“It’s about the journey, not the tourney:” the story of the 2019-20 Gonzaga Bulldogs

Gonzaga's Killian Tillie throws down the one-handed jam against Pacific.
Gonzaga's Killian Tillie throws down the one-handed jam against Pacific.

SPOKANE, Wash. — If you’ve covered the Gonzaga Bulldogs men’s basketball team long enough, you’ve heard head coach Mark Few say the words, “it’s about the journey, not the tourney.” Unfortunately this season, we have to believe him because we never got to see if the no. 2 Zags could make it back to the Final Four.

So what does Coach Few mean by his much-used phrase?  Over the years many Gonzaga fans have paid less attention to the regular season, just waiting to see how the Zags do in the NCAA tournament in March.  Few repeatedly said those fans are missing out on the seasons his Bulldogs have put together.   It seems to bother him more every year that a big win in December is always met with the question, “how do you think this will help you in March?”

Few has preached that having Gonzaga in the NCAA tournament is not a birth right.  It’s hard to get back year after year, yet they make it look easy at times.  Don’t be fooled, Coach Few knows how big the tournament is, and would love to win it, but he understands it.

Gonzaga's Killian Tillie listen to coach Mark Few during a timeout.

Gonzaga’s Killian Tillie listen to coach Mark Few during a timeout.

We’ve seen some crazy things in the NCAA tournament over the years, we’ve seen Gonzaga become a national brand by having success there seemingly every year.  We’ve also seen some crazy things go against the Zags.  Nevada coming out in “on fire” mode from NBA Jam in Seattle to knock off the 2nd seeded Zags.  Blake Stepp missing an eight-foot bank shot that would have knocked off the #1 seeded Arizona Wildcats in overtime in Salt Lake City.  A missed out of bounds call in the national championship game that would have given Gonzaga another chance to win the game.

Because of the unpredictability of a tournament with endless match-up problems, Mark Few has enjoyed the consistency his teams have shown in the regular seasons where overwhelmingly they have been the best program on the west coast for years.

So, in the year without the NCAA tournament, we have to ask ourselves, did we enjoy the journey, or did we miss it while we waited for the tourney?

If we missed the journey, we missed a lot.

PRESEASON – Who are these guys?

Back in October there were way more questions than answers on this roster.  How were they going to replace two NBA first-round draft picks?  Who was the point guard? Is Filip Petrusev ready to make a leap? And the biggest, can Killian Tillie stay healthy?

We had thoughts, but that’s all they were, we certainly didn’t know what we were about to see.

AYAYI

Talking about Gonzaga preseason I don’t recall anyone saying Joel Ayayi would be a huge part of this season.  There was more talk about

Gonzaga's Joel Ayayi (11) is all alone at the rim against Santa Clara.

Gonzaga’s Joel Ayayi (11) is all alone at the rim against Santa Clara.

Brock Revet than Ayayi.  It’s understandable, Ayayi averaged 1.7 points per game last year and wasn’t really part of any regular rotation.  All he did this season is up his average nearly 9 points per game, and led the Zags in rebounds 5 of the first 13 games of the season.  He started the season as a bench player, and quickly moved his way into the starting line up and was third on the team in minutes.

WOOLRIDGE

The question of the point guard was answered quickly as Ryan Woolridge looked like a guy who had been in the system for four years, not four months.  The ten points per game were nice, but his ability to play defense while not falling off running the offense was a nice surprise.  Ryan Woolridge is a huge reason why this year’s team was as good as they were.

TILLIE

Everyone was hoping we would see a full healthy season from Killian Tillie.  Once again, we didn’t get to see it.  He had the seventh most minutes on the roster, and had just over half the minutes Corey Kispert had.  Yet, when he was on the floor, it was easy to see he was the best player in the game.  The most important part, Tillie was healthy at the end of the season and Gonzaga was clearly better with him in the lineup than without.

PETRUSEV

Zags drop to No. 9, unranked Michigan goes to No. 4

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Who saw this coming?  Heck it took half the season to figure out how to say his name.  He went from backing up the all-NBA draft front court, to becoming the WCC Player of the Year in one season.  Consistently the best player on the team this year, and now a possible candidate to leave early for professional basketball.  What a season for Filip.

KISPERT

In my opinion, the MVP of this year’s team.  He led the team in minutes, and finished second in scoring behind Petrusev.  How many clutch three’s did we see out of Kispert this season?  It wasn’t just the minutes or points, it’s his attitude that makes him my MVP.  Playing with fire and emotion, many times getting the crowd, and his teammates back into a big game.  Corey always seems to say what we want him to say, he doesn’t go into cliche mode, he admits they want BYU again, he admits he remembers losing to Saint Mary’s in the WCC title game the year before.  He knows how big the moment is, and he seems to rise to the occasion more often than not.

WHAT COULD HAVE BEEN

That’s a phrase that will define this year’s team.  It’s unfortunate, because that’s the point of Mark Few’s comments.  Yes, we all wanted to see what could happen, but look at what did happen. This team showed toughness, they showed unity, they played together and for each other.  Coach Few said this team surprised them so much.  He’s right, they surprised all of us.  They not only stayed afloat after losing six big-time players off last year’s roster, they excelled.

Corey Kispert cuts down the nets after Gonzaga wins the WCC tournament in Las VegasCUTTING DOWN THE NETS

Gonzaga’s goal is to cut down the nets on the last game of the season, they did that this year.  The last memory we get with this team is cutting down the nets in Las Vegas.  We were just hoping it would have been Atlanta instead.  The NCAA tournament was taken from us this year, but maybe that’s what needed to happen to remind us what Mark Few has been telling us for years, it’s about the journey.