They are two of the most-respected programs in all of college athletics, yet Kansas and Gonzaga couldn’t be more different.
One is a history-rich, blue blood whose very first coach literally invented the game of basketball. The Jayhawks’ second coach actually wrote the very first book on how to coach the game.
In comparison, the other is much more of the new kid on the block, but also the definitive example of a new-millennium sports program grown in almost complete anonymity to become a sustained powerhouse. Year in and year out. With five-consecutive Sweet Sixteen appearances and one of college basketball’s highest winning percentages over the last two decades, No. 1-ranked Gonzaga is the envy of nearly every college athletic department – big or small – in the country.
These aren’t exaggerations. These two programs are that good. The Jayhawks and Zags are college-basketball royalty, but their paths to that kingdom took them on completely opposite journeys.
James Naismith – yes, that James Naismith – was the very first basketball coach at the University of Kansas. He’s also the only Jayhawk coach to have a career losing record. The man who followed Naismith fixed that. Phog Allen is considered the “father of basketball coaching” and despite not having coached a game in almost 65 years, he is still one of the most revered coaches of all time … even by most of today’s biggest college coaches.
Allen was such a force in basketball that he was in the inaugural class for the national Basketball Hall of Fame, he won national championships, he helped create the organization that would eventually become the NCAA, and he won a gold medal … because he was the driving force to make basketball an Olympic sport.
Kansas is one of the bluest of the blue bloods. Legacy is such a key component of the program’s mystique that when Allen Fieldhouse was renovated in 2005 and 2009, it was not to add more seating, but to add a world-class museum at the arena’s main entrance dedicated to the Jayhawks’ jaw-dropping history.
That’s what you walk through to go to games there. Or to play a game there. So it accomplishes at least a couple of things on game days in Lawrence.
And when the university acquired Naismith’s original handwritten “13 Rules of Basketball” in 2010 for so much money that ESPN literally put together a documentary on how it all happened, the school then built an entirely new building adjacent to Allen Fieldhouse to display one of the most coveted documents in all of sports.
Speaking of Allen Fieldhouse, the Jayhawks play in what is considered the grandest cathedral in all of college basketball. Built in 1955 with a seating capacity of more than 16,000, it not only sways with history, it also has been named by ESPN as the loudest arena in the nation and is considered one of the best home-court advantages in all of sports.
Gonzaga’s success at the McCarthey Athletic Center is nearly identical to the Jayhawks’ home record in this century – as in the Bulldogs are also practically unbeatable in the comfy confines of The Kennel. Listen to the ESPN announcers on one of their many visits to Spokane and the only thing they talk about more than staying at the Davenport is just how incredible the atmosphere is at a basketball game on Gonzaga’s campus.
The Bulldogs currently have the longest home winning streak in the nation at 39. Every game since The Kennel opened in 2004 has been a sellout, but the Zags’ homecourt sellout streak actually dates back to the 2001 season, for 272 consecutive sellouts.
Sure, there’s a huge difference in the timelines and numbers involved with both of these programs, but that’s also the point.
Nearly every university in the country that’s not Kansas, Kentucky, Duke, UCLA or North Carolina looks at Gonzaga to try to figure out how it might be able to build one of the most dominant college basketball programs in the nation … especially when most schools can’t start with a tradition that goes back more than a century.
Gonzaga is a modern-day, hoopified unicorn – there’s nothing else like it in collegiate athletics. Because of that, universities across the nation closely watch every move the Zags make in the hope that they might figure out what exactly is in that secret sauce that’s cooking in Spokane.
When most other universities’ basketball programs grow up, they all want to be Bulldogs.
The Zags are the only team to have won 30 games in each of the last four seasons, they have won at least 25 games in each of the last 13 seasons. Only one other team has also done that. Wanna guess who? Yep, the Jayhawks.
Gonzaga has also had 23-straight 20-win seasons. Only one other program has a longer streak … Kansas is at 30-straight 20-win seasons.
The Zags have now been ranked in the AP Top 25 for 78 consecutive weeks. That’s the third-longest streak in college hoops. Other than Duke, can you guess which program has been in the poll longer? One hint: it rhymes with Ray Rocks. And when COVID-19 ended last year’s basketball season early, the No. 1 and No. 2 teams in the final poll were Kansas and Gonzaga.
That’s what makes Thursday’s match-up so intriguing. Despite so much success, the two programs have faced off just once, in 1998. They really have been on much different paths.
But bubble basketball has fixed that.
It’s a long way from March when the games mean so much more, but we now get to see what happens when a team steeped in tradition goes toe to toe with a culture that breeds on- and off-court success. A Thanksgiving Day game on national TV is about as big as college basketball can get in November – which almost makes the game feel like destiny.
But you also get the feeling Gonzaga and Kansas will be meeting up a whole lot more often in the future. Even if the two programs get to those games in entirely different ways.