CINCINNATI -- When Xavier and Gonzaga tip off at 6:09 p.m. Saturday in the Elite Eight in San Jose, they'll have one very obvious thing in common -- neither has ever been to the Final Four and both desperately want to go.
But that’s not all they have in common -- from their schools to their coaches to their NCAA tournament histories, they mirror each other in a lot of ways.
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Both are small Jesuit schools, both are making a third Elite Eight appearance in program history, and both have been NCAA tournament stalwarts -- often playing upstart Davids to bigger schools' Goliaths -- for at least the last two decades.
In fact, each program has appeared in eight Sweet 16s. They each have 27 all-time tournament wins.
Mark Few has made a name for Gonzaga in Spokane, Washington and beyond, just as the legacy at Xavier has been built in part by Ohio State’s Thad Matta, Arizona’s Sean Miller and current Musketeers coach Chris Mack.
Those coaches have all done it without big-name high school players. You won't see many former McDonald's All-Americans in the history pages of each program. You will see players that became All-Americans and NBA draft picks, like David West, Brian Grant and James Posey for Xavier or Adam Morrison, Dan Dickau and Kelly Olynyk for Gonzaga.
On a personal level, Few and Mack even share the same hobby: Fishing. Few was probed about his pastime ahead of the West Virginia Sweet 16 game, as Bob Huggins shares his affinity. Few said fishing is a way to avoid the noise around basketball and “just be alone.”
“Some of the places I’m blessed to go fishing are the most beautiful places in the entire world when you're there. And you just take it in. It drops you down a couple notches. They’re the type of places that, I mean, if you came into them with any doubt there was a God, you leave (knowing) that there is a God. This is impossible to have without somebody creating it,” Few said.
“I can think about recruiting. I can think about my team. I can just do a lot of soul searching out there, and yet it’s a challenge. It’s competitive. It’s all of that. And then my wife will tell you, I think my team will tell you, if I do it on days off you come back a better coach. You're in a better place, not as surly or salty. You're not as negative. You’re just in a better place. Works for me. Other guys take naps and eat, drink. I fish.”
Mack posts offseason pictures of himself fishing on social media. His Twitter feed includes the phrase “Future Bass Master’s Champion.”
Even the schools themselves are similar. Both private Jesuit schools, Gonzaga was founded in 1887 and has 7,572 undergrads. Xavier is older, established in 1831, but a little smaller with 6,522 undergraduates.
Could have been a rematch
The mirror image programs will get a chance to see which is best on Saturday. They almost got that chance early this season.
The story took root in May of 2016 when the Gavitt Tipoff Games pairings were announced. The Gavitt Games are an early season series between the Big East and Big Ten. Named in honor of Big East founder Dave Gavitt and launched in 2015, the outings are played at home sites.
Big East teams participate at least six times in the series, which runs through 2022. Big Ten schools play at least four times.
The Musketeers went to Michigan (and won) in 2015. XU officials expected a home game against a Big Ten opponent in 2016 -- but instead Xavier was left out of the pairings.
XU Athletic Director Greg Christopher said at the time that Xavier was disappointed to be omitted. The program recognized its limited availability due to the Puerto Rico Tip-Off (which later was moved to Orlando because of Zika virus concerns) but alerted Big East officials the year before in hopes of remaining in the Gavitt Games mix.
Although the Musketeers offered four potential dates for a contest against a Big Ten foe, none were selected. Xavier was left with a hole in its non-conference schedule, which sent director of basketball administration Mario Mercurio scrambling to fill the void.
Gonzaga was almost a perfect fit. The Bulldogs were everything Xavier sought in a non-conference foe, from their strength of schedule to their ability to challenge the Musketeers. The teams also played a home-and-home series not long ago, first at Gonzaga (2010-11) and then at Cintas Center (2011-12).
Mercurio said Xavier and Gonzaga discussed playing in Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Chicago or organizing a home-and-home series, but the stars didn’t align.
“We have a yearly banter with Gonzaga when it comes to non-conference scheduling,” Mercurio said Friday. “Looking forward, there are some complexities tied to overlapping exempt events that make a series-type arrangement difficult. In the short term, when neutral site opportunities present themselves, Gonzaga will always be one of our first calls.”
The Musketeers rounded out their 2016-17 non-conference schedule against Northern Iowa in a non-bracketed Tire Pros Invitational (Puerto Rico Tip-Off) game at Cintas Center. The teams also met in the exempt event’s championship, which ensured back-to-back meetings.
Tale of the tape
Despite the historic similarities, Saturday's matchup will be a tall order for Xavier. The Bulldogs are a No. 1 seed and are a gaudy 35-1. However, the Musketeers have already knocked off the Nos. 2 and 3 teams in the region.
The details of the game hinge upon execution, as all games do, but Gonzaga will be the heftiest test 11th-seeded Xavier (24-13) has faced to date. West Coast Conference player of the year and junior guard Nigel Williams-Goss averages 16.5 points, 5.9 rebounds and 4.7 assists, and 7-foot-1, 300-pound senior center Przemek Karnowski adds 12.4 points and 5.9 boards.
In a lone regular-season loss to Brigham Young, Gonzaga shot a sizzling 59.3 percent but faltered from the perimeter and surrendered 20 points off turnovers. Whether that’s a blueprint for unseating the Bulldogs remains to be seen, but Xavier has thrived defensively through its zone of late.
It would have been interesting to see full-strength Xavier face Gonzaga in November. A win over the Bulldogs could have made Xavier’s push for an NCAA tournament at-large bid less frantic. But this stage is arguably better, as the Musketeers have pulled together to play their best basketball of the season.
Regardless of winner, history is there for the taking.