Luke DeCock

For UNC and Gonzaga, a bond between coaches and a prediction yet to be fulfilled

In the aftermath, amid North Carolina’s celebration, Roy Williams made sure to seek out Mark Few for the Talk. The same Talk that Jim Boeheim had with Williams in 2003. The one that is part endorsement, part support, part coronation.

After North Carolina beat Gonzaga for the national title in 2017, Williams rushed to find Few, an old friend, racing to beat the confetti he thought was going to descend at any moment.

“I know how you feel,” Williams says he told Few. “I’ve been in your shoes. You will get one.”

That was Williams’ third, but he had to wait a long time for his first. In 2003, he lost his second title game at Kansas, this time to Syracuse. Boeheim was as close with Williams then as Williams is with Few now, and the message was the same.

“You’ll get one of yours,” Williams says Boeheim told him.

Williams only had to wait two years after that for his first title, after making the long-awaited jump back to his alma mater. It’s starting to look like the timetable might be the same for Few.

Two years after Gonzaga finally broke through to the Final Four after being everybody’s underdog for more than a decade, the Zags arrive in Chapel Hill for Saturday’s nationally televised game with perhaps the best team Few has ever had.

Having already beaten Duke in Hawaii, Gonzaga is looking for the second leg of the Triangle trifecta in the kind of true road game that will test its championship ambitions. The Tar Heels, a mediocre 2-2 against Power 5 opponents this season, have no less to prove.

In many ways, this rematch of the 2017 title game is a collision a long time coming, even if it was only arranged at the PK80 tournament last year, when North Carolina and Gonzaga were in opposite brackets.

Back when Few was just getting started at Gonzaga, taking over for Dan Monson in 1999, the Nike connection between the two programs opened doors that might not have been opened otherwise. With Williams’ counsel, Few modeled his offense on North Carolina, in the half-court and the secondary break, and the two coaches and their wives became close.

A game against Gonzaga at Madison Square Garden in December 2006 still has an important place in Williams’ tenure; that was the game where Ty Lawson and others came out wearing headbands, which were banned after the loss, a measure taken because Williams thought his team had become complacent. That team would, two years later, deliver him a second national title.

The most famous Williams-Few story is almost a decade old now, when the teams met in the regional semifinals in Memphis in 2009. After both teams got into town, Williams talked Few into going down to the riverboats with him for a little late-night craps. On the way back, Williams was pulled over by a state trooper who was surprised to see an NCAA courtesy car on the road in the wee hours of the morning. Before he was allowed to proceed, Williams said there was another courtesy car about 10 minutes behind him that demanded the same treatment.

Or, as Williams likes to tell it now, “I tried to get Mark arrested.”

But there’s a lot more connecting these two than craps or golf or Nike. North Carolina’s last two national titles had to go through Gonzaga, and the second came with a prediction and a promise.

Gonzaga, two years later, certainly appears capable of proving Williams just as right as he once did Boeheim.

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Sports columnist Luke DeCock has covered the Summer Olympics, the Final Four, the Super Bowl and the Carolina Hurricanes’ Stanley Cup. He joined The News & Observer in 2000 to cover the Hurricanes and the NHL before becoming a columnist in 2008. A native of Evanston, Ill., he graduated from the University of Pennsylvania and has won multiple national and state awards for his columns and feature writing while twice being named North Carolina Sportswriter of the Year.