BUFFALO, N.Y. – If there is one thing Gonzaga should have taught us – and by us, we mean America’s college basketball fans – is where you come from isn’t nearly as important as where you’re going.
Your conference, your reputation, your name, they might get you a berth, a seed, a site, but they don’t get you into the next round of the NCAA tournament.
All that really matters is how you play.
Tonight the Zags will make their 12th consecutive NCAA appearance. They’ll represent the overlooked – in most time zones – West Coast Conference and will wear the higher seed’s white uniforms for the sixth time in seven years.
Their opponent, Florida State, hasn’t made a lot of noise in the mania that is the NCAA since a runner-up finish in 1972. Think FSU, even its players admit, and you think football.
But the Seminoles also come in as the third-place finisher from Atlantic Coast Conference. And down on Tobacco Road, throughout the Southeast actually, this is thought of as the true conference of (basketball) champions. If the ACC isn’t the birthplace of basketball, it’s at least the nursery.
Still, the Seminoles are trying to earn something Gonzaga already has.
“The good and unique thing about college basketball is that you have a right to earn your reputation,” said Leonard Hamilton, in his eighth season in Tallahassee after drawing paychecks from all matter of schools, big and small.
“You have to give credit where credit is due,” Hamilton continued, describing the Zags. “And these guys have earned the right to be considered one of the better basketball programs in the country.”
They’ve reached to a point, in fact, where knocking them out of the NCAA tournament would be a coup for the 22-9 Seminoles.
“I told our players,” Hamilton said, “I can’t think of a better bracket to be in than to play against – I guess you have to call them a perennial power now.”
So here we have an ACC team, the third best in the conference mind you, a member of a conference that has won 11 national titles, trying to build a resume against the Bulldogs.
Because, despite all the hype, all the “one-shining-moment” productions, the brackets, the talking heads, this tournament is about playing basketball. Good basketball. No matter where you come from.
“Like everybody is finding out this morning or early this afternoon, no matter what game you play in this tournament, it’s going to be a hard one and a tough one,” Gonzaga coach Mark Few said Thursday, while 10th-seeded Saint Mary’s upset of Richmond was showing on televisions throughout the HSBC Arena.
“If you’re not ready to go and if you’re not playing your best basketball, you’re probably putting yourself in position to get beat.”
Few understands that.
It happened to his team as first-round favorites in 2002 (Wyoming) and again two years ago (Davidson).
Remember the teeth gnashing that followed?
If the same result occurs tonight, do you think it will be met with the same consternation? Sure, GU is just a No. 8 seed – the fairness of that designation was a matter of debate for the past few days in Spokane watering holes – and FSU is actually favored.
But the honest truth is, most basketball fans are moving the Seminoles over a bracket line for one reason: Florida State is in the ACC.
“It’s a heck of a league,” said former Washington State coach Tony Bennett, who just finished his first year at Virginia. “What I’ve been told, the bottom tier was probably a little stronger and there was more parity this year.”
So the last couple of months the Seminoles built toughness, confidence and the nation’s best defense against one of the country’s best conferences. And that gets them exactly nothing.
Because the Bulldogs have done the same thing, only the formula is different.
“When you look at their nonconference schedule,” Hamilton said of the 26-6 Zags, “they play as tough a (one) as probably 80, 90 percent of the teams in the country.”
Ask any Gonzaga player about Florida State and they’ll answer about how the Seminoles remind them of Cincinnati, or Wisconsin, or Wake Forest, or Duke, or Michigan State, all postseason participants and all Zags opponents in this season’s version of the Long March.
“Whether it’s flying to Maui or flying to Memphis or flying to Madison Square Garden, we try to play in a lot of these games,” Few said. “The reason I do it is to help prepare us for the NCAA tournament.”
When the only thing that matters is who wins.
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