CINCINNATI–Everybody knows who they are. And it didn’t take Twitter, texting, or the Internet to promote Gonzaga into a college basketball household name, a team you always want to check off when filling out your NCAA bracket.
The Bulldogs did it the old-fashioned way, by winning games, by beating teams that the average fan thought they had no right to win. The Zags have been doing it for so long now, longer than the century is old, that it’s difficult to remember that at least until Hall of Famer John Stockton came around practically no one outside of Spokane, Washington knew much about them and certainly no one outside of the West Coast knew anything about them till about a dozen years ago.
For that matter, a couple of days ago someone asked me where Gonzaga is located. I came away from that brief conversation unconvinced that they know where Spokane is.
Gonzaga willed itself into becoming the little school that could in college basketball, not only unafraid to take on the Ohio States, Floridas, Dukes, North Carolinas and UCLAs of the world, but becoming perfectly capable of beating them any time, any place. Gonzaga became the patron saint of mid-major college basketball schools, the ideal for schools that can’t afford to play major college football, but believe they can play major college basketball.
Gonzaga sent its first basketball team to mid-court for a center jump in 1907, made its first NCAA tournament in 1995, but did not win its first game against a nationally ranked opponent until the 1997-98 season.
In much the same way that NASCAR brilliantly evolved from a niche sport in one region of the country into one of the most popular sports nationally served as a role model for every wannabe big-time circuit from bass fishing to rodeo, Gonazaga lit the way for others. Gonzaga showed it could be done, that there was room at the top for a small school with big ambitions.
Through commitment to a vision, an administration on the same wavelength as athletic directors and coaches, Gonzaga has built a record of high-level consistency, winning West Coast Conference league championships galore, winning more than 20 games every season, and being selected for the NCAA tournament every year since 1999 (when it reached the Elite 8). Many other schools talk big, but hardly any have managed to approximate Gonzaga’s emergence.
One of those schools that did is Xavier. I spent New Year’s Eve at the Cintas Center, Xavier’s home court, watching Gonzaga-Xavier, a non-conference, inter-sectional game that was the evening’s 8 p.m. showing on ESPN2. It was a match-up that six or seven years ago would have been played at noon, not in prime time, and the fact that these two non-football-playing schools represented the feature bout that night, not a warm-up act, illustrated just how far they both have traveled.
Xavier had been ranked as high as No. 8 nationally before slumping. Gonzaga was still working on convincing the country that this current batch of players is as good as recent groups. By the end of the weekend, after a 72-65 victory, the Zags were 11-2 and ranked No. 25. As usual, they will do well this winter.
Sam Dower, a soft-shooting, 6-foot-9 forward who pumped in 20 points, mostly on mid-range jumpers, is just a sophomore, but seems to have a universe of potential. Kevin Pangos is a slick shooting guard. Robert Sacre is a 7-foot, 260-pound center with agility and is so powerfully built that it appears he would be able to deflect a runaway Mack truck with his chest. He is the only senior in the starting lineup and one of only two on the roster, so I expect Gonzaga to improve all season.
Also, giving full consideration to how time flies, there is a Stockton on the team. David is a 5-11 sophomore guard. His mere presence makes me feel old. David does not seem as quick as John, but seems to have good instincts for the game (imagine that) and good range, though the release of his jumper is a little awkward.
In some ways David Stockton symbolizes Gonzaga continuity, though not nearly as much as coach Mark Few. Few, who doesn’t look old enough for this statistic to be true, is in his 23rd year on the bench at Gonzaga, the last 13 of them as head coach after 10 as an assistant. He has won 80 percent of his games. An eight-time WCC coach of the year, there have been times Few has had to fend off other schools’ offers as if swatting away mosquitoes. However long or short his deliberations in fielding these offers, he has always come down on the side of staying with the Zags.
Few isn’t going anywhere and neither is Gonzaga. When the 2011-12 season ends Gonzaga will be ranked in the top 25 and it will be playing in the NCAA tournament again.