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Bud Withers' Blog

Zags exemplary; some GU fans, not so much

  I’m sitting in front of a computer and trying to describe adequately Gonzaga’s nine-year streak of making the NCAA Sweet 16. A marriage of “stupefying” and “insane” is about the best I can do.
   So irrepressible were the Zags in taking out McNeese State and Kansas over the opening weekend, that the inclination was to wonder what the hell was wrong with those other two teams. Where was that squad that won 30 games in the Southland Conference and was one of the popular picks for a 12-5 upset? And what exactly happened to Kansas, injuries and depth issues notwithstanding, to justify allowing a blinding 32-4 second-half tsunami by Gonzaga – itself not exactly a deep team?
  The easiest answer is to say this is what Gonzaga does. No matter how dismal, no matter how down the outlook earlier in the season, it somehow redefines itself at the propitious time.
  I saw Gonzaga lose to Washington Dec. 9, and for GU fans, it was ghastly. The guard play devolved to atrocious in the late stages, when the Zags coughed up an 11-point lead and lost to the Huskies. Maybe worse than the bungled ball-handling and missed shots, they didn’t seem to be enjoying playing with each other, a hallmark of GU teams.
  Somehow, the Zags kept chopping wood, people like Ryan Nembhard and Graham Ike began to get it, and Saturday, after a second straight tournament victory that could have been by 30, Gonzaga had tied Duke (1998-2006) for the second-longest streak of Sweet 16 teams in history.
  If this isn't the most surprising of the Sweet 16s, it's at least 1B. Similarly, the 2015-16 Zags mucked aimlessly through much of the season. Then they caught fire, won the WCC tournament and blistered both Seton Hall and Utah to get to the round of 16. All that happened, ironically, as HBO cameras tracked them relentlessly for a reality-TV series called "Gonzaga: The March to Madness." Athletic director Mike Roth, fretting over the possibility of television chronicling the program finally coming back to earth after 17 straight NCAA-tournament appearances, likened the prospect to a "freakin' Greek tragedy."
  As it turned out, not to worry.
  Two points of perspective on Sweet 16 record history: UCLA’s glory-days teams obviously were dominant, but the NCAA doesn’t count them because the Bruins would routinely get a bye to the round of 16 in years when tournament participation numbered in the mid-20s.
  Second, North Carolina (1981-93) holds the record at 13, but it’s a bit less daunting than it sounds because the first four of those were 48-team tournaments and Carolina would get a bye, requiring a single win to crash the Sweet 16.
  It’s a ridiculously competitive sport. One night, you need to beat a team that massages the ball, the next you’re facing speedball on a short prep that begins at midnight after a late first-round win.
  Yeah, Gonzaga has benefited from a handful of 16-1 games, as did Carolina and Duke. But it’s also had to be pitch-perfect to get to that second weekend. It had to reduce Seton Hall’s Isaiah Whitehead from Big East tournament MVP to a 4-for-24 shooter in a 16-point win as an 11 seed in 2016. Then it went out and beat Utah by 23.
  It had to have Zach Norvell’s three to break a tie in 2018 in the last 21 seconds against North Carolina-Greensboro, avoiding one of those first-round upsets that are everywhere, in what would have been the Zags’ most dire opener ever in the tournament.
  It needed all of Drew Timme’s wiles to overcome a 12-point second-half deficit against Memphis in  Portland two years ago, and it took all hands on deck to oust TCU last year, 84-81.
  All that happened during a stretch when, in the first two rounds, Arizona lost to Princeton and Purdue lost to Fairleigh-Dickinson and Virginia lost to Maryland-Baltimore County and Kentucky lost to St. Peter’s and Texas lost to Abilene Christian.
  Right here is where some mouth-breathing Cream-o-Wheat-brain says, “Uh, how many natties they won?”
  That would be none. But college hoops has its own class structure, one that’s far more varied and nuanced than, say, any of the pro sports. It’s like an extension ladder with 16 rungs, one that accommodates bluebloods like Duke, North Carolina and Kansas as well as an indigent like IUPUI; faded-glory places like DePaul, Syracuse and Georgetown; football schools that have had spasms of success (Michigan, Miami) and those that can’t get out of their own way (Penn State, Nebraska); mid-majors that have had bursts into the limelight (Princeton, Davidson, George Mason, Wichita State); and a whole array of other sub-species.
  It’s an awfully diverse fraternity, and the Zags have earned a place on the next-to-top rung, a national title away from the summit.
  I’d imagine their fans can universally appreciate that, but then again, after sitting in at the Spokane subregional over the weekend, I may be giving some of them too much credit.
  When Saint Mary’s, the Zags’ longtime bete noire, ran onto the floor for its first-round game with Grand Canyon, it was booed – not lightly, loudly. That came, assuredly, from some of the Gonzaga fans in the audience. Not all of them, but some.
  I thought it was bush.
  Saint Mary’s won the WCC regular-season title and followed up with the conference-tournament championship. It was the Gaels’ year. For their trouble, they got assigned to the Spokane subregional, to deal with the challenges of a road game.
  I’ll stipulate first that those are expensive tickets, and fans absolutely have the right to cheer or boo as they like. Second, the sound of boos is often a vague impression; if 100 people in a baseball stadium of 45,000 people boo, the storyline tends to become, “Bryce Harper was booed … “
  The Saint Mary’s reception was certainly robust. My companion, unsolicited, called it “hostile.”
  Of course, it was only a segment of Gonzaga fans. It’s probably not worth pointing out to them that any advancement by Saint Mary’s in the tournament stands to benefit Gonzaga financially via conference payouts. Moreover, what would there be for the Zags in the WCC without the Gaels? It’s easily the best rivalry in West Coast basketball, one that makes both schools better.
  There’s a time to lay down your guns and appreciate the other guy. In this case, it struck me as an unseemly sequel to the trash-throwing incident early in February when Gonzaga hosted the Gaels – petty, provincial and not a good look.
  Meanwhile, those folks have plenty to cheer from their favorite team. For comparative purposes, the next-best ongoing streak of Sweet 16s is Houston’s five. Funny, but for virtually a decade now, Gonzaga has been doing what it couldn’t from 2010 to 2014, when it annually won an NCAA-tournament game but stumbled in the second round.
  The Sweet 16 was the Holy Grail then. Now it’s as routine as the electric bill.
#theslipperstillfits #unitedwezag #wcchoops #wccsports #zaghoops #zagmbb #zagsguru #zagup

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