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For the first time in school history, Gonzaga is the nation’s No.1 team in this week’s AP Top 25 Rankings. This is a testament to the consistency of this program over the last 14 years under Mark Few.
Before Chris Petersen and the Boise State Broncos became a major factor nationally in college football, there was Gonzaga in college hoops. The Bulldogs became the model ‘mid-major program’ back in 1999.
As a No. 10 seed in the 1999 NCAA Tournament, Gonzaga’s magical run to the Elite Eight began with a 75-63 win over Minnesota. The Gophers were so impressed that they snagged former head coach Dan Monson away from the Spokane school a month later.
In the second round, Gonzaga knocked off Stanford 82-74 to advance to the Sweet 16 in Phoenix to face Florida. In the West region semifinals, the ‘Zags’ Casey Calvary came out of nowhere (and climbed all over Brent Wright’s back) to tip in a missed shot for the go-ahead points with just a few seconds remaining.
When UF’s Eddie Shannon missed a 3-pointer at the buzzer moments later, Gonzaga moved on the region finals by winning a 73-72 decision over the Gators. For 38 minutes, the Bulldogs gave eventual champ UConn all it wanted and more, but the Huskies pulled away for a 67-62 victory.
Since then, Gonzaga hasn’t advanced past the Sweet 16. That's not meant as an indictment, though, because the Bulldogs have gone to the NCAA Tournament in all 13 seasons under Few and will make their 14th consecutive Big Dance appearance in two weeks. (15th straight actually, 14th in a row on Few’s watch.)
The plan has been the same under Few for more than a decade. Each season Gonzaga plays the country’s most attractive non-conference schedule. The Bulldogs don’t say as much out loud like Pat Hill did in football at Fresno St. for many years, but they undoubtedly have the same mantra: ‘Anybody, anytime, anywhere.’
They travel all over the country in November and December. For instance, there were neutral-site games against Clemson, Oklahoma and Davidson in Orlando this season. There were true road games at Butler, at Washington St. and at Oklahoma St.
The travel was much more brutal a decade ago. Back then, much like Petersen has hardly any chance at getting a quality non-conference opponent to come to the blue carpet in Boise, Gonzaga couldn’t get anyone to travel to the Northwest and face the Bulldogs at ‘The Kennel.’
But as Few established the program even more and the McCarthey Center, the school’s new arena, opened in 2004, elite programs became more willing to sign up for a home-and-home series.
The annual State Farm Battle at Key Arena in Seattle has also been a drawing card for big-time programs. This year Kansas St. came to the Emerald City and left with a 68-52 loss compliments of the ‘Zags. Other foes in recent years include Arizona, Illinois, UConn and Tennessee.
When John Calipari was at Memphis, the schools played each other every season. This year the Illini, in addition to West Va. and Baylor, came to the McCarthey Center.
With so many great non-conference matchups, many of which are played on national television, Gonzaga has been able to expand its recruiting reach and attract players from all over the... world. Not only does Gonzaga recruit all over the nation, but it recruits internationally as well.
In a way, it was somewhat wrong that George Mason (2006), VCU (2011) and Butler (2011 and 2012) were the mid-majors that finally broke through to make the Final Four, while Gonzaga has remained absent from the national semifinals.
Nothing against the Patriots, Rams or (Butler) Bulldogs, but it was Gonzaga that paved the way for mid-major success. It was Few that created the model of playing enough quality non-conference games to keep the RPI high enough to overcome the weakness of the WCC and get an at-large berth in the rare case of not winning the league tournament.
But patience is a virtue. You know watching Butler and VCU in the Final Four motivated Few and his troops. And a mid-major has never cut the nets down (No, UNLV in 1990 doesn’t count in my mind.), so it would only be fitting if it is the Zags to become the first to do so.
Can it happen this year? Sure it can. In this wide-open season, several mid-majors including Gonzaga, Butler, VCU and others are capable of getting to Atlanta.
With all that said, the No. 1 AP Ranking doesn’t promise Gonzaga a seed on the top line from the selection committee even if it does win the WCC Tournament. In fact, the AP Rankings are completely meaningless in college basketball because the selection committee is the only group that doles out any sort of rankings that matter.
Yes, the presence of Gonzaga atop of this week’s polls is a major accomplishment and I’m not trying to diminish it. But Mark Few, Kevin Pangos, Elias Harris, Kelly Olynyk and the ‘Zags faithful know that if they truly want to stake their names to No. 1, they have to get it done at the Ga. Dome.
Only time will tell if that happens in the coming weeks, but one thing is for certain: Gonzaga has one of the nation’s elite programs. It has been that way for more than a decade and as long as Few is in charge, it’s going to stay that way for a long time to come.
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