championship game. Their defensive numbers, I was looking at the analytics at that. They're really solid there also.”
Similar question to what was just asked you, but in a more specific context with these two teams, they match up with each other very, very well. Obviously they have the experience over your guys, but off of the top of your head what would be a clear advantage that North Carolina would have over you guys regardless of you guys matching up very well?
“Coaching. (Laughter). Start with that. I mean he's been in this game, like, 17 times and this is the first for me. So definitely start with that. Probably end with that. We're different. We're the same but we're different. We both like to go inside/out. I think they've probably got some guys that can get to their own shot a little easier than we can. Obviously with Justin Jackson, that's something that he can really, really do. So probably that.”
This game, college basketball, has advanced and evolved so much since the very first tournament in 1939. Where do you see the game going? Can the athletes get any better? Can the technology get any better? How is this game going to evolve even more? These guys are already almost NBA caliber.
“I think it will do nothing but just keep, you know, tracking upwards. The kids are playing more and more. I think that's what you're seeing, so they're more and more comfortable. These freshmen are comfortable on the national stage. They've played a lot, and they're used to playing, not in games this big, but to them it's just playing. So I see that happening.
“I also sometimes we go in phases, we kind of are a little behind the NBA. We kind of see what they do. And I think ball screens now are the rave. We'll probably move back to some sort of motion, I bet, and screening offenses here in the next three, four or five, seven years. And, again, as guys get more and more athletic and better to probably spread out and drive and come off screens and things like that.
“So, again, it's been awesome just to see from a college basketball standpoint how much we've came over the years. I've been coming to this thing for 28 years, and it just keeps getting bigger and better and better as far as just the overall effect of a Final Four. And hopefully we'll just stay in growth mode.”
Coach Williams was telling the great story of 2009 in Memphis, when you guys piled your coaches in cars and went out and had a little fun. He got pulled over. Told the cop to pull you over. What's your recollection of that and did you get pulled over?
“I love the fact -- and I defer to him as the best kept secret forever, because I think we probably would have got crucified at the time for doing that. But staffs talked and we said, hey, we got nothing going, let's have meetings and films and let the kids go to bed or whatever, and let's all rally down to -- I think it's Tunica. Is that the name of the place, down there just about 35 minutes outside of Memphis?
“So, again, to your question about how much the NCAA's improved, we all piled into, I think I had six, seven guys in a Ford Fiesta. And I think Roy had the same. We rallied down there. We got our table all to ourselves played craps. It was awesome. We all got our butts kicked and handed to us and lost some money but we had fun.
“And we were heading back, and he got pulled over and told the cop to, hey, you're going to see another -- first of all the cop recognized him and it was, like, what are you doing? And he explained to him. He said, there's another, like, little Ford Fiesta coming. Make sure you pull them over because they're illegal, they don't have seatbelts, because we had more guys in the car. But they missed us. So he came running up to my assistants the next day, did you, did you? And my assistant was looking at him, what are you talking about? I told the cops to pull you guys over. So we skated through there, luckily.
“Great story, though, and just shows you what a good guy he is. And Steve Robinson is on his staff. I've known him forever. He's a dear friend and just great people.”
There's this perception of giant ACC, Carolina against tiny, little Gonzaga. And I know that's not the perception that's necessarily the reality. But there is an idea that what you have built there sends a message to other places that are trying to achieve something that may not look to be realistic. What do you think the message is about Gonzaga reaching this point and being in the championship game?
“I think it's that, that we're no longer, you know, the little however you described it. I mean, I don't think we're -- I think we are -- we don't pretend or think we're anywhere near the level with the tradition of Carolina or Duke or Kentucky.
“But at the same time, I think we do feel we've been a national entity for quite some time. The product, the brand, the players, the team that we're putting out there on the floor we feel can compete with anybody in the country on any given night. But we understand we don't have that tradition that dates back 40, 50, 60 years. And so we defer to that. But we also think that this is the national brand and national entity and we're not going anywhere.”
When you look at how Carolina defends and guards, with just one-day prep, are you really just talking to your guys about how they guard ball screens, how they guard the post?
“You know, we try to break this thing down as easy as we can for our guys to assimilate. And I've got a really, really smart team this year that we can throw stuff at practice today and then walk through tomorrow that they can execute. So we're shuffling through all of our things that we like to do on offense, after watching them that we think we can do. And obviously going to try to play off those things.
“But at the same time, I don't know, we're 38 games into it or something now, so we both kind of, we are who we are. You can tweak things, like, 10 percent here or 10 percent there. But we like throwing the ball inside. They like throwing it inside. We're going to put our guards in ball screens. I think Carolina knows that. And we'll just play off however they guard us. They've guarded ball screens a bunch of different ways, and they change up during games. But my guys are pretty adept at making those reads and hopefully they'll be good tomorrow night.”
You mentioned your relationship with Coach Williams and he's called you a close friend. I guess, what was it about Coach Williams that made that relationship click? And do you consider him a mentor at all, or is it just a friendship?
“Absolutely, he's a mentor, somebody that I looked up to when I was first getting in. And I can tell you exactly. I mean, my wife and I, Marcy, we were on one of -- I think it was probably the first Nike trip we were on, which is a gathering of just basically legendary coaches. And I mean, we didn't feel like we were worthy. We didn't feel like we belonged when there's Roy and Coach K and Boeheim and all these guys are walking around.
“And, bang, right when we got there he and Wanda took Marcy and I under their wing and treated us like we were anybody else. Couldn't have made us feel better and more welcomed. And just hanging with them, talking with him. There's a great card game at the Nike trip and getting invited to play that and getting to know those guys in that realm is something that you remember as much as the wins out on the court, to be quite honest with you, just the relationships you build with these guys. You wish everybody could see how good of people these are when you're outside the competitive part of the business.
“So the other thing I've always respected is how he's run his program. He has an impeccable character. And so he's been a mentor to me. You can win at the highest level and not cut corners and not cut your value system, cut your morals. I've always been impressed with him, both at Kansas and at Carolina. I mean, you know when you recruit against those guys, and it's rare, at least for us, we're probably going to get beat, but you know they're doing it the right way. And you never ever question that. And I couldn't respect a guy more in this business.”
I know you have Dan Monson and Leon and Bill all these guys?
Why is it important to have all these guys with you?
“Because they've been a huge, huge part of this. They are part of the guys that built this foundation to where it is. It never would have happened without them. I never would have been coaching without Dan Monson giving me a job and believing in me and letting me grow and doing all that.
“So I want them to feel like they're a part of it because they are. I want my players to know they're a part of it, which they do. And it's just been awesome to share it with them. I had a good session last night and it was beating South Carolina, advancing here, and hanging with those guys was pretty good stuff.”
I don't know if you ever heard about this but in the U.S. there's an eastern bias and I was wondering --
“We have a western bias. I don't think you guys know the first thing about fly fishing or getting out and enjoying -- except for Dana O’Neill; she knows how to surf a little bit and she knows how to get out and have some fun in the outdoors.”
I was wondering if you could, for oblivious eastern people, if there are any, could you give a tour of your league, like a brief tour, what it's like to play it. And maybe what are a few of the hard spots to go and why they're tough?
“Certainly. And I think, well, first of all, let's start with, I don't know how many places out east, the center of the universe, have a place like BYU. There's 20,000 people that roll in there, and they're as dedicated to the cause of cheering for their Cougars as any place I've ever been. And we've been fortunate enough to basically be everywhere.
“Probably the only places we haven't played is the Dean Dome or something. But unbelievable home court, unbelievable effort they play with there. And really, really difficult team and place to play because of the way Dave Rose coaches them up. And then you kind of shift from that into more like, probably like old-school Big East, kind of smaller venues, band boxes, which to me are harder to play in than the 15,000-seat cavernous arenas because every time Gonzaga plays it's sold out. And every time Gonzaga plays I tell the players it's a storm-the-court opportunity. If we lose, they're going to storm the court.
“And so the other thing that happens in our league is our league is a really skilled league. And so a lot of times maybe it doesn't look like it, but it's harder to game plan and deal with our league when the 5 man can pick and pop and shoot 3s, and the 4 man obviously can do the same thing. And the teams are pretty diabolical about the type of offenses and things they run. And they don't mind game planning for the Zags whether it's do crazy stuff on defense just to see if they can throw us off. That's about as good as I can do. But nice weather places. In January, February, we're in San Francisco, San Diego, Los Angeles. It's not horrible.”
There's been a lot written about your seven-footers. They come from different backgrounds, different experience levels. What have you seen about their evolution of their relationship this season? What have you noticed?
“That's a great question. What I've seen is Przemek started as kind of the 100 percent, total mentor, teaching Zach everything he possibly could to now where it started evolving to -- Przemek brings this and Zach brings that. And I think they both understand it's at the highest level. I know our staff does. Zach doesn't get his name called at the start of the game, but he's always been a starter to me. I have no problem and have shown that all year finishing games with him. That's the confidence I have with him and with Killian Tillie.
“So I think it's evolved into that. We've always been trying throughout the year to find ways where we can play them together, but just because of foul trouble we're also game planning. And as far as -- Johnathan Williams factors into that, just because he's so versatile and so good defensively for us with our switches and everything we're doing there that that's played a part.
“But obviously you saw that Saturday, we're more than comfortable playing them together, they're really good together and you'll see it tomorrow night, too. We're going to have to play stretches with them also.”
You mentioned earlier that both teams like to throw the ball inside. Can you talk a little bit about that matchup and what needs to occur for Zach and Przemek to have success tomorrow?
“To stay out of foul trouble is the first thing. I think both these teams are probably facing for the first time depth that mirrors each other inside, but also a willingness to just keep going and going in there, whether it's off the pass or even off of offensive rebounds to generate a lot of offense inside out. And I think foul trouble is my biggest concern, just dealing with those guys and the numbers and the depth that they have at those spots.
“And then just blocking them out. We've got to block them out. And it's just an entity that -- we faced a really good offensive rebounding team in South Carolina. West Virginia was an excellent offensive rebound team. Their percentages were very high. And a lot of their offense was generated from that. But I mean Carolina is just a different entity from that.
“So it's more about just talking about it, being aware. I'm not going to go kill them today for 45 minutes and rebound drills and walk out there with four walk-ons tomorrow. So it's a fine line.”
I was wondering if you could walk us through both your recruitment of Zach Collins, when he first came on your radar and how that relationship developed? And then whether you expected that just as a freshman he'd be doing what he's doing?
“Yeah, no, we identified Zebo or Zach Collins a long time ago and liked him. Thought he would be a perfect fit for how we played. Loved his intensity, loved his effort. His skill package was just starting to come then. And then his father's done a great job of working him out through the years and preparing him. He's a big guy, too. So he understands that. And I think he's done a good job mentally. Zach's a tough, tough guy.
“The biggest adjustment usually kids from high school to college have is just how intense the game is and how physical it is. And there was very little learning curve for Josh -- or Zach on that playing. I mean he, from the jump, was ready to go. And sometimes he gets a little too intense. We've got to back him off. But that's a good thing. That's a lot better than having to amp it up.
“So his skill set has grown since he's been at Gonzaga because he's a worker and he really, really wants to be good. And obviously his athleticism stands out. And he's been good from the jump for us. From day one, he's been exceptional.”
You've talked a few times this week about, the story of this team is how all the new faces came together and assimilated. So what has this year sort of taught you about team building and team concept? And, two, what kind of card player is Roy?
“We'll go team building first. Actually, team building is real and sometimes you have to have a plan. I think I've always just banked on our chemistry at Gonzaga and our culture to do that. But I think having a plan to help these guys and facilitate it, I'll certainly always be doing that from here on out with my teams.
“But I think what it shows is just when you start maybe thinking -- and I'm as guilty of this as anybody -- that the generation of kids coming up are entitled and spoiled and don't want to do this and don't want to do that. The sacrifices these guys have made on this team to put us in this position -- and every one has made a sacrifice because we're deep and good. And to be those things you have to give up minutes, you have to give up shots, you've got to give up -- well, how come I'm not guarding the other team's best guy, and things like that.
“And these guys have done it. Every one of them from Przemek to Zach to Josh Perkins to J3 to Nigel. When you've got seven, eight guys -- I've got seven or eight guys that can score 15, 16 points a game on you. But it's not going to all happen on the same night. And these guys have really bought into that. And it's just been a special, special year because of that. And it's on them. They're the ones who did it. I don't think it's anything I said or did. But it's on them and how good of people they are and how they were raised.
“As far as Roy Williams, he's an excellent card player. He's so good that we have a game, seven-card stud game that's got some variables to it, that we call Roy Williams. And we were stuck at the lake two summers ago with my kids, and we had a discrepancy, which is unfortunate -- they're starting to get into poker. At least it keeps them around and they hang out with me; that's about the only time they hang out with me.
“So we called Roy on the cell phone, and my kids now think the world of him because he picks up the phone and I put him on speaker and he had to explain Roy Williams to them. But it's a good game, though, good game.”