Over the past decade, Gonzaga has become the preeminent mid-major in college basketball, a well-deserved title after years of keeping up with the big boys—and often beating them at their own game.
In reality, however, the Bulldogs are a major program in many ways.
Their recruiting coups, scheduling freedom, TV exposure and media goodwill are envied by teams big and small.
It's been a great run from the little guys over in Spokane, but they've reached a crossroads.
Tonight's Sweet 16 game against North Carolina represents the latest and greatest challenge in Gonzaga's remarkable run, a contest that, despite the outcome, could have far-reaching ramifications for everyone's favorite Cinderella.
Sure, Gonzaga has played in big tournament games before, and they've even beaten the mighty Tar Heels with some of the same players who will take the court tonight. But beating UNC here, to advance to the Elite Eight, would be a seismic triumph—a signature victory the program could always hang its hat on.
But how could the outcome of this game really affect the Gonzaga program? Let's take a closer look.
Mark Few's name may come up for coaching vacancies every year, but it's generally confined to the Northwest (i.e., Oregon). Beating UNC, however, would put Few's name on the very short list of hot coaches that big-time athletic directors (i.e., Kentucky) will be clamoring to get. The Gonzaga brass will be hard pressed to keep Few in Spokane if the real big boys keep calling.
If you think Few's done a good job mining for talent with Gonzaga, imagine the kind of recruits that Few would be able to draw with Kentucky on his business card?
If the Bulldogs lose to UNC, Few could also decide that he's had a good run with the Zags, and that he's done all he could do. Then it might be easier to see him head off to Oregon to coach at his alma mater.
I don't think the Bulldogs will be hurt in this area if they lose tonight—they've got a knack at finding kids that seem to work in their system. I can still see gritty, somewhat overlooked players eager to head to Gonzaga given the benefits of the program noted above.
But if the Zags win, look out. That kind of exposure, and that kind of win would open the door to a new level of recruit that hasn't considered Gonzaga in the past.
Current center Micah Downs is the only McDonald's All-American to play for the school, and that's only because he flamed out at Kansas and had few options left. Some of the nation's elite may not choose to test themselves against the West Coast Conference, but there will be more than a few high-flyers who would be interested in signing on.
A win cements Gonzaga's status as one of the nation's elite and would begin to put their achievements into a historical perspective. It would also provide them with more scheduling troubles—no team in their right mind would ever travel to Spokane and risk catching a beat down from the Zags, and there's only so many high-profile tournaments for which they can sign up.
A loss and people start to reassess. Not that the Bulldogs would be tossed out as a Top 25 team, but you can certainly bet that people will assume they can't win the big one, or they falter with too much on the line. As other mid-majors like Saint Mary's and Western Kentucky rise, some of the press (and AP votes) may turn to those schools and Gonzaga's star may begin to dim.
That's why tonight's game is compelling on so many levels. Forget North Carolina—they'll be okay no matter what happens. But for Gonzaga, there's a lot at stake now, but also in the future.