John Blanchette: Call the Gonzaga Bulldogs whatever you want, as long as you give them a call
Dec. 17, 2019 Updated Tue., Dec. 17, 2019 at 9:48 p.m.
By now, you’re probably so sick of the descriptive “blue bloods” that you might even skip whatever moral tug-of-war embroils Tom Selleck on the tube come Friday night – or at least avoid the title sequence.
Yes, we get it: North Carolina is part of college basketball’s nobility. One of its blue bloods.
And the Tar Heels visit Gonzaga’s campus for the first time Wednesday night, bringing with them their pedigree, their daggum Hall of Fame coach and the nation’s eyeballs via cable TV.
The attendant dither, meanwhile, is all homegrown.
The Bulldogs do fine at generating mania on their own. But hypemeisters here have cranked the amps up to 12 for the arrival of the program that unleashed Michael Jordan on the basketball world – never mind that in previous years the Kennel played host to the programs which unleashed Kareem and Magic on the world, and at a more rational volume.
Which sort of raises the question: How blue is Gonzaga’s blood?
Well, not Carolina blue, that’s for sure – no matter if the Zags are No. 2 in the current Top 25, and the slumping Heels are noses-against-the-glass.
The peerage of college basketball is not determined by weekly poll.
Any such distinction is, in fact, earned over time – which makes the whole concept of basketball blue bloods something of a misnomer anyway, given that precious little about real-world aristocracies is truly earned.
College hoops is still – mostly – a meritocracy.
So you weigh things like UCLA’s 11 national championships and Carolina’s 20 Final Fours and Kentucky’s 58 NCAA Tournament appearances and Kansas’ 30 consensus All-Americans. And all the officiating calls that go Duke’s way.
Just kidding. Even the Blue Devils have earned their due.
By general acknowledgment, those five and three to five other schools – Indiana, Louisville, Michigan State, UConn, Villanova – can legitimately be lumped together as the game’s blue bloods. No, UCLA doesn’t fly at Wooden-era heights anymore and the Hoosiers haven’t made it past the Sweet 16 since 2002. And half of those schools have seen their reputations shamed and scandalized over the years.
But, hey, corruptions big and small are the red corpuscles of high society.
Nobility has its trickle-down entitled, too – the earls and viscounts and barons like Arizona and Syracuse and Ohio State and assorted others with resumes that resonate.
And Gonzaga, college basketball’s ultimate outlier.
The problem with the Zags, of course, is their relative come-lateliness. Blue bloodlines in college basketball go back 50-80 years; Gonzaga has been on the radar for only two decades now. Forty percent of its 1,715 victories have come in just the past 25 years.
The Zags haven’t won a national championship. Been to just the one Final Four. Had but four consensus All-Americans.
Because amassing those things takes time. And the school didn’t even start investing in the sport until the calendar struck 2000.
They are, in fact, new money, not old. But we all know Bezos and Gates money spends every bit as well as Rockefeller or du Pont money.
And yet the whole proposition of North Carolina being in town to play in Gonzaga’s snug 6,000-seat Kennel suggests a level of regard that may outstrip the notion of blue-bloodedness.
“It’s defined by everyone else anyway,” Gonzaga athletic director Mike Roth said. “You can’t declare yourself a blue blood. Your peers decide that, and everybody has their own criteria.
“For me, it’s a team that’s there year in and year out. A team everybody wants to play and everybody wants to beat. That’s one of the things we heard these past two weeks: how important those games were to Washington and to Arizona.”
Circumstance has made this one important to Carolina, too.
The Zags have made themselves more important by adding to their accomplishments and reputation. They’ve been a Sweet 16 team or better five years running now – something that can’t be said of Duke or Carolina, or Kansas or Kentucky. Not since March 14, 2016, have they failed to rank among the Top 25. That’s 68 polls ago.
It’s worth it now for Roy Williams to bring his Heels across the country to play Gonzaga, blue blood to … what?
Well, the Zags have always had an awkward relationship with labels.
They were the ultimate incarnation of Cinderella – for maybe two runs of the bracket. They were a midmajor – until their basketball revenues started outstripping Power 5 programs.
They’re probably still closer to their blue-collar beginnings back in the ’90s than to blue-blood stature, if championships and history are the determining factors.
“I don’t think any of us here get into what people call us,” Roth said, “other than we like the fact they call us to say, ‘Let’s play.’ ”
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