The Gonzaga miracle before our eyes

Zags

Mark Few (partially obscured), Matt Santangelo, and Dan Monson in the huddle, 1999.

Gonzaga as a program and Mark Few as a coach were written off for years as never being able to win the big one. Then when the Bulldogs and their coach finally did reach the Final Four, they were greeted with the same ho-hum reaction that North Carolina’s getting as a No. 1 seed while everyone (quite rightly) rubs their eyes in amazement at the presence of South Carolina.

That is entirely fitting, and possibly the highest compliment to be paid to a program that was once a mid-major. No one thinks of the Zags as a mid-major program any more. When Few lands a McDonald’s All-American like Zach Collins or schedules a neutral-floor game against Arizona at the Staples Center, no one bats an eye. Well, those are not the hallmarks of a mid-major.

While we’re on the subject of programs that don’t walk or quack like mid-majors….

NCAA tournament wins since 2000

North Carolina      45
Kansas              45
Duke                43
Michigan State      41
Kentucky            40
Florida             36
Connecticut         33
Wisconsin           33
Arizona             30
Syracuse            28
Louisville          28
UCLA                27
Gonzaga             25
Villanova           21
Butler              21
Xavier              21

Were Gonzaga to win two more games, the Bulldogs would be tied with UCLA and breathing down Arizona’s neck for the title of overall Left Coast supremacy. Far more importantly, two more wins would mean the Zags have won the 2017 national title. How epochal would that be, exactly?

From my chair it would be second only to the onset of the one-and-done era as the most revolutionary event in college basketball this century. Never mind the fact that such an outcome would be utterly non-revolutionary purely in basketball terms. (Actually Gonzaga enters the weekend as a laptop favorite, in part because it is by far the most likely of the four remaining teams to record a win on Saturday.)

There is simply no good reason why a small Jesuit university in Spokane playing in the West Coast Conference should have one of the most successful basketball programs of the 21st century. This storming of the blue-chip barricades is no less remarkable for having occurred in slow motion over a period of almost two decades.

If we could look at this development anew with yesterday’s eyes, we would be astounded. When Few took his first job at the school as a graduate assistant in 1989, his father, a longtime resident of Creswell, Oregon, had never heard of Gonzaga.

Everyone’s heard of Gonzaga now, but the doubts about whether the Bulldogs were “really” as good as their soon-to-be highly-seeded peers from the major conferences lingered all season. I heard those doubts, I was asked about them, and I kept coming back to how random basketball and particularly the NCAA tournament can be. If Wichita State doesn’t hit a season-high 14 threes in the 2013 round of 32, we aren’t having this conversation.

If the top-seeded Bulldogs of that year (Przemek Karnowski came off the bench and played four minutes in the round of 64 as a freshman) had reached that Final Four, these questions would have been answered already. Room would have been carved out in our hoops psyches for the Zags, and we would already class the program unconsciously yet affirmatively among college basketball’s elite.

That is no small feat. College basketball royalty has remained remarkably constant over the past 20 years. The 1990s dawned with Bob Knight seemingly at the peak of his career at Indiana, Mike Krzyzewski being derided as a choke artist in March who would never win the big one, Kansas cleaning up after Larry Brown’s messy departure and taking a flyer on an unproven assistant named Roy Williams, and Kentucky cleaning up after Eddie Sutton’s messy departure and taking a flyer on a somewhat proven but still young Big East head coach named Rick Pitino.

By the close of that decade Knight was on his way out (mere months from “”sup, Knight?”), Coach K had won two national titles, Kansas under Williams was the new Duke (a second-weekend fixture that was told at every turn it would never win it all), and Kentucky had come within an overtime of winning three consecutive national championships.

One two-season degringolade from Billy Gillispie notwithstanding, Duke, Kansas and Kentucky have been with us ever since. North Carolina made things interesting by shifting their great leap-slash-hiccup a decade later than what their peers had done, but once Williams had been lured back home from Lawrence everything was in place at the college basketball mountaintop.

The one wild card in this picture was, of course, the four national titles won by Connecticut between 1999 and 2014. The Huskies navigated two transitions at once when they joined a new conference and brought on a new head coach. The immediate result was the team’s fourth championship, but now, three years later, the picture’s more opaque. UConn may return to glory post haste, or the Huskies may be on more of a long slow Memphis-after-Calipari glide path. We just don’t know.

This is the uncertainty that Gonzaga has transcended, and this why the Bulldogs should own the mid-major label even though nothing about their performance, recruiting, revenue or travel arrangements has even the slightest connection to the life led by a Patriot or Southland team. All elite basketball programs fear what will happen after the legendary coach leaves, but only the elite programs outside the major conferences have to additionally worry that they may become or revert back to being mid-majors once the highly decorated coach heads out the door.

For North Carolina and its ilk, being a “major” is an irrevocable birthright made up of one part tradition, one part conference affiliation. For Gonzaga that status has been earned and is entirely contingent upon what they do on the court. A national title from such a team would be up there on the same programmatic bleachers as USA hockey 1980, even if it would be no great surprise as a basketball outcome. Mark Few, I salute you.