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In Calhoun’s world, it’s UConn or you can’t

By Jim Calhoun’s standards, Gonzaga is not a major program.  (Associated Press / The Spokesman-Review)
By Jim Calhoun’s standards, Gonzaga is not a major program. (Associated Press / The Spokesman-Review)

SEATTLE – So this is what all the fuss is about?

Rather, this is what all the fuss was about?

Yes, we knew today’s Battle in Seattle had the juice sucked out of it when the Gonzaga Bulldogs went and did the unthinkable and actually lost a game last Sunday, to some afterthought Pac-10 program whose name and pedigree escapes us at the moment.

Bet that put them on ol’ CBSanta’s naughty list.

Otherwise, it was going to be No. 2 Connecticut against the No. 4 Zags at KeyArena in a collision of college basketball tectonic plates – or at least what passes for monumental until the Papajohns.com No Anchovies Bowl scales a new Everest of pomp and pageantry.

Instead, the Zags slipped to No. 8 in the polls and the promoters did a giant “Phew!” and a wipe of the brow that all the tickets had already been peddled.

Yet even allowing for the original placements, we ask again: This is what all the fuss was about?

Because we have exhumed from our archives a swell nugget from Jim Calhoun, the UConn coach closing in on 800 victories – legit, not Eddie Sutton cherry-pick style – and known for his, uh, candor. It dates back two years, in a conversation about once little-known programs that had gained national prominence.

With Calhoun declaring, “I don’t consider Gonzaga a major program yet.”

Recall that by this point, the Zags had been to three NCAA Sweet 16s and an Elite 8 in the previous eight years, and that UConn itself had to hurdle them en route to the 1999 national championship. Gonzaga had been a Top 25 team at some point in every season after that.

But ahem, the Zags weren’t a major program.

“I’ll consider them a major program when they win a national championship, go to a Final Four and have to play good teams every night,” Calhoun said.

Oh, that.

Since it’s doubtful anything the Bulldogs have done since – even beating his Huskies in Boston a year ago – has changed his mind, why is this game even on the radar?

Calhoun is a character with some hard bark on him. Even so, it’s not that he disrespects Gonzaga’s program and evolution. He simply can’t. Not even Duke in the 1999 title game gave his Huskies as good of a go – ask Khalid El-Amin if he still doesn’t hear Quentin Hall’s screechy smack in his ear. And if the Zags picked off UConn before they cracked the Top 25 last year, they did it in front of 18,000 New Englanders who were there either because they were rooting for the Huskies or thought one of the Red Sox might show up at courtside.

But Calhoun obviously has his standards.

Of course, by his standards, Pittsburgh isn’t a major program. Nor are Tennessee, Notre Dame, Wake Forest, Purdue, Xavier or Clemson – all teams in the current Top 25, but none with Final Four pedigree in the past 25 years, which seems a reasonable cutoff.

But what about some of those teams who beat the cutoff? Is Houston still “major?” Was UMass ever? Since Minnesota wouldn’t have made it without the term paper Mata Hari, do the Gophers count?

Calhoun’s “play good teams every night” qualifier was, of course, a shot across the bow of the West Coast Conference, which will always harbor its share of chumps. As if that’s Gonzaga’s fault, any more than it’s Calhoun’s fault that St. John’s is located at basketball’s Ground Zero and still stinks every year.

As dismissive as Calhoun’s remark may have been, at least one Zag, Matt Bouldin, understands.

“The championships and Final Fours, that really does set them apart,” he said. “They’re consistently in the mix. There are a lot of teams that will make a great run or have a good few years, but they’re in it every year. They get the best recruits. All their players go to the NBA.”

And Gonzaga?

“I don’t know – we’re making our way there,” Bouldin said. “I don’t really know what the whole major/midmajor thing means. But I guess we do have to win some national championships to get that recognition. Our goals are the same as theirs every year, but they’ve done it.”

This season both teams think they can do it. That seemed realistic to no one in 1999, since Gonzaga was just arriving from the planet Whodat and UConn had never been to a Final Four – though the guess here is Calhoun considered his own program major anyway.

“One thing about college basketball I’ve realized since day one – you don’t know how good somebody is until you play them,” Bouldin said. “We’ve played a lot of teams without much recognition that are just as good as all those teams who get it. You get teams on their best night and they’re just as tough to beat as a Tennessee. And I’m sure UConn faces that, too.”

Gonzaga intends on making the Huskies face it tonight – not that it’ll sway Jim Calhoun’s mind from his old hard-guy stand.

“There’s no better midmajor program in the country and certainly they can beat any major program,” Calhoun said then. “But with that said, they can’t do it every night.”

Hmm. Maybe that’ll put the juice back in this one.

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