GU delivers 10-pack with deserved pride
A decade back, the Gonzaga Bulldogs somehow managed to lose three basketball games in a February fortnight.
Message board traffic did not crash servers up and down the coast. Alums were still able to show their faces at work. There was no run on brown paper bags to relieve yet another case of civic hyperventilation. Earth did not careen off its axis.
It was Spokane B.C. – before conceit.
But those three losses did cost the Bulldogs the regular-season championship of the West Coast Conference, by a narrow game to Pepperdine – which goes to show just how long ago it was, that the Waves were the rival of the moment.
This was a minor deal at the time, as it denied Gonzaga a third straight title. It remained a minor deal – very minor – Thursday night, when the Zags undressed Santa Clara 88-51 to complete their 10-pack – 10 straight WCC banners, shared or outright.
Hard to say whether the Zags should feel as content about that as the conference’s other seven schools should be chagrined.
Only one other program in college basketball ruled its conference for a longer stretch, though of course UCLA didn’t just win 13 straight Pacific-8/10 championships between 1967 and 1979, but eight NCAA titles, as well. So that was UCLA and this is Gonzaga, and the point here is not to suggest a parallel. But one little toggle in the standings during that 2000 season and the championship the Zags acknowledged – but did not celebrate – on Thursday night would have been No. 13, too.
“What’s funny is, I thought we tied for it then, too,” said Mark Few, who back in 2000 was in his first year as head coach. “It sure felt like it. Maybe because we won the league tournament.”
Indeed, if you want to splice it that way, add the shared regular-season title of 1996 and that first, magical blitz through the conference tournament in 1995 and the Zags have owned some trophy with “WCC” on it every season for the past 16, save for 1997.
But an even 10 is special, too, since more than just faith allows the attachment, for now, of a familiar Gonzaga epitaph: to be continued.
The Bulldogs cut down no nets this night, understanding that they clinched but a tie and that “we don’t want to share it with anybody,” as Few put it. The WCC finale Saturday night is against San Francisco and Gonzaga owes the Dons one, so it’s best to have unfinished business all the way around.
The indisputable signature moments of Gonzaga basketball remain kicking in the NCAA door for the first time in 1995 and the tip-in that ushered the Zags into the Elite Eight against all odds four years later. But programs are about sustained excellence, and this string and the soon-to-be 12 straight NCAA appearances define this program.
“And this is probably more impressive than the NCAA run,” Few reasoned, “just because it’s not done in a three-game tournament. It’s done over eight weeks, where you’re playing on the road – especially the road crowds we get – and taking everybody’s best shot. That’s what’s so rewarding about this.”
By now, the Gonzaga fan may have wearied of Few’s hammering on this point. But he isn’t tilling new soil. Jerry Tarkanian, whose UNLV Runnin’ Rebels put together a 10-pack in the Big West from 1983-92, faced the same challenge: playing a national schedule and then retreating to a conference with a modest profile.
“We probably had to talk a little more to our kids about the league games,” Tarkanian recalled, “especially since a lot of our national TV games were tied in during the league season. We’d play a TV game on a Sunday and turn around and have a league game on Tuesday. The national games were bigger for our players and fans, but the league games were big, too.”
Given that the programs have nearly nothing else in common, it’s intriguing how they’re connected by these 10-year runs, their roots in middling conferences and their scheduling approach to insure their relevance. Whatever you can say about the conference company they’ve kept, ask this about the achievements of GU and UNLV: If it’s so easy to win these conferences, why hasn’t anyone else done it with such regularity?
“We were worried a little with this team,” Few said, “with the great start we got and all the attention, and how young they were, that they wouldn’t understand how hard it is to win a league championship. It’s gratifying that they got the message.”
And delivered one – again.