We used to be in there, now we’re out here
Over the past decade, Gonzaga has become the pre-eminent 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 recruting 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.
Coaching: Mark Few’s name may come up for coaching vacancies every year, but its 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.
Recruiting: 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.
Reputation: A win cements Gonzaga’s status as one of the nation’s elite and would begin to put their acheivements 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 OK no matter what happens. But for Gonzaga, there’s a lot at stake now, but also in the future.
On this bitter morning after for the Washington Huskies, they’ll spend the long offseason wondering what happened in the first half of their second-round tournament loss to Purdue, when the Boilermakers dominated them on both sides of the court and built an 11-point lead that proved to be just enough. Make no mistake, Purdue is [...]
* Washington provided a strong response to those who thought it might be upset by Mississippi State by suffocating the Bulldogs in a 71-58 victory that wasn’t as close as the score indicated. Powered by a swarming defense, the Huskies snuffed out MSU’s long-range attack, and with Bulldogs star Jarvis Varnardo sidelined with foul trouble, [...]
* Can’t argue too much with the No. 1 seeds, although if you’re Memphis, you’re wondering how you can import some better schools into your conference. Louisville deserved to rise to the top – they’ve been one of the hottest teams in the country and avoided the upset bug that felled most of the elite [...]
Hello. We’re the Northwestern University basketball program. You may not have heard of us, which is understandable. You see, we’re the only major conference program that has never qualified for the NCAA Tournament. Yes, we know it sounds unbelievable. But we really suck at basketball. We’ve never won 20 games. We haven’t finished fourth or higher in the Big Ten since 1968. We’ve only made the NIT three times. We are routinely the visitor at our own arena.
But this year is different! We’ve actually, you know, won some games, and we’re begging … no, pleading with you to throw a bone and invite us to the Big Dance.
Over the years, Gonzaga has done an impressive job of “scheduling up,” compensating for their weak conference by playing quality teams from the major conferences to build their strength of schedule and tournament resume. The Zags did more of the same this year, playing UConn, Tennessee, Memphis, Washington State and Maryland among others during their [...]
Well, that was quick. Pittsburgh ascended to the No. 1 spot in the college basketball polls on Monday, but will abdicate that post just as quickly after dropping an 81-73 decision to Providence. Including the Panthers’ earlier come-and-go from the top spot, Monday’s poll will mark the seventh different No. 1 team this season. Who [...]
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