Gonzaga has been in the national picture since reaching the Elite Eight in 1999. However, the former Cinderella has largely disappointed in the NCAA tournament. Fortunately, this year is different.
That 1999 season represented the Bulldogs' first-ever wins in March Madness. This led to raised expectations and higher seeds over the years. Despite four appearances in the Sweet 16, the squad never returned to the Elite Eight.
This year, Gonzaga could potentially get its first-ever No. 1 seed after ending the regular season 29-2. While it is easy to expect Mark Few's team to lose early in the NCAA tournament once again, there are a few things that make this season different compared to the past.
The Bulldogs are better, more prepared and are facing weaker competition than ever before and now have their best chance to reach the Final Four.
Over the years, Gonzaga has had a number of talented players on campus. It started with John Stockton in the early 1980s and continued with Dan Dickau, Ronny Turiaf, Adam Morrison and many others.
However, what makes this roster different is its versatility.
Kelly Olynyk is the star and the player that opponents must focus on first. He is a tough inside scorer who can also make teams guard him from the outside.
Most importantly, he is incredibly efficient with his shooting. His 66.8 shooting percentage ranks third in the NCAA, and only four times all year did he shoot worse than 50 percent from the floor. This prevents him from hurting the team with a bad game.
How far will Gonzaga go this season?
Past squads were much more dependent on a good shooting game from someone like Morrison or Blake Stepp.
Meanwhile, there is plenty of help from the supporting cast of Elias Harris and Kevin Pangos.
These players have shown they can take over and win games by themselves. Each has scored at least 20 points in a game five different times this year.
The trio has enough scoring ability to ensure that there is no bad game offensively.
Finally, there is more athleticism on this roster that helps them play solid defense. According to KenPom, Gonzaga ranks 23rd in the nation in defensive efficiency.
This compares quite favorably to the talented teams from 2004 to 2006, as they ranked 40th, 121st and 178th respectively.
With a steadier offense and a better defense, Gonzaga can go far.
Mark Few has been good at setting up solid non-conference games over the years, but few times has he had as much success as this season.
Gonzaga destroyed the Big 12, finishing the year with a 5-0 record against teams in the power conference. Going by current standings, the Bulldogs beat a team tied for first (Kansas State), plus the third-, fourth-, sixth- and seventh-ranked teams in the conference.
Oklahoma is projected to make the NCAA tournament, yet lost to the Zags by 25 on a neutral court earlier in the year.
Those that say Gonzaga would not survive in a big-time conference were pretty much showed it would do well in the Big 12.
Even the West Coast Conference is tougher than usual with the improvement of St. Mary's and the addition of BYU. The Bulldogs dealt with difficult road tests late in the season, but they ended up stronger by surviving those battles.
Unlike past years that were filled with blowout victories, Gonzaga was challenged this year and came out with a 9-1 record in games decided by 10 points or less. This ability to win close games will help them in the NCAA tournament.
Obviously, there are a number of talented teams in the country that will compete for the national championship. However, if this season taught us anything, it is that you should watch for upsets early.
During the regular season, a Top Five team lost to an unranked opponent 19 times. Every contender has at least one bad loss that it would like to take back.
Gonzaga, however, does not have a loss to any team ranked outside the Top 50 in RPI. Only Michigan State, Indiana and Ohio State can make this claim.
This year is likely to see plenty of top seeds go down early, leaving an easier path for the Bulldogs, assuming they survive the mayhem.
That will leave a bunch of middling teams that are as bad as they have been in years. Indiana State is currently "on the bubble," even though it lost to all but one team in the Missouri Valley Conference at least once.
The 2012-13 season will be known for its inconsistency. However, Gonzaga has generally avoided disappointment.
If this continues into March, the Bulldogs could be celebrating their best finish in school history as they play themselves into the Final Four.