How Good of a Coach is Mark Few?

I'm actually re-posting this from a Blog I'm starting out called the "Ball Street Times." I would have just done a Fanshot, but the Blog is in its early stages and I wanted to get the full post to be read without people saying "What the hell is this?" because the blog is so sparse as of this moment. It will look better...I promise.

As a Gonzaga fan, I have been getting in bickering matches on Facebook with people who defend Mark Few, the head coach of Gonzaga. With the Zags 13-8 going into tonight's game against San Diego, this year has been a disappointment. A pre-season top-15 team, the Zags seem to be heading to the NIT unless they run the gantlet and win the WCC tournament (not entirely impossible, but your asking the Zags to win two to three games in a row? I don't know).

So here's the question. Is Mark Few one of college basketball's top coaches? Or has great players helped overshadow his inefficiencies as a coach?

Here are a few of the arguments I'm going to make:

1.) Few is a great recruiter, but the rest of the league is catching up to him in terms of talent.
2.) Few is solid offensively.
3.) Few's ability as a defensive coach is atrocious.

In terms of point one, you can't deny his ability as a recruiter. When you're bringing in ESPN-rated recruits to a WCC school in Spokane, Wash., that's a feat and an ability in itself. Come on. There is not much to attract recruits to Eastern Washington. Washington State has struggled with this for years. However, Gonzaga still is getting talented players. Even this year, despite their awful performance, the players are still talented. Many players who used to consider a Pac-10 school are now considering Gonzaga, and to me, that's incredible. For a while, that wasn't happening at other WCC schools. Even with its nice locale, Pepperdine still struggled to bring in recruits.

That being said, Gonzaga's reputation, the coaching stability in the WCC and the increased national television exposure due to a gazillion sports networks has evened out the talent level in the conference. The fact of the matter is that the WCC is much better talent-wise than it was five or six years ago. Luke Sikma, Kevin Foster, Mickey McConell, and Keion Bell are all legitimate talents. Maybe five years ago, instead of going to Santa Clara, Foster goes to Cal or Stanford. But because the WCC gets as much television time as a Pac-10 team nowadays, Foster is a Bronco. Because the Pac-10 coaches are changing every year, Bell goes to Pepperdine instead of a school like Arizona State or USC. This is great for the WCC, but it makes things tough for Gonzaga. They don't have the leg up talent-wise on the conference like before.

As for point two, I give credit to Few offensively. His teams according to PPG are usually in the top-25 in the nation. Check out college basketball-reference. com and this fact backs it up. Few's teams can score points and points in bunches.

However, is that part of scheme, great players or just lackluster talent in terms of the competition? In my opinion, I think it's more of the last two, and less of the first. First off, if Few is really known for scheme, somebody tell me the offensive identity of his teams? John Calipari is known for the dribble-drive. Mike Anderson is known for 40 minutes of hell. Ben Howland runs the motion at UCLA.

As for Few? I guess it's a flex-style offense with some triangle principles, but even then, it's hardly a true flex (and not done well to boot). Yes, the center is required to be a good passing man, and a lot of the the offense runs through the center. Since Gonzaga has had good centers who can pass (Violette, Turiaf, Batista, Heytvelt, and Sacre are all decent with the ball in their hands), I guess you can attribute this to their success on the offensive end. But Gonzaga has always been a team better in the fast break than in the half-court. That IS NOT the characteristic of a good flex or triangle team. In fact, if anything, Gonzaga has seemed to be a team that wants to play in the fast break rather than in the half court. Heck, they almost look uncomfortable and lost when in the half-court game. That's another sign of a team that does not have a true identity on the offensive end.

So if the Zags don't have much of an identity on the offensive end, why have they been so effective? Simply because they have had great offensive players. Dan Dickau was an All-American player. As was Adam Morrison. Batista was very effective. As was Matt Bouldin and Derek Raivio. Few brought in guys with exceptional skills on the offensive end, and despite the lack of a scheme or identity, they were able to excel. This is actually common in college basketball. Georgia Tech has absolutely no identity on the offensive or defensive end. However, the talent is always so incredible that they are able to be better than average because talent will always win out in the end. That's really how basketball works. Scheme is important, but you need to have great players. There's a reason why the Lakers and Celtics played in the NBA Finals and why Duke won a title last year. They simply have the best players.

Furthermore, the offensive talent on Gonzaga's roster was always head and shoulders above whatever the WCC could produce. Would Morrison have dominated the conference now like he did during his tenure as a Zag? What about Dickau? I'm not so sure. Yes, Morrison had some incredible games against non-conference opponents, but I wonder how those guys would do going against players like Bell, Foster and McConnell rather than Manny Quezada and John Bryant.

As for the last point, the numbers show how bad defensively Few's teams have been. Now, if they had a "seven seconds or less" mentality where they were just trying to score as much as possible and maximize possessions, than I would say, "Okay, I can live with the terrible defensive performance on a year to year basis." But Few has never emphasized this kind of offense nor has even shown a semblance of it with his teams, and seems to want to play more half court than full court.

Here is some shocking facts: in Few's tenure, only four teams have ranked lower than 100th in the nation in points per game allowed. Six of his teams have ranked higher than 150th in points per game allowed. He's only had two players who's broken the three mark in defensive win shares (Corey Violette in 2001-2002 and Austin Daye in 2008-2009) and he's only had four years in his tenure where he had multiple players break the two defensive win shares mark (2001-2002, 2003-2004, 2007-2008, and 2008-2009).

The fact of the matter is Few's teams don't make any commitment to the defensive end. Even in the pre-Morrison era there wasn't much of a commitment to defense. The only times the teams ever played well defensively in Few's tenure were when he had great defensive players like Casey Calvary, Ronny Turiaf and Austin Daye (all players who had multiple two defensive win share seasons). Sans those players, his teams were terrible on the defensive end.

Even if you don't buy the whole "advanced stats" argument, you can't deny that his teams aren't good defensively in person. They don't communicate. They don't adjust. They always are outhustled and out-matched in terms of physicality. Yes, that can be partially talent (exhibit B: when they got manhandled at Spokane arena in 2009 by Memphis), but when McConnell and Foster go for 30-plus in consecutive weeks, then have some problems in your defensive scheme. Again, much like there is no clear-cut offensive identity, the defense is even worse. Jim Boheim runs the 2-3 religiously. Rick Pitino is known for his full court press. Bob Knight was always a man to man guy. Few doesn't have that commitment or identity on the defensive end, and doesn't have his players "buy" into one scheme like a good coach would. They play all kinds of defensive schemes half-hearted. To use the restaurant analogy, on the defensive end, the Zags are Denny's (a million things on the menu done in a mediocre way), while a team like Syracuse is like Morton's (only a few things on the menu done exceptionally well).

What are the good things about Few? Like I said, I think he's a good recruiter, I think he's brought stability to the program and I think he's made the conference better by bringing in top-notch talent (which has forced the WCC to up their standards and commitments to basketball). However, as a game coach, especially on the defensive end, Few is questionable at best, and probably not in the discussion of Top-10 coaches in college basketball, maybe not even Top-20.

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