Mark Few and Tom Moore were assistant coaches with big-time dreams back in 1999 when their teams collided with a trip to the Final Four on the line.
Few was a member of Dan Monson’s staff at Gonzaga and the Bulldogs were just emerging as the darlings of college basketball. They advanced to West Regional championship that season, ready to explode into full Cinderella mode if they could defeat Connecticut in the regional final.
Instead, that was the end of the road for Gonzaga – at least in that tournament. UConn, led by Richard Hamilton and Kevin Freeman, finally got over the NCAA hump with a 67-62 victory that sent the Huskies to their first Final Four.
Moore, an assistant to Hall of Fame coach Jim Calhoun, handled the Huskies’ scouting report for that game.
So make a note of March 20, 1999 on the calendar of both programs. Things have never been the same for either one since that game in Phoenix. UConn won the national championship the next week, the first of four titles for the Huskies under Calhoun and current coach Kevin Ollie. Few became head coach at Gonzaga the next season and is now considered one of college basketball’s elite coaches with a 466-111 career record.
Moore, now head coach at little-known Quinnipiac, and Few will cross paths again next season in what might be one of the biggest mismatches of the season. They will meet Nov. 24 (6:30 p.m. ET, ESPN2) in the first round of the AdvoCare Invitational at ESPN Wide World of Sports in Orlando, Fla.
For Gonzaga, a Sweet 16 team last season with a 28-8 record, this is just another game in an early season tournament. For Quinnipiac, a Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference team coming off its first losing season since Moore became head coach in 2007-08, this is the Final Four, the Super Bowl and the World Series all rolled into one.
“This will be a great opportunity for us on a national stage,” Moore said earlier this week after learning the pairings on July 14.
“When we played them [in 1999], I didn’t really know Coach Few. But I’ve gotten to know him over the years on the recruiting trail and I have huge respect for him as a coach and their program. It’s just phenomenal how solid and consistent they’ve been over the years.”
After reasonable success in the Northeast Conference, including a NIT bid in 2010, Moore’s Quinnipiac program has struggled in its first three seasons as a member of the MAAC. The Bobcats are 24-36 overall and 15-25 in conference play the past two seasons.
So what in the world is Moore thinking with this scheduling move?
Quinnipiac’s second game will be against either Seton Hall or Florida. The rest of the field in Orlando includes Indiana State, Iowa State, Stanford, and Miami.
“You get one [early season representative a year] in the MAAC,” Moore said. “It gets kicked around at the coaches’ meeting every year. We’ve been on the clock sort of for two years.”
So, you throw a dart and hope it lands on the right season and with the right roster. As a coach, you never know if that will work the right way. In Moore’s case, this is not the best time.
Moore admits Quinnipiac has made recruiting mistakes during the transition to the MAAC. To try to recover, he is bringing in four junior college transfers and two freshmen this season.
“This group, to be honest with you, might be a little too green to be going down there at Thanksgiving this year with six new guys and playing a gauntlet type of schedule,” Moore said. “But on the flip side, I think it will be great for us to get our name out there on national television for three days.
“When I transitioned to this league, I remember watching Siena and Rider playing. I remember them going 1-5 combined. But yet I watched them and said, ‘They are going to be very good in our league.’ You can go down there and go 0-3 and still have a really good conference season. You can be a pretty good MAAC team.”
Monmouth represented the MAAC last season and made headlines by upsetting No. 17 Notre Dame, 70-68, in the first round. After losing to Dayton 73-70, the Hawks defeated USC for third place.
In 2012, Quinnipiac took UConn to double overtime in the Paradise Jam before losing 89-83. The schools are about 45 minutes apart but traveled to St. Thomas to meet on the court. The Bobcats finished 1-2 in that tournament.
Heading into Orlando tournament, Moore said the key is framing everything the proper way for his players. He will remind them it isn’t the end of the world if the Bobcats emerge 0-3.
“Monmouth made a great statement for our league down there,” Moore said. “They were terrific. We’ll certainly find out what works and what doesn’t work early. As a competitor it’s just awesome to have an opportunity like that. Our kids will be so fired up.”