PITTSBURGH – This is about the stage of March Madness when the Gonzaga apostle begins peeking at Faust’s bracket and weighing the bargain.
Do you give up everything you have for just one shot at having it all?
It’s a mostly specious question anyway, as each inch of real estate in the NCAA basketball tournament must be fully earned. Deals with the devil are generally not third-party accommodations, and so the Bulldogs must play straight up with the seventh-ranked Ohio State Buckeyes today with passage to the Sweet 16 at stake.
And that’s a pretty good deal, too, if you think about it.
“Lot of teams would like to change places with us,” Zags center Rob Sacre pointed out unnecessarily.
As we have read and heard almost everywhere, the Bulldogs are playing in their 14th consecutive NCAA tournament, a streak unfathomable not just when they made their first bracket appearance in 1995 but just as much when the breakthrough came four years later.
The only teams on a longer current streak, we know from our homework, are Kansas (23), Duke (17) and Michigan State (15) – which, if not the Holy Trinity of college hoops, can at least fake it. Texas and Wisconsin are also sitting on 14.
The Zags have also won at least one game in 11 of those tournaments, another enviable report card.
But whether it’s dunking Oreos in your moo or winning in March, who wants to stop at one?
Part of the magic of Gonzaga’s rise was that the Zags didn’t just appear in the bracket starting in 1999, they turned it upside down – reaching the Elite Eight that year and the next two 16s. Once set, bars cannot be lowered.
And lately there have been, uh, complications.
Six years ago, an 11th seed – George Mason – crashed the Final Four in Indianapolis. Butler did the same in 2010, and last year was joined in Houston by Virginia Commonwealth.
Yes, the math says you have to have four teams to make a Final Four, but those four teams are almost exclusively culled from the country club leagues – the ACC, the Big 10, the SEC and the like. Butler, VCU and George Mason come from, well, the kind of conferences that Gonzaga comes from.
In a way only American public perception can be skewed, the Bulldogs’ regular appearances and the Butler Effect have conspired to suggest that Gonzaga has become an underachiever in our national buckets derby. Which, of course, is silly. Since the advent of the 64-team bracket in 1985 – a reasonable yardstick– a number of pedigreed basketball programs haven’t reached the Final Four.
Virginia. Purdue. North Carolina State. Tennessee. Wake Forest. Not to mention two-thirds of the Pac-12, which might be pushing the pedigree label a bit.
Gonzaga coach Mark Few has had to parry this issue before, and his response Friday tracked the usual themes: the crapshoot nature of the tourney, the matchups, the luck.
“I was part of the staff when we went to the Elite Eight,” he said. “We tipped one in at the buzzer. We had no business tipping it in.”
OK. But if the Zags had a chance to trade the streak – or, tougher yet, steady participation – for one magical run, would they?
“That’s tough,” admitted assistant coach Tommy Lloyd. “But I don’t think you could. There’s a huge value to having a chance every year – because you’re going to break through eventually. And to me, it’s more fulfilling than making one run.”
Which doesn’t mean the Zags didn’t watch last year’s Butler-VCU game at the Final Four with some envy.
“Because we want it, too,” Lloyd said. “We have tremendous respect for those programs, Butler especially. They did an unbelievable job of playing it possession by possession and giving themselves a chance – the same thing we talk about ad nauseum with our guys.”
The shorter-term grail, naturally, is making it to the tournament’s second week, which has become something of a barometer of relevance – although as soon as you accomplish it, there’s a backlash waiting to say it’s irrelevant.
“But there’s no question,” Sacre said. “You have to really put your roots in. You’ll never forget the ‘what-ifs.’”
But having dispatched West Virginia so coldly on Thursday, the Zags can at least imagine the other what-if.
“What I like about this team is that it’s got balance,” said Lloyd, weighing the odds. “I don’t think there’s a glaring weakness that can be exploited.”
In the end, there’s little point in trying to pigeonhole the Zags as ruling class or middle class. They are not Kentucky and Duke. On the other hand, George Mason has been back to the NCAAs just twice since its splash. Butler didn’t even make the NIT this year.
“We’re our own unique program,” Sacre said. “We’re Gonzaga. There’s no other name for it.”
And, yes, a program still with Everests to climb.