GLENDALE, Ariz. – All season Gonzaga has heard the criticism.
The Bulldogs read countless posts over social media that said Gonzaga was overrated and would never be good enough to get by teams like Kansas, Villanova, Arizona or Kentucky.
They heard national broadcasters doubt their defense, question their competitiveness and calling them one slice of the “truck stop conference.”
They had coaches and players and members of the media wondering if the Zags deserved their AP Top 25 No. 1 ranking and questioning if any West Coast Conference team could actually stand a chance on the national stage.
But since reaching the Final Four for the first time in school history, the conversation surrounding Gonzaga basketball has seemed to change.
Or at least the Zags’ loudest critics have finally quieted down.
“People just kind of take their shots at them. I think it’s great now that that’s over. It’s over. They’re playing for a national title. Whether they win or lose, it doesn’t matter,” ESPN college basketball reporter Jeff Goodman said. “To me, those people should just go away.”
To Goodman, and several of the other media members inside the University of Phoenix Stadium over the weekend, Monday’s showing between Gonzaga and five-time champion North Carolina is the perfect match for a grand finale.
“This is as good a matchup as we possibly could have had,” Goodman said. “This is like the game I actually want to see … just because there’s so many cool story lines.”
Stories such as North Carolina’s fight for redemption after falling to Villanova in the championship game last year, and, of course, like Gonzaga’s so-called Cinderella story that took them to the biggest stage in college basketball.
Ed Graney, the president of the U.S. Basketball Writers Association and sports columnist at the Las Vegas Review-Journal, said since leaping into the Final Four, Gonzaga’s story lines have stretched as far as defending the competitiveness of West Coast teams and conferences.
“They’ve done an incredible job not only showing the country that they’re a major, major program capable of winning it all, but also I think they’ve brought a lot of respect to West Coast basketball,” Graney said.
Graney has been following the Zags and so many other West Coast teams for decades. To have a team from the West Coast and from a conference that has garnered little credibility in the NCAA Tournament, would be something Graney wouldn’t mind witnessing firsthand.
“As a journalist, we’re not suppose to have favorites, obviously,” Graney said. “But I think it would be really cool for them to win.”
Jeff Eisenberg, a college basketball writer for Yahoo Sports, said a win for Gonzaga wouldn’t be a surprise to him. He sees the two teams as evenly matched as any teams could get. If Gonzaga were to top the Tar Heels, he argued that it shouldn’t be labeled as an upset. After all, Gonzaga and North Carolina both earned No. 1 seeds in their brackets.
“I don’t think it would be a seismic upset or anything if they won,” Eisenberg said. But that doesn’t mean North Carolina won’t present high-level talent and some challenges for GU that the Zags have not faced this year.
“I think North Carolina is probably the only team that they’ve seen all season that has a frontcourt that’s of the same caliber as (Gonzaga’s) and of the same amount of depth,” Eisenberg said.
Perhaps that’s why some critics have not stepped down from their soapboxes yet. Many of those critics have deemed Monday’s competitors as something similar to David and Goliath – Gonzaga being the weaker of the two – but Graney said this perspective has only been argued by those who see North Carolina’s history as its biggest threat.
“They’re not playing North Carolina five or 10 or 15 years ago. They’re not playing 20 or 30 years ago – Michael Jordan is not playing (on Monday). They just have to play against this North Carolina team,” Graney said. “They’re not playing the name on the jersey that’s Carolina – the history. They’re playing the guys in those jerseys.”
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