Gonzaga can make a statement that no one can imitate it with emphatic trip to the Final Four.

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SALT LAKE CITY — At a small historically black college in Baton Rouge, La., the men’s basketball program dreams of being Gonzaga.

Yes, Gonzaga, the little Jesuit school more than 2,300 miles away from the Southern University campus.

The Zags are huge down by the Lower Mississippi River.

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Somewhere, CBS analyst Doug Gottlieb is fuming over this revelation because, well, even he doesn’t know. But he’s passionate about it.

Southern coach Roman Banks so admires what Gonzaga has built that he preaches his Jaguars need to be like the Zags. He wants a program that rises from its own corner of the United States map to become nationally relevant. He talks about the Zags so much that, when the NCAA tournament bracket was revealed on Selection Sunday, his players all shot him a look when their opponent became known.

“Coach, Gonzaga!” they exclaimed.

It’s Jags vs. Zags on Thursday afternoon. The spelling difference is one letter, but that’s about the only way they’re close.

“All year long, you hear Gonzaga in our locker room, our pregame speeches and practices about working hard and building and how you have to play,” Banks said.

It’s an incredible compliment to the Gonzaga program. And in a twisted way, it frames the Bulldogs’ mission as they start this run as a first-time No. 1 seed.

With a deep tournament run under the scrutiny of being a top seed, Gonzaga can eliminate much of its Little School That Could (And Did) story line. The Zags can simply become a beast, no qualifiers attached. They can officially go from the small school’s inspiration to the small school’s boogeyman — so mighty, so accomplished, so entrenched you think twice before saying you can be them.

What Gonzaga has accomplished is remarkable and never should be underestimated, but the truth is, the Zags haven’t been just another cute story for quite a while. They are on a 15-year streak of making the NCAA tournament, and they have been one of the top 20 programs in the nation during that span. They recruit first-round draft picks. They have a sprawling recruiting base. They can get players everywhere from Los Angeles to Chicago to Germany.

They’re not a mid-major. They’re Gonzaga, period. Exclamation point, if people aren’t listening. It’s impossible to cram the program into a box.

Still, too much of the nation doesn’t understand what the Zags have become. They’re considered a fun aberration, not a danger to destroy the hierarchy of elite programs in college basketball. And they’re the inspiration of limited programs across the nation, all of them united in believing, “If Gonzaga can do it, so can we.”

It’s cool to have imitators. But if the Zags can get to the Final Four, perhaps everyone will truly realize and respect their herculean accomplishments.

You just don’t decide to be Gonzaga. You just don’t copy, commit and create. The Zags’ sustained success is the rarest of the rare for programs outside of the power conferences. And though “mid-major” programs such as George Mason, Virginia Commonwealth and Butler have deciphered the Final Four code over the past seven years, Gonzaga is still the standard for continuity, consistency and recruiting despite limitations.

Nevertheless, the Zags still have too many haters trying to nudge them away from the big-boy table. So this is their chance, with everyone watching, to prove that they are as good as their 31-2 record and No. 1 seed.

“We feel like we have to prove ourselves,” point guard Kevin Pangos said, “and we’re ready to do that.”

It’s important to understand that seeds aren’t earned during the NCAA tournament. Teams earn their seeds before the tournament. Whether they excel or flop in this single-elimination format, the Zags were worthy of a No. 1 seed because they never gave a flat performance during a season in which inconsistency reigned, because they thrived and often were dominant in games against big-conference schools or teams that made the NCAA tournament and because they’re as balanced and complete as any team in the nation.

Now, they play to do something they’ve never done before. The Final Four isn’t just a realistic goal. It is now the expectation.

Anything less, and there will be snide remarks, even if it’s an unfair burden given the crapshoot this tournament is. But that’s part of being a giant, flourishing under enormous pressure and expectations.

The Zags shouldn’t think they have something to prove. They should think they have something to achieve.

It starts with stepping on Southern. It starts with showing the Jags that, no matter how much they dream, it’s impossible to be the Zags.

Jerry Brewer: 206-464-2277 or jbrewer@seattletimes.com

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