As alumni and former players in the Gonzaga men’s basketball program, Yakima residents Jason Rubright and Jon Kinloch don’t know how the Zags’ current magic carpet ride — a No. 1 national ranking, a No. 1 NCAA tournament seed — will end.
But they know this much: They were there when it started.
NCAA tournament trips have become commonplace for the Zags (31-2), whose first-round game today against Southern (23-9) marks their 15th consecutive berth. Entering the 1994-1995 season, though, the Zags had never made it into the tourney field.
Rubright and Kinloch — then 6-foot-7 and 6-6 forwards, the former a senior and the latter a junior — helped changed that.
And nobody saw it coming.
Their best opportunity was supposed to have come the season before, when the Zags had four senior starters and won the program’s first West Coast Conference championship in school history. But when that team lost in the semifinals of the WCC tournament, it had to settle for a berth in the National Invitation Tournament (NIT).
Not much was expected from the leftovers. With just one returning starter (guard John Rillie) and two reserves (Rubright and Kinloch) back, the 1994-95 team was picked to finish fifth in the WCC.
“The common sense was we were really going to be in the rebuilding phase and never have another shot at (an NCAA tournament berth),” Kinloch recalls. The team started out 11-1 but then lost its first six games in WCC play, making any postseason opportunity, in Kinloch’s words, “improbable to say the least.”
“We weren’t looking real good,” says Rubright, the 1995 team’s leading rebounder (4.7 per game) and a 7.4-point scorer.
Dan Fitzgerald was nearing the end of his second stint as the Zags’ coach (1978-81, 1985-97). A gregarious, wisecracking sort, later joked that during that losing skid, “I tried to hang myself, but the rope broke.”
Fitzgerald, though, had already laid the foundation for what the Gonzaga program was about to become. Rubright points to the feisty young assistant coaches Fitzgerald brought in — Bill Grier, Dan Monson and current Gonzaga head coach Mark Few — “and the kind of players they began to get, the culture they were creating.”
Kinloch credits Fitzgerald for establishing that culture of goal-oriented, team-focused hard work.
“He was a scrapper as a coach, and he did it with a smaller budget,” says Kinloch, 40, now the general manager at Apple Tree Resort and West Valley’s boys basketball coach. “He found guys who were like him, guys who just competed like he did as a coach, and he finally got the right type of guys together to make it happen.”
The 1995 Zags began to turn things around even before the end of that six-game losing skid to open WCC play. The team was playing on the road at conference-leading Santa Clara, and had a lead late in the game before succumbing.
Even with the loss, the Zags gained a measure of confidence. “We realized we literally, on the road, almost beat the best team in the league,” says Kinloch, the 1995 team’s second-leading scorer at 12.5 points per game.
After the close loss to Santa Clara, Gonzaga went on a tear, winning seven of eight to finish the WCC season at 7-7. The Zags maintained that momentum through the WCC tournament, winning all three games for the title and the conference’s automatic NCAA berth.
Their reward? A No. 14 seed and a first-round matchup against Maryland, an Atlantic Coast Conference powerhouse led by national player of the year Joe Smith, a 6-foot-10 forward-center who averaged nearly 21 points and three months later would be selected first in the NBA draft.
And who had to cover him? Rubright.
“He was long and athletic, and he was certainly our best option (to face Smith),” Kinloch says. “He was a good defender of posts, and it was a good matchup, and we mixed it up, playing zone and man.”
The prospect of going head-to-head against the nation’s top player didn’t awe the 6-7 kid from Spokane’s Gonzaga Prep.
“At the time, it wasn’t intimidating at all,” says Rubright, 41, who now owns and manages a helicopter company. “I guess I just felt like I was a senior and he was a sophomore, and as a senior you kind of feel like you’ve been through everything. I certainly felt like our team had been through everything, with all the ups and downs of that season.
“And we didn’t have anything to lose.”
Rubright actually outplayed the nation’s top player. Each shot 4-for-9 from the field, but Smith finished with a season-low nine points and four rebounds, while Rubright finished with 13 points and six rebounds and didn’t commit a turnover in 32 minutes on the court.
The final score — an 87-63 Maryland victory — wasn’t indicative of the competitiveness of the game. Gonzaga trailed by just seven with 13 minutes remaining before the Terps pulled away down the stretch.
But something had changed. The Zags had been to the big dance.
“I don’t know whether us making the tournament or not cracked some kind of code,” Rubright says. “But it gave guys that thought that it could be done.”
That the 1995 team broke the Zags’ NCAA tournament drought still strikes Kinloch as a little odd. The team was even better the next year, but ended up in the NIT, just as the 1994 regular-season WCC champs had.
“It’s kind of funny,” Kinloch says. “In my view, the two best teams I played for played in the NIT, and the third-best team went into the NCAAs.”
Four years later, the 1999 Zags had their famous “Cinderella” run, reaching the tournament as a No. 10 seed and winning three games before losing in the Elite 8. That finish remains Gonzaga’s high-water NCAA mark, despite the fact that their current No. 1 seed marks the fourth time in their 15-year tourney string the Zags have been seeded fourth or higher.
Kinloch knows just how fickle public perception can be.
“Unfortunately, if Gonzaga doesn’t make a Final Four this year, given all the hype, they’re going to be considered a failure,” Kinloch says. “I think only something like 40 percent of the No. 1 seeds make the Final Four, so the odds are against you either way. But ... if they don’t make the Final Four, they’ll be considered unworthy — and that’s wrong.
“They’ve played as tough a non-league schedule as anybody, and the WCC is better than than anybody gives them credit for. But so many things have to go right when you’re playing in the tournament. The road is tough.”
Of course, the road to where the Zags are now has been a long one.
And it was paved, at least in small part, by Rubright and Kinloch.