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Gonzaga Basketball

John Blanchette: Gonzaga’s perennial success driven by knowledge that a plateau could lead to being left out

Gonzaga guard Julian Strawther (0) walks off the floor with teammate Jalen Suggs after Kraziness in the Kennel, Thursday, Nov. 12, 2020, in the McCarthey Athletic Center.  (Dan Pelle/THESPOKESMAN-REVIEW)
By John Blanchette For The Spokesman-Review

The American West is the land that college football forgot this year, so in these parts any outrage over the postseason matchmaking that screwed Cincinnati and indulged the fraud that is Notre Dame – among other things – has been muted.

Still, all the playoff and bowl machinations were instructive, in a repellent sort of way.

And it suggested, in roundabout fashion, that what Gonzaga University has done athletically has not only enhanced civic goosebumps, but was something it pretty much had to do.

No, not dropping football in 1941.

OK, maybe that, too.

Sorry. If you got lost on the leap from college football to Gonzaga, you’re due an apology if not a parachute. But there’s a thread here – promise – so grab hold.

The College Football Playoff pairings were made Sunday morning and the consolation bowls were divvied up shortly after, and among the most telling upshots was that room could not be found for a 9-2 Army team in the Armed Forces Bowl, which somehow managed to accommodate 3-7 Mississippi State.

This was the sport’s hierarchy spilling soup on its silk ties.

And not a spoonful. Tureens of the stuff.

It’s not necessarily about the four playoff teams. They were predictable, if not a lock, weeks ago, at least once the Big Ten and ACC rejiggered the rules to protect their top candidates. The justification for that was “staying nimble” in these extraordinary, change-a-minute times.

You may also know it as “situational ethics.”

But the CFP committee doesn’t just pick the top four. It ranks a full Top 25 for bowl pecking order purposes, and in doing so not only shooed unbeaten Cincinnati from the playoff with a dismissive wave but buried it at No. 8, keeping it behind Florida (which had lost) and vaulting Oklahoma over the Bearcats.

“There were (three) undefeated teams that aren’t in the Power 5 conferences, and they didn’t even finish in the top six in the committee’s eyes,” said Gonzaga athletic director Mike Roth. “And it’s not the first time. Look at Central Florida a couple years ago. I’m not a football AD, but that tells you right there, if you’re a football school and you’re not in the Power 5, you can win as many as you want – you ain’t getting in.”

This COVID-truncated season just confirmed it. Without the usual array of nonconference games, data points were limited. So the selectors fell back on historical bias in which a three-loss SEC team just has to be better than an unbeaten from “What league are you in, again?”

And when 11-0 Coastal Carolina was assigned to a long-before-New-Year’s bowl against fellow upstart Liberty, it called to mind the NCAA basketball committee matching two dangerous mid-majors to save the seventh-place team from the Big 12 a March Madness faceful of first-round embarrassment.

Yes, now back to basketball.

Just as the CFP is a private club – 11 schools have accounted for the 28 berths since it began – the number of at-large selections in the basketball bracket for leagues outside the upper crust is shrinking like a Pacific atoll. The past four tournaments have admitted just 22 non-Power 6 at-larges; the previous four included 39.

In its remarkable run of 21 straight NCAA appearances – not including last year’s canceled event, for which it had already qualified – Gonzaga has had to rely on the at-large gods five times, and each time did its résumé building so well it was a single-digit seed. A few other years – 2007, 2011, 2016 – the streak would have ended had the Zags not won the West Coast Conference tournament.

But the committee’s tolerance for lovable underdogs seemed a little more relaxed back when the Zags were still trying to graduate from that status. Or maybe a conference like the SEC has discovered basketball can be a brand, too.

In any case, the discernible jump the Zags have made in the past 5-8 years with higher rated recruits and a lease in the Top 10 seems like a necessity now, especially given how a few ambitious programs have plateaued, or worse.

“My philosophy has always been you’re either getting better or you’re getting worse,” said Roth. “I don’t believe we’ve had the mindset that we had get better to increase our status, but just because that’s who we are – we’re not going to be satisfied.

“But if we’d continued to hover around getting in the tournament and once in a blue moon getting beyond the first weekend and being in the Top 25 every so often but not in the Top 10, we could have been passed by – because things continue to change around us.”

That includes selection committees with blinders on, or a power structure that doesn’t want to expand opportunity that could add life to a championship exercise that’s become a bore.

“That’s what makes March so special,” Roth said. “We’re two years from a No. 16 seed beating a No. 1 for the first time.”

Makes it more treacherous for a No. 1, for sure. But elitism feels a lot better from the inside.