MIAMI (AP) — Gonzaga was Erik Spoelstra’s rival in college.
He’s a Zags fan now.
The Miami Heat coach, who played college ball for Portland, a longtime West Coast Conference member alongside Gonzaga, had the Zags (37-1) winning on his bracket at the start of the NCAA Tournament and is sticking with them as they go into Monday night’s national championship game in Glendale, Arizona against North Carolina (32-7).
“I pick WCC. That was it,” Spoelstra said. “And I figured they’re probably due. That’s really a remarkable program they’ve built, that started all the way back when I played against them.”
Spoelstra said he sees parallels between his career path and that of Gonzaga coach Mark Few, who has been with the Zags in some capacity since 1990. Few has been the head coach since 1999.
Spoelstra started his Heat career in the video room. He later became an assistant coach, then replaced Pat Riley as coach in 2008.
“He’s probably the Spokane version of me there,” Spoelstra said. “He started out as a basketball operations assistant and worked his way up. And they’ve built a great program.”
Spoelstra’s pick is not unanimous inside the Heat locker room. Miami guard Wayne Ellington played and won a national title for North Carolina in 2009, when he was Most Outstanding Player at the Final Four.
The Zags do have some other Heat support, though.
“Man, I put Arizona, so I’m done,” Heat guard Goran Dragic said. “But I wish Gonzaga. Nobody counted them in the beginning like they were going to win all of this. It’s not going to be easy but hey, why not? This year’s been full of surprises.”
If Gonzaga beats North Carolina, it would be the first men’s national title for the WCC since San Francisco in 1956. And maybe, Spoelstra thinks, that could mean the end of Gonzaga being considered a so-called mid-major.
“I think it’s changed dramatically since I was in college, when we were definitely mid-to-low-major,” Spoelstra said. “We were low-major. They were mid-major. I think there’s so much parity now in college basketball, and I think the Final Four is reflective of that this year.”
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