SALT LAKE CITY – Thinking back, it was maybe 10 minutes into the impossibly fun tale of Gonzaga basketball that the Zags evolved from humble, lovable underdogs into something less appealing in the eyes of a not insignificant segment of the studio audience.
There. We said it. Underachievers.
Is it true?
Oh, hell no.
But if AM radio has taught us anything, it’s that everybody has to believe something – and once they do, they won’t let go.
And with the 75th NCAA basketball tournament under way, it’s more of a talking point than ever what with the Bulldogs seeded No. 1 and in a perfect position to live up to this trumped-up expectation that they won’t live up to expectations.
It’s a virtual mathematical inevitability.
Since the tournament adopted seeding in 1980, only 54 of the 132 No. 1 seeds have managed to reach the Final Four. Which only stands to reason, there being in excess of 60 other teams in the bracket that offer basketball scholarships, too, and four opportunities along the way for a No. 1 to trip over the top line.
And you know what? Not a one of those fallen top seeds was presumed to have permanently stained its program by coming up short. But remind yourself to check out a sampling of the hoots if the Zags don’t make it to Atlanta.
This is the flip side to the numbing consistency of reaching 15 consecutive NCAAs – an achievement, it bears repeating, currently bettered only by Duke, Kansas and Michigan State.
Unlike those programs, Duke and Kansas, Gonzaga hasn’t had a first-round pratfall of the splat like the Blue Devils’ loss to 15th-seeded Lehigh last year, or Kansas’ back-to-back swoons as a No. 3 and 4 less than a decade ago. Also unlike those programs, the Zags have no national championship in their trophy case, or a single trip to the Final Four.
But those schools were also basketball royalty well before anyone knew Gonzaga had a ball to bounce. The problem with being an overnight sensation is that people really do insist that it happen overnight.
Some context on that score: Missouri, a school with some basketball pedigree, has made 25 NCAA appearances without a Final Four trip. Brigham Young, 27. Alabama (20), Boston College (18), Creighton (17) – you get the idea. Even haughty UConn made it into the bracket 20 times before that payday.
See, here’s the thing. It’s hard.
“It’s a knockout tournament,” said Gonzaga coach Mark Few. “It’s one game. You’d better be good and you’d better be lucky and you’d better hope you get a great game called by the officials, because that factors in – a lot.”
It was on the podium at the West Coast Conference tournament that Few, responding to a question, said he needed “to do a better job of dissuading this notion that we haven’t really achieved in the (NCAA) tournament.”
After the Cinderella runs of 1990-2001 took the Zags to the tournament’s second weekend as double-digit seeds, it was easy to see the idea take hold that higher seeds should automatically vault them to the third weekend.
Because, you know, that’s how it worked out for the teams they beat.
But obviously there have been disappointments, in particular the 2004-06 teams that were never seeded lower than third but were ousted by a stinkeroo against Nevada (egged along by fouls on Ronny Turiaf he still hasn’t committed) and then by squandering substantial leads against Texas Tech and UCLA. Two first-round exits as a middle seed followed.
But lately, still in that middle range, the Bulldogs have simply bumped their heads against high seeds and special players at the top of their game. Ohio State. Syracuse. Jimmer. North Carolina, which won six games by an average of 20 points.
Few has a special team himself this year, too.
“If it was a best-of-5 against a singe team with this group I have,” he said, “I’d be sleeping 10 hours a night. We have a really good team. But I don’t think even Southern is going to be shocked by our athleticism or anything.”
But even as a No. 1, the Zags – and all the tournament teams – are vulnerable to a bad position matchup or a bad four-minute stretch or any of the vagaries of March Madness. No one provides a better context for the cruelty than Jud Heathcote, who of course took Michigan State all the way in 1979.
“I always thought I’d get back to the Final Four two or three more times,” he said, “and I never made it.”
Maybe that’s why these Zags understand the opportunity – and the burden.
“Everybody knows it’s different this year,” said forward Sam Dower. “Hell, yeah, we have to go deep in the tournament. Well, we don’t have to, but we know what we can do. And we have the No. 1 seed, so it’s expected.”
There. He said it. And he won’t be the only one.