Gonzaga’s Cinderella successes in the NCAA tournament helped catapult them into a perennial contender. They get plenty of hype. Outstanding recruits. Big games. The Bulldogs are no longer underdogs. Now, the Zags will enter the tournament for their 11th year in a row.
But for whatever reason, Gonzaga’s recurring prominence has not always equated to dominance.
In fact, it appears Gonzaga’s best years in the tournament, so far, occurred when they sauntered their way to the Sweet 16 three years in a row from 1999-2001.
It started with an Elite Eight appearance—where Gonzaga, a 10 seed, lost by five to the eventual winner of the tourney that year, Connecticut. Fans of the Madness cheered them on. People learned for the first time where John Stockton went to school. They were the Cinderella team of the year. Dan Monson, Gonzaga’s coach, unsurprisingly, got a new job.
However, it didn’t stop there. Led by newcomer coach Mark Few, Gonzaga, amazingly, reappeared in the Sweet 16 the next two years, once as a 10 seed and again as a 12 seed. The slipper kept on fitting.
The next year, Gonzaga officially lost their Cinderella status. They were given a 6 seed.
They were expected to win.
Gonzaga didn’t advance that year, losing to Wyoming in the first round. Perhaps Gonzaga felt more comfortable as the underdog Bulldogs.
The last seven years, in fact, Gonzaga has reached the Sweet 16 but once. Despite being a 2 seed and a 3 seed twice, they’ve had no more appearances in the elusive Elite eight.
Albeit they haven’t always been given a high seed over the past seven years, they seemingly have had more success in the tourney as a Cinderella.
Gonzaga has now been deemed one of the best teams in the land. Only eight other teams have reached the tournament consecutively over the last 10 years, and one of those teams, Kentucky, is in serious trouble of ending their streak.
The Zags have won some big time games. They’ve won nine of the last 11 WCC championships. They’ve boasted a gaudy record. They’ve had some big name players.
But the one thing they haven’t been able to achieve under their status as an elite team is a duplication of that magical 1999 postseason performance, where they blazed their way to the Elite Eight.
Don’t get me wrong, Gonzaga deserves to be among the elite. For a small school from a lower-tier conference to pull off what they have is simply amazing.
But I’m sure Gonzaga would love to see another one of those magical postseasons. Maybe no longer as that darling Cinderella story. But they would undoubtedly love to find another slipper that fits—one that will eventually land them a national championship.
Perhaps their Cinderella story is still happening. Perhaps this is what it may take for a small school like Gonzaga to make a serious run at a national title. A few nice runs in the tourney. Then come some big name players. Some big time wins.
Perhaps it may take 11 years to find that national champion slipper. Maybe 15. Maybe more. They certainly have the players and the coaching to make a run.
If Gonzaga does eventually win the national title game, people won’t be too surprised—they are, after all, one of the elite. But to me, if that day occurs, it will be because of a magical run in the 1999 postseason.
It will be a Cinderella story.