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THE CHEAP SEATS with STEVE CAMERON: Few and staff getting the most out of the Zags

| December 18, 2020 1:30 AM

You can learn things in the strangest places.

For instance, an insight into the NBA picked up at a horse racing track.

Yep.

Several years ago, I was spending a leisurely afternoon at Turf Paradise, a thoroughbred race facility on the north side of Phoenix.

The area of indoor boxes where I had eventually settled was almost empty — but I saw one gentleman by himself, just a little further down the front row from where I had spread out my Daily Racing Form, and where I was preparing to analyze some horse flesh.

It turned out that the only other nearby spectator was Cotton Fitzsimmons, who was then the general manager of the Phoenix Suns.

I’d known Cotton and enjoyed his company for years — when he coached at Kansas State and then with the Suns — so I wandered over to join him.

Cotton has been gone for several years now, but that chance meeting popped into my mind this week.

I happened to be thinking about Mark Few.

Let me explain…

IT WAS no surprise that Cotton and I talked basketball along with horse racing that afternoon.

The conversation hopped all over the map, but one thing Cotton told me then has stuck, like it’s still in blazing neon lights.

“Nobody realizes just how good these NBA players really are,” Cotton said. “The athleticism and skill levels are off the charts.

“The jump from college basketball to our league might be the biggest leap in all of sports.

“Fans follow their favorite college stars, and see them average 22 points per game and look just amazing.

“Then folks are shocked when this great player, who was unstoppable in college, can’t make it in the NBA.”

That conversation actually has some real meaning locally.

We’re finally seeing a few Gonzaga alums survive in the NBA – Domantas Sabonis, Zach Collins, now Rui Hachimura and Brandon Clarke — but it’s not like there’s been an avalanche of Zags in the league.

Current freshman Jalen Suggs almost certainly will be a lottery pick, but he represents what our conversation today is all about.

FEW AND his staff now can use Gonzaga’s elite status in the college game to recruit better and better players — although I doubt they want to follow Kentucky and Duke into the land of three or four one-and-done guys every year.

The Zags’ ability to pursue some of the very best players, especially American high schoolers who are on everyone’s radar, is a pretty new thing.

What does that tell you about how well Few and Co. can coach players of almost any talent level?

Long before Gonzaga could even think about landing a Jalen Suggs, the Zags were still piling up 25-30 wins per season.

You heard all this before, but think about it…

Gonzaga has NEVER missed an NCAA tournament in Few’s 22 years as head coach.

There were no lottery picks, or even cinch NBA guys, in most of those seasons.

Not counting John Stockton, who was a complete one-off in the 1980s, Gonzaga hasn’t exactly been a cradle of NBA talent.

WHEN YOU talk to pro scouts and ask about a couple of Zags who look like the real deal, here is the paraphrased response…

“I like the kid, but anytime you evaluate a Gonzaga guy, you have to be careful. He could just be a product of the system.

“They coach these players so well — guys with bona fide talent, and some others with just certain skills that they use perfectly — that it’s sometimes tough to decide how good a Gonzaga player really might be.”

Seriously, is there any better accolade that can be tossed out to Few and his assistants?

I think it was Bear Bryant who once said that a great coach was somebody who could take his and beat yours, and then take yours and beat his.

That’s Mark Few, who has never been voted national coach of the year.

Isn’t it time?

Email: scameron@cdapress.com

Steve Cameron’s “Cheap Seats” columns appear in The Press on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. “Moments, Memories and Madness,” his reminiscences from several decades as a sports journalist, runs each Sunday.

Steve also writes Zags Tracker, a commentary on Gonzaga basketball which is published each Tuesday.