The Zags at Camp: Winning Bond Began with XL Sleeping Bags and Pitch-Black Hikes

David Gardner@@byDavidGardnerStaff WriterApril 2, 2017

Gonzaga head coach Mark Few huddles with his players during a practice session for their NCAA Final Four tournament college basketball semifinal game Friday, March 31, 2017, in Glendale, Ariz. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)
David J. Phillip/Associated Press

GLENDALE, Arizona — After they had survived South Carolina's second-half surge and advanced to the national title game, after they had watched head coach Mark Few execute a soaking-wet handstand in the locker room, three Bulldogs made their way to a news conference shoulder to shoulder to shoulder. Along the walk, Nigel Williams-Goss thought it fit to remind Zach Collins and Przemek Karnowski about the doubters. "They said our schedule was too soft," he told them. "They said we couldn't win in the tourney."

He continued the thought after the presser, on the walk back to the locker room. "They were all wrong," he said. "We were right about who we were, and I couldn't be happier to get one more chance to prove it."

This is arguably not the most talented team Few has taken to the NCAA tournament, but it is the one that has gone the furthest—indeed, only a 40-minute tilt with North Carolina on Monday stands between Gonzaga and a national championship—in part because of the bond you could see in this moment and hear in Williams-Goss' words. It's a bond that was formed the second weekend of September in Hayden Lake, Idaho.

The trip was directed by Few and designed by assistant strength and conditioning coach Travis Knight. Knight spent the better part of a week ensuring he had enough tents and had sleeping bags to accommodate a team with three 7-footers and five other players 6'6" or taller. At the end of the week, players and coaches made the 45-minute drive across the state line to set up camp.

The players' first challenge was to figure out how to set up their tents. They were divided into teams of three to five, but most of them had never been camping before. Knight, an avid outdoorsman, enjoyed watching his guys fumble with poles and tarps until they finally erected their structures. He remembered one group needed nearly an hour to finish.

Young Kwak/Associated Press

But they were building something together. This was a team that had lost Domantas Sabonis, who was the 11th pick in the NBA draft, and Kyle Wiltjer, now playing in the D-League. It returned only two starters from the 2015-16 season. It had brought in three transfers who were expected to be key contributors, including two—guard Williams-Goss and forward Johnathan Williams—who had sat out the previous season. And it welcomed a freshman class of five, including one, forward Collins, who had one-and-done potential.

"We saw the kind of pieces that we had," Williams-Goss said. "And we were confident because of them. But we needed to come together. That's what that trip did for us."

That night, after they'd eaten and grouped into their tents, the players started chatting with each other through the screens. And an idea sprang up organically. They would brave a walk into the woods, in the pitch-black. In the locker room months later, many of the guys described the site as "remote," but Knight laughed that off. "If you were from Idaho," he joked, "you wouldn't even have called it camping." Still, they set off on what seemed like a daunting journey at the time. When they came across a dock on the lake after a few minutes, they walked to the end and lay on the wood, looking up at the vast sky.

"That's when we first said it: That this would be the Gonzaga team that got to the Final Four," Williams-Goss said. "That this would be the team that won a national championship."

David J. Phillip/Associated Press

Though the trip stretched into Saturday and included a hike with four stations for team-building exercises, what most everyone in the locker room remembered was the walk they took that first night. They didn't have a destination in mind when they started, but when they went to sleep that night they knew exactly where they wanted to go. "That retreat helped more than anything with our team bonding," Collins said. "That's when we became brothers. Without it, I don't know if we'd be here right now."

As they rolled through the regular season, starting 29-0, Williams-Goss would remind his teammates that they had all seen this success coming. And when they lost to BYU on Feb. 25—the only blemish in an otherwise perfect season—he reassured the squad the outcome of one game didn't change any of the goals they'd set that night.

Against South Carolina, Gonzaga built a 14-point lead in the second half only to watch it evaporate under the Gamecocks' 16-0 run. After the win, several players talked about how the group's tight-knit bond helped keep them composed, even as they seemed to be collapsing. "We are all playing for the same reason," sophomore guard Josh Perkins said. "Each other."

With one more win, this team can redefine the program, can cement Gonzaga's status as a powerhouse basketball program for good and can end the journey that began many months ago in Idaho, where a group of guys wandered into the darkness, looked up at the stars and dreamed about reaching them together.

    

David Gardner is a staff writer for Bleacher Report and B/R Mag. Before B/R, he worked for Sports Illustrated and Yahoo Sports. His website is www.ByDavidGardner.com. You can follow him on Twitter @byDavidGardner.

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