GLENDALE, Ariz. — Before Monday night’s NCAA championship game, Gonzaga had not played North Carolina since the Sweet 16 of the 2009 tournament and had faced the Tar Heels only one other time, in the 2006 preseason NIT.
According to the NCAA, the schools are 2,567 miles apart, the biggest geographical separation between men’s basketball finalists since Villanova and UCLA in 1971. The year Gonzaga made its first tournament appearance, in 1995, North Carolina made its 29th.
These teams could not have been more different or distant.
And yet Gonzaga coach Mark Few and his staff did not require much video study to prepare for the final. In many ways, playing North Carolina was like playing a familiar stranger.
Few, it turns out, has been breaking down North Carolina’s and coach Roy Williams’ style for decades. He had no way of knowing that such attention eventually might pay off with an NCAA title, but when he started to analyze his opponent in the biggest game of his life, he found he had a tremendous head start in the process.
“I’ve always followed Roy’s teams,” Few said Sunday after chuckling when someone asked for his “first impression” of the Tar Heels. “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.”
Williams has been so influential to Few that for years Gonzaga ran a transition scheme called “the Kansas break” that basically Xeroxed Williams’ scheme from when he was coaching there.
“I just copied it, boom,” Few said. “And that’s all we did through our early years, just because I had so much respect for Roy. It fit with what we’re doing, and our philosophies were the same as far as playing fast and just running the secondary break.”
Over the years, the relationship between the coaches shifted from play-calling plagiarism to friendship. Few recalled one of his first big-time coaching events that he and his wife, Marcy, attended.
“We didn’t feel like we were worthy,” Few said. “We didn’t feel like we belonged when there’s Roy and Coach K and [Jim] Boeheim and all these guys are walking around. And, bang, right when we got there, [Williams] and [his wife] 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 . . . You wish everybody could see how good of people these are when you’re outside the competitive part of the business.”
Few, it turns out, has made an impact on Williams and Tar Heel tradition as well.
When the teams met in that preseason NIT game, Williams said he had seven or eight of his players wearing headbands.
“They kicked our tails,” Williams said. “And I went in the locker room afterward and said, ‘Get those headbands off! I’ll never see those again the rest of my life!’ No North Carolina player’s ever worn it since.
“So Mark Few changed our program in some ways, too.”
This week the two coaches even shared a behind-the-scenes glimpse into that relationship. When both teams were in the Sweet 16 in Memphis in 2009, Williams called Few a few days before to set up a trip with their staffs to a nearby casino to play craps. The two coaching groups piled into a pair of tiny NCAA courtesy cars after their teams had lights out at midnight and headed out.
“We played two or three hours, shot craps, we both lost,” Williams said. “We get back in the car and heading back to Memphis. It’s about 3 in the morning. I get pulled over . . . So we talked [to the police officer] a couple of seconds. I said: ‘If I could bribe you, I’ll give you $100 if you’ll stop Mark Few. He’s about 15 minutes behind me.’ ”
“But they missed us,” Few said of the trap play. “So he came running up to my assistants the next day: ‘Did you get pulled over? Did you?’ And my assistant was looking at him, like, what are you talking about? So we skated through there, luckily.”
“Just ruined my day,” Williams said of Few’s escape.
How Few and Gonzaga affect Williams’ disposition Tuesday probably will have more to do with Monday night’s result than anything else.