When it’s time to get away from the madness, Mark Few often goes fly-fishing, and anyone who has gone fishing knows the importance of patience. It’s possible to sit for hours and not get a bite.
As a kid, I experimented with fishing, but quickly quit because of boredom and a lack of success.
Here’s the point: Few, the Gonzaga coach, has been fishing for a Final Four appearance for 15 years. He has been waiting patiently. And now, in his 16th try, his most realistic shot to hook one has arrived.
But if the Bulldogs don’t get there this time, we in the media might give up hope and quit trying to convince the public that this small-conference giant deserves a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament.
“Gonzaga can play with anyone,” said Nick Bogdanovich, William Hill sports book director. “I still think that’s one of the top 10 teams in the country, for sure. The Zags will give any of the big-name teams — Kentucky, Duke — all they want.”
Bogdanovich is a former college basketball player who competed against John Stockton, a former Gonzaga star, and once scored 20-something points against Boise State. He knows the game. He sees Few’s team is for real.
“It would be a great story,” he said.
This story has been written several times in several ways, but the ending is always the same and it’s getting old. Under Few, the Bulldogs have not advanced past the Sweet 16, where they have not been since 2009. It’s time for a different ending to the story.
Few is a great coach, and this is his best team. Gonzaga (29-2) is arriving for the West Coast Conference tournament at Orleans Arena this weekend as a minus-300 favorite to win it, according to odds posted at William Hill.
“This is Few’s best chance,” Bruce Marshall, handicapper for The Gold Sheet, said in reference to the Final Four. “He’s got more dimensions — better big men, an experienced backcourt, shooters and athletes.”
It starts with Kevin Pangos, a senior point guard. The backcourt includes two more seniors — Gary Bell Jr. and Byron Wesley, a Southern California transfer. Kyle Wiltjer, a 6-foot-10-inch junior forward, is a Kentucky transfer. Wiltjer, a talented scorer, is flanked by 6-10 Domantas Sabonis and 7-1 Przemek Karnowski, who are strong and skilled.
But there’s more to the story. The Bulldogs limped past some mediocre teams in the past month, struggling to get by Santa Clara, San Francisco, Pepperdine, Pacific, Saint Mary’s and San Diego.
And, of course, there was Gonzaga’s 73-70 loss to Brigham Young on Saturday. The Cougars stopped the Bulldogs’ 41-game home win streak, which was the longest in the nation. For some, that was a sign Few’s team is a fraud.
The reality is Gonzaga, which gets every opponent’s best shot in the WCC, needed the wake-up call. The loss knocked the Bulldogs out of consideration for a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament, but being a No. 2 also could be a good thing.
“In this case, I think it could be a plus,” Marshall said. “If you’re going to lose, get it out of the way now. Maybe that will take some of the pressure off. I thought the Zags had played pretty tight the last few weeks. The whole month has been kind of shaky.”
I would lay the 3-1 odds on Gonzaga, which should be refocused, to cut down the nets Tuesday in Las Vegas. But those hunting for a live ’dog can look at BYU (3-1 odds), Saint Mary’s (7-1) and Pepperdine (30-1).
Marshall said he gives the Cougars, led by high-scoring guards Tyler Haws and Kyle Collinsworth, a “puncher’s shot.”
BYU has plenty of motivation, too, because it is on the NCAA bubble, according to Joe Lunardi, ESPN’s expert on brackets and bad hair pieces.
Bogdanovich posted odds on several conference tournaments, and the only three favorites I am interested in backing are Gonzaga, Villanova (even money in the Big East) and Wisconsin (minus-140 in the Big Ten).
Colorado State (7-2) is my pick to win the Mountain West next week at the Thomas & Mack Center, where San Diego State will be a vulnerable 2-1 favorite. The Rams are in good form, led by veterans, and Larry Eustachy is a bet-on coach.
Oklahoma coach Lon Kruger, who won two Mountain West tournaments at UNLV, has an outstanding starting five but no depth, and a shallow bench can be problematic in a tournament. But the Sooners are live at 4-1 odds in the Big 12.
Arizona is a minus-140 favorite in next week’s Pacific-12 Conference tournament at the MGM Grand Garden. The Wildcats rallied late to beat Gonzaga by three points in overtime Dec. 6 in Tucson.
The Zags are legit, now more than ever.
But if Few falls short of the Final Four, he can go fly-fishing and I won’t write a column hyping his team again next year.
Las Vegas Review-Journal sports betting columnist Matt Youmans can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-387-2907. He co-hosts “The Las Vegas Sportsline” weekdays at 2 p.m. on ESPN Radio (1100 AM). Follow him on Twitter: @mattyoumans247.