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DETROIT — With Gonzaga one victory away from reaching its first-ever Final Four seven years ago, coach Mark Few gave an uncharacteristically surly response to a question about what it would mean to get the “monkey” off his back and finally break to reach the national semifinals.

“It’s not about me and my monkeys and my dogs and my cats,” Few said as a group of his players seated next to him worked to stifle their laughter.

A couple of days later, after an 83-59 thrashing of Xavier in the Elite Eight, the monkey was no longer on Few’s back. Instead, there were several monkeys in Few’s yard.

“After we made it to the Final Four, the people in our neighborhood put a bunch of stuffed monkeys in our driveway,” Gonzaga sophomore guard Joe Few told CBS Sports. “It was funny. I think he felt a big relief with that, too. He wouldn’t admit it, but I feel like he felt that relief of finally being there.”

As the No. 5 seed Zags enter a loaded Midwest Regional also featuring No. 1 seed Purdue, No. 2 seed Tennessee and No. 3 seed Creighton, Few is sitting in a different part of the jungle than his three coaching counterparts in Detroit. Unless it’s Few and the Zags who advance, someone is shedding a Final Four monkey at Little Caesars Arena this weekend.

  • Purdue coach Matt Painter is in his 19th season without a Final Four. The Boilermakers came close before falling 80-75 in overtime against eventual national champion Virginia in the 2019 Elite Eight. The monkey sank its claws in deep last season when Purdue fell to No. 16 seed FDU in the first round of the NCAA Tournament.
  • Creighton coach Greg McDermott is in his 14th season without a Final Four, though his 2023 team was one controversial call away from college basketball’s promised land when it fell to San Diego State in an Elite Eight heartbreaker.
  • Then, there is Rick Barnes. Though he led Texas to a Final Four appearance in 2003, he’s not been back and is leading a Tennessee program that has never been. Barnes’ nine-year run with the Volunteers rivals the best tenure of anyone in program history, but it has yet to yield a run beyond the Sweet 16. The monkey has returned.

Even Few, who has coached in two of the past six national championship games, gets criticized for the fact that he’s yet to cut down the final set of nets.

“We’ve been beat up a lot, or I’ve been beat up a lot for the people that have beaten us,” Painter said. “We’re the higher seed, ‘we should win, this and that.’ I always say that takes away from your opponent. That’s not fair to them. Like they’ve earned it. We didn’t get cheated out of anything. Somebody beat us.

“So I think for us, the most important thing to do and what we’ve always tried to do is be honest with ourselves in evaluation no matter how your season ends so you can hopefully make those corrections. But you can’t correct your team or you can’t correct your players unless you correct yourself.”

All four coaches in the Midwest Regional appeared on CBS Sports’ Top 25 And 1 Top Coaches Rankings before the season. Collectively, they’ve been at their institutions for 67 years, which more than doubles the tenure of any other group of coaches at a regional this week. Barnes, who began at Tennessee during the Obama administration, is the newest of the four at his school. Of the coaches ranked by CBS, Painter (No. 10) is the highest who has never appeared in a Final Four. 

It’s only a subplot to a regional that features two of the four finalists for Naismith Player of the Year in Purdue’s Zach Edey and Tennessee’s Dalton Knecht, and these coaches didn’t get here by obsessing over their own accomplishments. 

But it’s a subplot with significant ramifications.

When Gonzaga and Few finally reached the Final Four, they became a national juggernaut regularly in the hunt for No. 1 seeds and elite talent. Six of the 12 first-round draft picks produced in Few’s 25-year tenure have come in the past five drafts once the Zags enjoyed their major national breakthrough. It provided more exposure, more legitimacy and more clout for Few, who was already operating a top-notch program.

The same could happen for the others in the Midwest Regional, and that’s a scary thought.

Painter, 53, is a five-time Big Ten Coach of the Year who is deeply entrenched at his alma mater. McDermott, 59, signed an extension with Creighton before the NCAA Tournament and already owns more NCAA Tournament victories than the combined total of every other coach in program history. Barnes, 69, is one of two active coaches with 800 victories and is arguably operating at a higher level now than ever before.

But if there’s anything any of their legacies lack, it can be resolved this weekend.

And if it happens to be Gonzaga that emerges, then Few will be just two victories away from shedding the final monkey, dog or cat remaining.



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