This week’s Associated Press and the ESPN/USA Today’s top five are identical: UNC, UConn, Pittsburgh, Gonzaga, and Oklahoma.
Kinda rolls off the tongue doesn’t it?
The Bulldogs of Gonzaga, with a record of six wins and zero losses, seem right at home in the top five.
That hasn’t always been the case.
Once there was a time when the Zags were the annual March feel good story that the media thrust into the limelight for all of us to enjoy, and the tiny school from the West Coast Conference seemed content with merely being ‘the little engine that could.’
Something funny happened along the way. Gonzaga decided they belonged with the best.
Acting on that decision hasn’t come without some amount of struggle.
Last year Coach Mark Few and his Bulldogs found themselves on the other side of the Cinderella story. The seventh-seeded Zags were bounced from the NCAA tournament in the first round by the 2008 feel good story, Stephen Curry and the Davidson Wildcats.
Jeremy Pargo, Josh Heytvelt, Matt Bouldin, Micah Downs, and Ira Brown had to sit by and watch as the Wildcats came within one more Curry trifecta of booking their travel plans for San Antonio.
The first-round loss marked back-to-back early exits for the Catholic school from Spokane, Washington.
Few must have used the loss as an opportunity to teach.
Prior to ’07 the Zags regularly took their turn trying on the glass slipper.
In 1999, with Dan Monson at the helm, Gonzaga knocked off Minnesota, Stanford, and Florida before falling to the eventual champ, UConn, 67-62. Ironically, Monson left at season’s end to coach the Gophers of Minnesota.
Few took the reins and led the Zags to consecutive Sweet Sixteen appearances.
In 2000, Gonzaga defeated Denny Crum in his 23rd and final appearance in the tournament as head coach of Louisville. Two days later St. John’s was victimized. Purdue stopped the Zags in the Regional semis.
One year later the Bulldogs beat Virginia and Indiana State before losing to Michigan State.
After a first-round exit in ’02, Gonzaga advanced to the second round the next three years.
The Bulldogs advanced to the Sweet Sixteen again in ’06 beating Xavier and Indiana before losing to eventual finalist, UCLA.
Now here’s the little school fitting right in with the bigs. Gonzaga, with their modest list of alums in the NBA, Mike Champion, Dan Dickau, Richie Frahm, Adam Morrison, John Stockton, and Ronnie Turiaf, is ranked fourth in the AP and nobody seems surprised that this sapling is surviving in a forest of Redwoods.
It’s taken ten years, but Gonzaga has proven they are more than a feel-good story.
Don’t get me wrong. I love feel-good stories. I cheered lustily for Davidson last year and for George Mason a couple of years ago. Those were great stories.
I will cheer for Davidson again this year. I am hoping that Stephen Curry can bring his infectious love for the game to the NBA and continue the transformation of that league.
But George Mason hasn’t known much March basketball since their miracle run.
Davidson? I hope Bob McKillop can keep the Wildcats near the top after Curry graduates. I’m just not counting on it.
Gonzaga has proven that a team, when allowed, doesn’t need to be in a major conference to compete.
Too bad college football prohibits the possibility of a Gonzaga. There are 11 conferences in Division 1A football. Quick, without aid of a search engine, can you name all 11? I consider myself an above average sports fan. I can rattle off the Big Ten, Pac 10, SEC, ACC, Big 12, and Big East without much trouble. I could probably even name all the teams in those conferences.
The other five? Let’s see…there’s the WAC. Then we have Conference USA, the MAC, Mountain West, and the Sun Belt.
How many teams from those other five conferences have a chance to try on the glass slipper?
Gonzaga’s role is more important than NBA contracts, NCAA titles, glass slippers, and Sweet Sixteen appearances.
In a country where executives from the auto industry board private jets and travel to Capitol Hill to grovel for handouts, Gonzaga reminds us that we are part of a democracy and that we can still accomplish something by rolling up our sleeves and getting after it.
Gonzaga...the tiny school with the scant resume doing battle with majors.
Gotta love America, the land of opportunity.