Gonzaga’s run of consecutive NCAA tournaments: 11, and on pace for 12 next month. Gonzaga’s consecutive appearances in the West Coast Conference Tournament title game: 12, and counting. Gonzaga’s string of 20-win seasons: 13, and counting.
This week affords Gonzaga an opportunity to stretch another streak into double digits. With a win against Santa Clara tonight at the McCarthey Athletic Center, the Bulldogs would clinch at least a share of their 10th consecutive WCC championship. With two wins this week, nine of the 10 would be solo titles.
“Our goal was to win the league title,” said associate head coach Leon Rice, who ran practice earlier this week when head coach Mark Few was out of town on a recruiting trip. “We are where we want to be coming into the last weekend of the season.”
The Zags are already in select company, sharing a spot in the record book with Kentucky’s nine straight SEC crowns from 1944-52. Legendary coach Adolph Rupp’s teams went 195-26 during that span, winning three NCAA titles and the 1946 NIT.
Next on the ladder with 10 straight conference titles are Connecticut (1951-60, Yankee Conference) and UNLV (1983-92, Big West).
UNLV, known as the “Runnin’ Rebels” and known for the “Amoeba defense,” was coached by maverick Jerry Tarkanian. UNLV made three trips to the Final Four and won the 1990 national championship with Larry Johnson, Stacey Augmon and Greg Anthony.
“I was in college, dreaming about being a college basketball coach,” said Rice, when asked what he was doing when UNLV started its streak.
Rice was a youngster when UCLA was stamping its name at the top of the conference superiority list. The Bruins of John Wooden (who retired after the 1975 season) – Lew Alcindor, Bill Walton, Keith Wilkes and Sidney Wicks – captured 13 straight Pac-8/10 titles from 1967-79. UCLA won seven straight NCAA championships from 1967-73 and was 273-27 in the 1970s.
Gonzaga freshman forward Kelly Olynyk knows enough about history to understand what’s at stake this week.
“Some people talk about it and you hear about it,” he said. “It’s more about getting it done and getting ourselves up there with everybody. It’s a great opportunity if we can seize it.”
Gonzaga’s run hasn’t happened by accident. After advancing to the Elite Eight in 1999, many figured Gonzaga’s stay on the national scene would be brief. Head coach Dan Monson was hired by Minnesota and Mark Few was promoted to head coach. Few’s first team was second in the WCC but won the conference tournament and went to the Sweet Sixteen. The last nine years have yielded nine WCC titles and three more trips to the Sweet Sixteen.
Along the way, GU re-emphasized that the WCC is its first order of business.
“I think as coaches even, at first it was hard to go play Carolina in Madison Square Garden and then, oh, now we get to go to Loyola,” Rice said. “So we had to change our thinking and understand – and it’s the truth – that the mark of a great program is how you do consistently in conference.
“When it’s your priority and what you’re putting your time and energy in to, you’re not going to let it slip. We enjoy those nonconference games and those tournaments, but we take so much pride in this league.”