With a wing and a prayer, and maybe a rabbit’s foot and a stray four-leaf clover, Gonzaga launches its college basketball season this week. Not that luck is typically in the Zags’ playbook, but it’s 2020, and, well, you may have noticed, things are a little different.
The Zags, of course, open Thursday with a little-known opponent without much in the way of genealogy – Kansas. That kicks off a nine-day stretch in which Gonzaga also plays Auburn and Tennessee and Baylor. But not the Lakers.
Chief among the story lines for GU are: That the program seems ever on an ascendant arc, judging by the caliber of recruits committed verbally or in writing; and the chaotic, constantly evolving schedule that has taken shape under the persistent thumb of a pandemic.
But there’s another narrative that’s crept in over many months’ time, dating to even before the 2020 calendar year, prior to the ’20 NCAA tournament being scrubbed. It’s the one that points out that Gonzaga, for all its unlikely emergence a generation ago and erstwhile darling-ness and nationwide curiosity/appeal, hasn’t won a national championship, and is this the year, or what the hell are you guys waiting for?
Mostly we’re talking about nuance here, and maybe I’m nitpicking. But it’s been out there nonetheless, the notion that the program will be forever unfulfilled and, you know, no better than New Jersey Tech if someday it’s not Gonzaga hogging the highlights on “One Shining Moment.”
Last December, as a promising season was beginning, a Spokane TV station asked: “Is this finally the year for GU?” An editor of the Spokane Spokesman-Review termed it that “elusive” national title.
This is a second cousin, of course, to the old narrative that the Zags have underperformed in the post-season. Or, as someone writing for something called NBC Sports.com/Washington penned in referencing GU coach Mark Few, “The Bulldogs’ coach has had massive amounts of success in the regular season and in the second and third rounds of the NCAA tournament. However, it’s in the second weekend and beyond that’s been his bugaboo.”
Nothing like having a little perspective.
Few sporting endeavors are fraught with as much peril as winning an NCAA basketball title. All you’ve got to do is ford a river of menacing Dukes, Kentuckys and North Carolinas; and lying-in-the-weeds outfits like Florida State and Texas Tech; and oh yeah, the upstarts jonesing to make a name for themselves, like Loyola of Chicago and Wichita State and before that, Butler. (That was Gonzaga once, remember.)
When the Dodgers won the ’20 World Series, it broke a drought of more than three decades. In recent years, when they were denied, there were four or five realistic interlopers. In college hoops, there might be 25 or 30 outfits capable of the bonkers 40 minutes that sends you home.
Again, we’re talking nuance here. It’s not wrong to call Gonzaga’s title “elusive” – only that if it’s elusive for the Zags, it’s also elusive for a lot of other folks.
Some numbers to chew on: Twenty-three times since 2000, a program that hasn’t won a national championship in the past half-century has been seeded No. 1 and failed to win it all. Seventeen times, that school didn’t get to the Final Four. Twice that happened to Gonzaga. But it also befell Stanford three times, Pitt twice, and among others, Oregon (2014) and Washington (2005).
In other words, this winning-it-all thing ain’t easy. Never is, and that’s when we’re not turned upside-down by a virus. If you assume the Zags’ road to a respectable seed in the 2021 tournament hinges on their non-league performance, those four early games are not only pivotal, but freighted with negative implication for GU if they aren’t played.
So health, theirs and their opponents’, should be Job One for the Zags. Getting off to a fast start is No. 2, and if history holds, Few should be the right guy to make it happen. I count eight non-conference tournament championships on his 21-year watch, including a couple in Maui and three in Florida. The Zags have regularly tattooed Washington early, including in 2004, when GU was coming off a listless blowout loss at Illinois and the Huskies were ranked.
And almost without fail, when Gonzaga has stumbled in a pre-conference game – Dayton in a first-round Maui loss in 2013 – it has rebounded to scoop up valuable resume ground with a victory.
The Zags have beaten North Carolina and Duke in November. Now the goal is to do it in late March or early April.
No doubt GU players have a title in the back of their minds and don't mind saying so. Nothing wrong with that. But their fans ought not be so jaded that anything less than a championship is a failure.
You do you, as they say. Me, I’d root for health, and then a Final Four, and if that happens, talk about a title. That pretty much describes Few’s approach in 2017, when the Zags crashed through the glass ceiling to the Final Four. This time, instead of glass descending, they envision confetti.