The former Illini returns to the Final Four 16 years later as an assistant coach with Gonzaga.
Roger Powell Jr. is back in the Final Four.
Powell was a key player for the Illinois team that lost to North Carolina in the 2005 NCAA national championship game. Before that, he was a star high school player at Joliet.
Now Powell’s reputation is growing as a college coach. He’s in his second season under coach Mark Few as an assistant at Gonzaga. Powell has been part of a two-year run in which the Bulldogs have gone 61-2.
The Chicago Sun-Times spoke with Powell the morning after Gonzaga’s Elite Eight victory against USC.
Sun-Times: The buzzer sounds Tuesday, and you know you’re going to the Final Four for the first time as a coach. What were your immediate thoughts?
Powell: To be honest, it was crazy. Cutting down the net last night took me back to beating Arizona in the Elite Eight when I was playing for Illinois. That feeling of sacrificing, competing, grinding, all to get to the biggest stage in college basketball. That’s a special feeling.
S-T: Is there more of an appreciation for how difficult a journey it is to actually get to this point, to get to the Final Four?
Powell: Without a doubt. I’ve been coaching for 10 years, and it’s the first time that I’ll be coaching in the Final Four. And it’s taken 16 years since I was a part of it as a player. Taking it in now is much more surreal.
S-T: What has been the most difficult challenge in this tournament run in Indianapolis?
Powell: Obviously, being in a hotel for three weeks and not seeing family, trying to keep our guys active, busy and excited. . . . That was a big challenge. We did this Topgolf thing as a team, and they took us to the zoo, so those things do help break up the monotony of being in a hotel. On the other hand, it’s helped us stay focused. We haven’t had the distractions of flying home. We have just been able to be together, and in a way, it’s helped with our chemistry.
S-T: How much talk has there been within the program about the possibility of being the first unbeaten national champion in 46 years?
Powell: Our guys have seen it enough on TV. Every time you look, you’re being reminded of it because someone is saying something about Gonzaga. You’re hearing and seeing it enough, so when we are together, we just stick to the process.
S-T: A lot of people are asking about when it will be your time to become a head coach.
Powell: I kind of always told myself I wanted to be an assistant for 10 years before I felt like I was ready to take over a program. Now this is Year 10. I didn’t realize that after 10 years I would be as blessed and experience as much success as I’ve been fortunate enough to have. Even with the success, I’ve had challenging years also. It’s all brought me to a place where I think I’m ready. But I’m not in a rush. I can continue to get better, continue to learn, and we can continue to win at a high level here.