Keeping Score

Five Lessons To Learn From Gonzaga Basketball

How the mid-major power rose to the top of college hoops

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William Mancebo / Getty Images

Gonzaga's Kelly Olynyk shoots a free throw at the McCarthey Athletic Center on February 23, 2013 in Spokane, Washington.

Earlier this week, Gonzaga University — the Jesuit school in Spokane, Washington with just 4,805 undergraduate students — became the top-ranked college basketball team in the country. It’s the first time in school history Gonzaga has grabbed the top spot. Despite playing in the West Coast Conference, a league without the budget of conferences like the Big 10 or Atlantic Coast Conference, Gonzaga has been a consistent winner over the past 15 years. Gonzaga doesn’t attract “one-and-done” NBA stars who leave after freshman year. The school’s players stick around for four seasons, and that experience — plus their considerable talent — means that Gonzaga can beat any team in the country, at any time.

So how to you get all the way to the top? Here are five secrets to Gonzaga’s success.

1. Recruit Business Types. Three key Gonzaga players — center Kelly Olynyk, a national player of the year candidate, junior Drew Barham, and senior guard Mike Hart are all graduate students. Olynyk and Hart are pursuing M.B.A. degrees, and Barham is studying organizational leadership. Olynyk, who is taking business ethics and investment classes this semester, says that the M.B.A. program has paid dividends. “It’s different than being a regular student,” Olynyk says. “It isn’t lectures – most of it is group projects, and everyone plays a role in the discussion. It’s helped me become more vocal on the team. And all of us have input.”

2. Grow Your Flow. While sitting out last season to improve his low-post game, Olynyk did not return home to his native British Columbia. While stuck in the States, he refused to get a haircut. Nothing against American barbers — Olynyk just trusts his guy back home.

As his hair grew out, however, Olynyk says he “started to like how it looked, how it felt.” Now that Gonzaga is having a historic season, he’s not clipping his locks any time soon. Olynyk plans to get a haircut after season, and donate his hair to Locks of Love, a charity that makes hairpieces for children suffering from medical conditions. A teammate recently dubbed his haristyle “Flow-y-nyk.” Says Barham: “He’s got the flow going. His game is flowing, he’s just flowing.” Says Hart: “It makes him unique. Though it looks goofy sometimes when he’s always playing with it.”

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The web has delighted in noting Olynyk’s resemblance to actor Wiley Wiggins, who starred in the cult slacker-flick Dazed and Confused. Olynyk hasn’t caught the movie, but has seen the side-by-side picture. “It’s fine,” Olynyk says. “Everyone has lookalikes in the world.”

3. Go Deep Or Go Home. Analysts always harp on a team’s depth as a key to success. But the top teams in college basketball tend to have tight rotations. Except for Gonzaga; among the likely top two seeds in each NCAA tournament region, Gonzaga’s subs play the most minutes. The Zags are 63rd in the country in bench minutes, according to college hoops stats guru Ken Pomeroy. None of the teams ahead of them are a national title threat: by comparison, Indiana is 283rd in the country in bench minutes, Duke is 310th, and Kansas ranks 330th.

4. Give Out Baseball Caps. After every home game, and many road games, former Gonzaga baseball coach Steve Hertz comes into the locker room, and hands out a Gonzaga baseball cap to the player who made a key play, or set of plays, that don’t always show up in the box score. It’s kind of like a game ball — except that it’s a baseball cap. “I think we’re the only team in the country that does something like that,” says Barham. That’s a safe bet. “It brings you closer,” Barham says. “Everyone is high-fiving the guy who gets the cap. Everyone is excited.” Barham has one from this year. “It’s something you put on your mantle,” he says.

5. Bless the Crowd. At every Gonzaga home game, the PA announcer asks for silence 26 minutes before tipoff. Fr. Craig Hightower, S.J.– Gonzaga’s director of campus ministry, and a team chaplain — walks to mid-court and blesses all four sides of the McCarthey Athletic Center, section by section (Gonzaga is 16-1 at home this year). This ritual started four years ago, when the vice-president of Gonzaga’s raucous student fan section — called the Kennel Club — asked if Hightower would bless a keg at an upcoming party. HIghtower declined that request, but offered to bless the students before the game. After this ritual caught on, other fans demanded a blessing. So eventually, Hightower started asking God to protect the entire arena. “When training to be a Jesuit, and studying theology and philosophy and stuff,” says Hightower, “they don’t cover crowd blessing.”

While Gonzaga hasn’t hatched a plan for Hightower to give a mid-court blessing at the NCAA Tournament, he will bless Gonzaga fans from the sidelines during the team’s post-season run. So start warming up your shoulder, Father. The Georgia Dome – site of this year’s Final Four – is mighty big.

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