To bet against Gonzaga making the NCAA tourney would be to bet against nature. “I don’t think anybody in the country, Duke, any of them, has done a better job with their program than the people in Gonzaga,” said Saint Mary’s coach Randy Bennett.
LAS VEGAS – That was for Dan Dickau. Adam Morrison, too.
It was for Matt Santangelo, Ronny Turiaf and Blake Stepp as well.
It was for the ride Dan Monson started, and the party Mark Few preserves.
Gonzaga out of the NCAA men’s basketball tournament? Don’t even entertain the thought.
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Tuesday night at Orleans Arena, the Zags faced the prospect of missing their first Dance in 18 years. Based on their undulating season, a loss to Saint Mary’s almost certainly would have relegated them to the NIT.
The Gaels even entered the West Coast Conference tournament final as four-point favorites, a line surely influenced by their two victories over Gonzaga earlier this season. But you can’t pick the other team in a situation like this. To bet against the Zags making the Tourney would be to bet against nature.
“I don’t think anybody in the country, Duke, any of them, has done a better job with their program than the people in Gonzaga,” said Saint Mary’s coach Randy Bennett, whose team fell to the Zags 85-75. “They put the bar up there, and we’ve been trying to get there with them.”
Before tipoff, Kansas (26), Duke (20) and Michigan State (18) each had longer NCAA tournament streaks than Gonzaga, but none were as charming. Those are schools that either A) are churning out one-and-dones every year, or B) have enrollments of more than 50,000 students.
Whether it’s Magic Johnson out of MSU, Wilt Chamberlain out of KU, or the seven Dukies that have been top-three picks over the past quarter-century, the three aforementioned programs have stacked the NBA with talent and will continue to do so.
But the Zags are about college basketball. More specifically — they’re everything we love about college hoops.
No program in the country has been able to keep the clock stuck at 11:59 quite like Gonzaga has. It’s like an “American Idol” winner — splashing on the scene out of nowhere, then topping the charts for decades to come.
There have been other schools such as VCU or Butler that turned one magic moment into a few years of success.
But no mid-major has come anywhere close to replicating the sustained excellence put forth by the boys in Spokane.
It’s not like Few is ransacking the top-rated talent in America, either. No Gonzaga player since John Stockton (class of 1984) has made an NBA All-Star Game.
So at its core, this 18-year run represents unity over individualism. Perhaps that’s why one of the first things out of Few’s mouth upon downing Saint Mary’s was “the streak is alive!”
Yes, the streak is alive and, well … was there ever really a doubt?
The last two times Gonzaga needed to win the WCC tournament to make the Tourney, it pummeled those standing in its way.
In 2011, the Zags beat Saint Mary’s by 12 points in the final, and in 2007, they downed Santa Clara by nine. Tuesday night was equally impressive, as Gonzaga (26-7) went 29 of 47 from the field, 6 of 13 from deep, and 21 of 22 from the free-throw line.
After the game, Few lauded this year’s team as the most courageous he’s had yet. He said no group of his has so effectively overcome adversity, and that the squad deserved to have the same tournament experience as its 17 predecessors.
What that will be, of course, is impossible to predict.
Whether it was a run to the Elite Eight as a 10-seed, or a loss that prompted Morrison’s eyes to well, the Zags have been a part of some of March’s most memorable wins and losses. In other words, regardless of how you feel about their style of play — they are rarely boring come Tourney time.
The NCAA tournament is like no other spectacle in American sports. And for it to occur sans Gonzaga just wouldn’t feel right.