1999’s run wasn’t supposed to happen. A school that a few years prior considered abandoning Division I sports doesn’t just simply go on a run to the elite eight against power five schools. To say that the chances would be slim is putting it mildly. But the chances that that historic run could lead to what Gonzaga is now? That can only be quantified as a fraction of a fraction. How did a team of junior college transfers, international guys and local farming town recruits keep pace with Rip Hamilton and Jim Calhoun?
Hindsight is a peculiar thing when it comes to a story as unbelievable and preposterous as the story of Gonzaga University and its basketball program. Even with hindsight, you may get lost trying to follow the threads that lead a team ranked first in the country for the 48th week in program history back to the Cinderella darling that shocked college basketball on their way to the second weekend of the tournament.
1999 can certainly be considered the linchpin, the beginning of a 23 year-long streak of tournament appearances and the hallmark of mid-major success for smaller schools throughout the country. It was before recruiting classes of multiple McDonald’s All-Americans or a preseason National Player of the Year. It was two years before longtime assistant now blue blood Arizona head coach Tommy Lloyd would join the program’s staff as a grad assistant.
It was the second year of then-head coach Dan Monson at the helm of the program. He’d been an assistant coach for nine seasons prior and came up alongside Mark Few as lead assistants for Dan Fitzgerald. Monson had had success his first year but his second season proved he was one of the most exciting young coaches in the country. In his second season, he saw the Zags to a 28-7 record and a 10th seed in the school’s second NCAA tournament in their history.
The roster was comprised of pieces that make the perfect mid-major tournament darling. You had a veteran backcourt with speedy, redshirt senior point guard Quentin Hall. He was paired with a secondary ballhandler and scorer junior Matt Santangelo and prototypical three-point specialist and future NBA player junior Richie Frahm. But what also helped Gonzaga as a giant killer that year was the unusual size they had.
Sophomore Casey Calvary was a high motor power forward that was able to play above the rim and senior center Jeremy Eaton was a near-seven-foot pillar that could bang down low. Gonzaga had a second big in Australian Axel Dench who could mix it up with high major bigs and the scrappiness of glue guy Mark Spink made any loose ball an opportunity to gain an extra possession.
The committee did Gonzaga a solid by having them play in Seattle for the first two rounds of the NCAA tournament. They first faced a middling Minnesota, who would eventually poach Monson from Gonzaga after their tournament run. That upset was understandable, albeit surprising.
But nobody outside of that Gonzaga locker room could have expected what would follow in their following game against 2 seed Stanford. The Bulldogs outcompeted the Cardinal for 40 minutes, winning by 8 points in a game they were 7.5 point underdogs. Hall and Santangelo were a combined 6 for 9 from three. The team was 20 for 41 in their first two games of the tournament.
One of the things that makes a tournament darling’s run difficult is the nearly week-long break between the round of 32 and the Sweet 16. The Zags went from playing on the other side of Washington to now Phoenix. The white-hot shooting followed them when they took on Florida. Gonzaga drilled 12 of their 22 attempts, with seven different guys making one. Notably, Richie Frahm made 5 of his 8 attempts. But those makes couldn’t separate the Zags against the Gators. Down to the wire Gonzaga trailed by a point with just 10 seconds and then it happened.
It’s ingrained in every longtime Zags fan’s memory at this point. It’s the origin of our SB Nation site name. It put not just Gonzaga on the map but arguably the man behind the call, Gus Johnson, as well. Hall drives to the hoop with “the runner.” Calvary trails and puts back the rebound. “The slipper still fits!”
From that point on Gonzaga earned the moniker as Cinderella. They would then face the number 1 seed and eventual tournament champions Connecticut, They would stay within a point towards the end of the game before eventually losing by 5.
While it was the beginning of a 23 year streak of tournament appearances, it was also the furthest the team would get for 18 years. Many of the heroes of the epic run stayed in Spokane. Santangelo continues to be a part of Spokane basketball, from his time running the world’s largest 3-on-3 tournament, Hoopfest, to now being a friend of the program and mentoring student-athletes through NIL.
Mark Few took over the program after Monson to maintain the team’s identity and has blossomed to now being a destination for aspiring coaches to learn under the winningest coach in the time he’s held the title. What was a miraculous run is now the standard for a successful season. And every one of the guys on that 1999 roster is the reason for it.