LAS VEGAS – In the garden of Gonzaga basketball have grown any number of dubious truths.
The Bulldogs are dragged down by a weak league, say. Their thoroughly spoiled devotees take the program’s prolonged dominance for granted. And the players – each recruiting class more highly regarded than the last – are increasingly nonchalant about the whole Zag thing. It doesn’t mean as much to them.
Some of these can be weeds, mistaken for flowers.
One undeniable truth: The Zags’ run of NCAA tournament appearances will end sometime. Maybe next year’s addition of Brigham Young to the West Coast Conference and another round of young recruits will be the tipping point.
But whatever the fears of the fan base were in January, this is not that year. The route was a rutted old goat trail and the compass got misplaced for a time, but the destination was the same: Gonzaga managed to grind out two admirable, memorable performances at the WCC shindig in the Orleans Arena, and reclaimed their usual cubbyhole in the NCAA bracket for a 13th consecutive year.
“It’s a great feeling,” said Steven Gray, the Zags’ only senior, “knowing that come Sunday you’re not going to be there sweating it out.
“I can’t imagine what kind of feeling that would be, that sort of stress. My last three years it’s been more of a celebration than anything.”
Surely not any more than this one now.
“They’ve all been great,” said coach Mark Few, “but this is the sweetest of them all from where we had to come back from. Maybe (in 2000) with Matt (Santangelo) and Richie (Frahm) we had to dig back, but this really was far harder than that.”
Degree of difficulty matters. It renews the appreciation of achievement – even when the gauge for what is difficult needs to be readjusted.
Gonzaga’s rule over the WCC has surely tempered significance of winning it over the years – and, yes, there have been seasons when it has been no big deal. That has dramatically changed, and likely for good.
Saint Mary’s is now a perennial – no matter if the Gaels’ shortcomings were exposed Monday night or whether the Gaels get into the NCAAs come Sunday. San Francisco and Santa Clara are legitimate comers – loaded with underclassmen and armed with an identity. Portland will continue to be a tough out. You can arm yourself with RPIs until you can’t see over the stats, but too often the stumbles of December skew the gains of February.
“Look, we play everybody,” said Few. “We know a good team. These are good teams.”
WCC commissioner Jamie Zaninovich is hardly a neutral observer on the matter, but he’s not without some ammunition.
“We have a fifth-place team in Portland who’s in the top 100 of the RPI and won 20 games,” he said. “A lot’s been spoken about Gonzaga’s ‘struggles’ this year, but we’re to the point that if we’re going to be a national multi-bid conference, it needs to be tough to win on the road in our league – and it is.
“I think this is a result of some smart decisions on our campuses. We have coaches that are now in years 3, 4, 5 with significant more investment than in the past. Schools went out and found the right fit, whether it’s Eric Reveno or Rex Walters or Kerry Keating. Those weren’t press conference hires.”
If it’s inevitable that Gonzaga will no longer cut such a wide swath through the WCC, then it stands to reason that each success will elicit that much more joy.
Which was certainly the case Monday night.
At halftime of the women’s championship game earlier in the day, there had been a performance of pogo stick daredevils – and none of them got the air Gray did as he bounced up and down with glee as the final 30 seconds ran off against the Gaels. Later, after the Zags had been issued their championship caps and shirts in the postgame huzzah, the players charged up into the wedge of Kennel Club students – a public embrace not seen much lately.
“There’s been a lot of pent-up stuff with these guys that got unleashed tonight,” explained Few.
He was talking about the very public disappointment that had bubbled up around the team after its December and January slippages, the pressure attendant to the championship streak, the in-house issues of being slow to find a rhythm and a workable rotation.
But the celebration that was uncorked at the Orleans should dispel any myth that the heirs to this dynasty care any less than the sires did.
“This is the first one of these for me,” said guard Marquise Carter, the unlikely tournament MVP. “I didn’t take it for granted – no one did. I don’t see how you ever could.”
Maybe in the garden of Gonzaga basketball, that’s a notion that could take root.