SPOKANE — In a way, Mark Few feels like No. 1 Gonzaga is starting over.
The Bulldogs finally got back on the court to practice this week following a two-week break due to COVID-19 cases within the program.
It looked like the first practice of the year to the Gonzaga head coach.
“We were able to get together last night. It looked like our first practice in the fall, balls going everywhere and people leaning over and grabbing their shorts because they were gassed,” Few said Thursday.
The Bulldogs haven’t played since Dec. 2, when they beat West Virginia in Indianapolis. Two days later, Gonzaga’s showdown with No. 2 Baylor was abruptly canceled just a couple of hours before tip-off after one player and one staff member in the Zags’ program tested positive for COVID-19.
That led to a complete shutdown of the Bulldogs program and the cancellation of four home games.
“I just tell you this is probably, in the 20 years I’ve been coaching, the biggest challenge I’ve faced as a head coach,” Few said.
Gonzaga (3-0) opened the season spending more than a week on the road in Florida and Indiana for games against Kansas, Auburn and West Virginia. The matchup with Baylor was going to be the showcase event for the early portion of the college basketball schedule.
The Bulldogs may still get an early showcase game. They’re scheduled to return to the court Saturday against No. 3 Iowa in a game scheduled in Sioux Falls, S.D.
But while Luka Garza is a major concern for the Bulldogs, Few is more worried about the shape of his own team after two weeks of no practices. The first full squad practice for Gonzaga since the day before the Baylor game was scheduled for Thursday.
“To use the term monumental challenge would be doing a disservice,” Few said. “There’s a conditioning factor we’re trying to get up to speed. There’s a timing and rhythm and execution issues involved in basketball that are obviously a big concern, and really when you play the way we play that’s a huge part of who we are.”
Few also pointed to the mental toll of the layoff on the players, who have mostly been isolated in their rooms since early December.
“It’s not easy,” he said. “They want to play. Their whole lives are about playing basketball.”
While facing the Hawkeyes is a marquee opportunity for Gonzaga, there is still hope of facing Baylor. Few said he’s not optimistic but the programs are still looking at opportunities in January.
The Bulldogs did make an addition to their schedule Thursday, adding a game against No. 17 Virginia on Dec. 26 in Fort Worth, Texas. Virginia paused basketball activities on Dec. 9. The Cavaliers (3-1) were No. 4 in the AP preseason poll, but dropped after losing to San Francisco 61-60.
Few also announced Thursday that highly touted recruit Ben Gregg had graduated from high school early and will join the program for the remainder of this season.
The 6-foot-10 forward signed with the Zags in November. He will be available to play as a freshman once he passes all university health protocols. Under NCAA rules, he will still have four full years of eligibility after this season.
Gregg’s senior season of high school was terminated by the pandemic and “we concluded it might be best for him to get up here” and play, Few said.
The Clackamas, Ore., native averaged 21.1 points, 9.3 rebounds and 3.3 assists per game last year.