Gonzaga rolls into the NCAAs, where ultimate validation awaits
LAS VEGAS — The chants of “Number 1! Number 1!” rained down from most corners of Orleans Arena in the final minutes of Gonzaga’s ruthless 65-51 win over Saint Mary’s for the West Coast Conference tournament title. The effort, unleashed in front of a national TV audience, seems to make certain Gonzaga will be the No. 1 team in the nation come Selection Sunday. And the Bulldogs appear poised to add the label of a No. 1 seed, as well.
Cynics will point to their more modest league schedule and lack of true top-shelf non-conference wins, but the Zags have done almost everything they can to prove their worth. They certainly look the part and, for the most part this season, have delivered on that promise while being the hunted in almost every one of their games. With not enough major-conference contenders able to put a consistent run of performances together, it’s hard to see four other teams ending up ahead of them on the seed list.
The Final Four is a very real target and the Zags will carry heavy expectations into the dance. That’s really the story, even as they enjoy their very legitimate current accomplishments with measured perspective.
“[The program] has had so much history and so much success in the past that it’s crazy to think we’re doing some stuff that’s never been done there, with all the great players that have come through there, so it’s really cool that way,” star big man Kelly Olynyk said in the winning locker room after the game.
That’s absolutely true. Many fans may still not believe Gonzaga is *the* No. 1 team in the land, but it’s inarguable at this point that they are one of the nation’s best teams. It’s also starting to look inarguable that this is the best of the Zags teams in this 15-year run: more balanced than the Adam Morrison-led ones that further heightened expectations and more complete and dangerous than the ones that won seven NCAA games in three years from 1999-2001. They have ample experience and NBA-level big man talent that can play at both ends of the floor.
In the main postgame press conference, Mark Few noted how much better this team’s defense is than past Gonzaga teams that carried the Great Zag Hope label into March. Advanced metrics don’t play them hugely better than some previous versions, but the way they can defend, with size and agility in their frontcourt allows them to guard more flexibly and effectively in more varied ways. Tuesday’s 40-minute masterclass in hard doubles off ball screens that rendered Saint Mary’s star Matthew Dellavedova ineffective was the latest evidence.
But then there’s the second part of Olynyk’s quote, which addresses the question that *everyone* is going to be asking from now until the Zags finally lose, if they do.
“We don’t hold any burden or weight on our shoulders or pressure [to validate past teams],” he said. “We believe in ourselves and believe in our talents and are trying to do what we can to succeed.”
Is it fair to burden this team, already with a media target on its back thanks to its national ranking, with the foibles of Zags past? Perhaps not, but it’s part of the equation for this program. Since the Zags broke through in 1999 with their Elite Eight run, they have never been back. They have made only two Sweet 16 appearances in the last 11 seasons, the first one ending in disaster in the final minute against UCLA and the second in a blowout loss to eventual national champion North Carolina. In the interim, they have watched teams like George Mason, Butler and VCU kick the boys’ club door down and rise in prestige along with their historic runs.
The good news is the last couple of power-conference outsiders that carried this kind of position into the NCAAs — Saint Joseph’s in 2004 and Memphis in 2008 — acquitted themselves well. The Hawks fell a possession shy of the Final Four while the Tigers were a made free throw away from a national championship. Like those two teams, these Bulldogs are very good. But unlike either of those programs, Gonzaga’s legacy of perceived postseason disappointment is a talking point. A big one.
Few took a few moments in the press conference to try to dispel the notion that his previous teams have underachieved in the NCAAs. And in fairness, many of the roots of that perception came in the middle of the last decade, when the Zags only made one Sweet 16 and never went farther despite landing 2-, 3-, and 3-seeds in consecutive years. More recently, Gonzaga was a middling seed that often ran into an elite team — North Carolina 2009, Syracuse 2010, Ohio State 2012 — and couldn’t handle them. There’s no shame in that, in a vacuum, but when it happens over and over without a Butler or George Mason-type breakthrough, it becomes an identity, fair or not.
Later on, in the concourse leading back toward the Zags’ locker room, Few expounded on why that perception irks him a bit.
“I’m not looking at [this year's opportunity] as validation. The program stands on its own,” Few said. “I think when we start doing that, that discounts everything we did up to this point. That discounts an unbelievable win where we’re hugging and punching each other in Stillwater and it discounts the blood and the guts and the tears that we played with and in the locker room at Butler. And stuff like this [championship].
If that is what floats other people’s boat as far as validating us, that’s their deal. It doesn’t validate me or our team’s season, but I will say this: One motivator we have with these guys is they want to play with each other as long as they can. It might seem cheesy, but I’m telling you, it’s legit.”
The Zags have at least one more chance to play together this season, and as many as six. The story of those games, fair or not, will be the signature on what they have authored so far. That’s the nature of what college basketball has become. You have to win games on the biggest stage to confirm what you did on smaller ones.
It seems like the Zags realize this. As they stood on the podium on the middle of the Orleans Arena court, the heavily pro-Gonzaga crowd serenaded them one final time. Smiles abounded, but the post-game celebration was short, like this team knows there is more out there for them. As sweet as all of this has been to this point, this isn’t the only platform the Bulldogs are expected to climb this month.