If you listen closely, you can hear the rumbles emanating from the Pacific Northwest.
No, it's not an impending eruption from Mount St. Helens. It's Mark Few's Gonzaga Bulldog basketball team waking from their winter slumber just in time for March Madness.
After falling off the college basketball radar following five early season losses—three to Top 25 teams—the Bulldogs find themselves back in familiar territory, atop the West Coast Conference standings.
Since slipping to 3-3 in conference play following a rare three-game league losing streak, the 'Zags have run off eight straight victories, including an 89-85 overtime victory over then league-leading St. Mary's (CA).
By virtue of their most recent victory, 68-31 over San Diego, the Bulldogs have clinched their 11th consecutive regular season conference championship. No other program has had that kind of success in their respective league since the UCLA dynasty of the '70s.
One can hardly dispute Gonzaga's dominance in the WCC during the Mark Few Era. In addition to their 11 consecutive regular season championships, the 'Zags have played in 10 straight conference tournament title games, have had the coach of the year eight out of the past 10 years, had the player of the year nine out of the past 10 years and have been to the NCAA tournament 12 consecutive years.
That being said, Coach Few's Bulldogs, with their 21-9 record, may very well come into the conference tournament as an underdog, handing the title of favorite to the St. Mary's Gaels, with whom they split their season series. Without a signature victory on their resume, they'll more than likely have to earn the WCC's automatic bid in order to be dancing come March.
Not that the role of underdog would be an uncomfortable fit. Gonzaga's greatest success in the NCAA tournament came as a Cinderella in the 1998-99 season. That year, the No. 10 'Zags upset No. 7 Minnesota, No. 2 Stanford and No. 6 Florida before coming up short to eventual national champion, No. 1 UConn, in the Elite Eight. They followed that up with back-to-back appearances in the Sweet 16 in '00 and '01.
The role of favorite has not been as kind. Since 2001, the Bulldogs have only been back to the Sweet Sixteen twice—2006 and 2009—getting knocked out in the first or second round every other year, including last year's second round loss to Syracuse, 87-65.
This year's team is too good to be called a Cinderella story, but with a good mix of experience—Steven Gray has been to three tournaments—and youth, this is one team the big boys won't want to be facing come tournament time.
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