So now it begins, Gonzaga's great journey into the unknown. All that's out there — for some people, anyway — is the reputation...
SALT LAKE CITY — So now it begins, Gonzaga’s great journey into the unknown. All that’s out there — for some people, anyway — is the reputation of its basketball program and its place as a national player in the game.
It’s not the way it should be, but that’s the way it is, and there’s not a lot the Zags can do about that, other than just play, starting Thursday against Southern. Play as they did in a crackling second half when they brushed aside Kansas State, play as they did when they out-steeled Oklahoma State in Stillwater, play as they did when they showed themselves superior, three times, to Saint Mary’s.
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That’s the trick: Just play.
Some teams find that easy, and some soldier grimly through March as though hauling sacks of concrete.
Wednesday at the routine NCAA news conference, this was the first question asked of the Gonzaga players: “Is there weight to being a top seed? Is there pressure?”
If there is, the Zags need to channel 1999, when Gonzaga came to KeyArena, never having won an NCAA tournament game. And in victories over Minnesota and Stanford, it played with the fearlessness of storm troopers, unafraid to fail.
“It was such a big deal to be there, but with our group, we always felt like it wasn’t enough,” said former guard Matt Santangelo, now a radio analyst for the team. “After we beat Minnesota, I remember sitting in the hotel room with my roommate, Mike Nilson, looking at each other and saying it wasn’t enough. ‘We should do this again.’ “
And they did, and they did again, and they made it all the way to the Elite Eight, where they carried eventual national champion Connecticut down to the final minute.
So you wonder: Will this Gonzaga team swim upstream against the thick expectations, or will it merely go play?
My guess is, it could come up short against gritty Pitt, or find Wisconsin or Ohio State to be too oppressive, but the moment won’t be too big, and that’s two different things.
You get a hint about the psyche of this team by how it’s managed the slalom to the No. 1 ranking earlier this month, and then, to its historic No. 1 seed.
The Zags have seemed to enjoy it, and coach Mark Few has allowed them to drink it in deeply. He’s always been an in-the-moment, enjoy-the-ride guy, and that’s how he’s handled the spike in acclaim this season.
Suddenly, Kelly Olynyk has been photographed more than Brooklyn Decker. CBS is doing all-access stuff. Few has been chatting up Mike and Mike in the Morning and ESPN analysts on live programs.
This is the kind of stuff that usually happens with lightning-strike programs, not ones with 15 straight years’ chops in the tournament.
As for the media rush on his players now, Few said, “I pretty much checked in with them to make sure they weren’t feeling overburdened. They’ve been fine with them. They’re very grounded and very low-maintenance. They’ve handled all this stuff remarkably well.”
Still, no doubt Few will try to capitalize on media slights, real and imagined. It might just get back to Gonzaga that this week on Pardon the Interruption, Tony Kornheiser referred to a potential Gonzaga-Pitt collision as one of “choking dogs.”
On game’s eve, there standing next to Few as the Zags had a light practice was CBS’s Doug Gottlieb, who has lately cast aspersions on Gonzaga’s qualifications and its toughness. We can probably assume that was a stiff repartee.
Physically, the Zags should be fresh, not having played in 10 days. A deep bench and frequent blowouts have capped starters’ playing time. Olynyk averages only 26 minutes a game, Elias Harris 27.
It’s also the definition of a high-IQ team.
“I think this group is really about their craft,” says Santangelo. “They’re a relaxed group. They get along. (Few) doesn’t have to coach effort or attitude. He just needs to coach basketball. They can do some pretty advanced basketball things.”
As the season wound down to its school-record 31 victories, Santangelo said to sophomore guard Kevin Pangos: “Don’t be satisfied.”
“Oh, never,” said Pangos.
Not now. Not in March. The burden may be acute, but the fun can be endless.