Finding the Good of Gonzaga in the Wake of Disappointment

Despite living in the Philadelphia area almost my entire life, I’ve been a Gonzaga fan since I was 8 years old. I don’t know how many people, even close friends of mine, know the origin story of my love for the Zags.

Here’s how it happened: 

My dad was in a March Madness fantasy player draft every year and decided to bring me along in March of 1999. If you’ve had the joy of playing in the contest we run on this site, you can thank this draft for putting the kernel of the idea in my head many years ago.

One of the regular participants couldn’t make the draft, but still wanted to have a team. My dad volunteered that I could draft for him, after all, I probably watched more college hoops than any of them. The missing participant quipped over the phone that he’d finished last several years running. Surely, I couldn’t be any worse than him. The other guys allowed it, with a watchful eye. They definitely raised an eyebrow later in the proceedings when I drafted two players from a little school called Gonzaga. 

To this day, I couldn’t tell you why I did that. Funny sounding school name? Maybe I saw Minnesota, their first round opponent, lose earlier that season. Whatever the reason, I left that draft with a vested interest in the boys from Spokane. That turned out perfectly, as the Zags made a run to the Elite Eight. The guy whose team I drafted slipped me a $20 bill the next time I saw him and I’ve been a diehard Gonzaga fan ever since.

When I say diehard, I meant it in every sense of the word. Most notably, the emotions associated with watching a sports team with whom you live and die. I am just as invested in the Zags chasing a championship as I am for my Eagles or Sixers in their quests for a title. During the UCLA game in the Final Four, I found myself wishing I was wearing an Apple Watch or other smart device because my heart rate was not healthy. My mental and physical health were teetering with every shot.

So as you might imagine, I was not in the highest of spirits when the Zags were picked apart by Baylor in Monday’s National Championship game. Take nothing away from Baylor, that is a great basketball team. The Bears lost just twice all season, to Kansas at Allen Fieldhouse and to a liquid hot Oklahoma State team led by a future NBA superstar. The Bears matched up favorably with the Zags, then outworked and outplayed them at every turn.

My mind, prodded by the mainstream sports media take-o-sphere and the evil blob of Twitter morons, was led towards doubts about Gonzaga as a team and as a program. Ever since Gonzaga burst on the scene, there has been a movement to knock the Zags down a peg. Even as they climbed the ladder and cemented themselves as one of the premier programs in the sport, casual fans and underinformed analysts rush to discredit Gonzaga year after year. The strength of schedule and the West Coast Conference are always an easy target. But who could Gonzaga have possibly scheduled to prepare for that Baylor buzzsaw, other than Baylor itself (which the Zags did, before a COVID case cancelled the game)? Gonzaga and Baylor had the same number of wins against top 30 KenPom teams entering Monday’s game (ten each).

Last decade, the widespread hatred for the Zags was more general. “Gonzaga doesn’t win in March,” the naysayers said. As the school currently boasting the most Sweet Sixteen trips in a row, the Zags have squashed that. If you still believe that, there’s a little “X” in the top right corner of your screen I kindly invite you to click instead of finishing this article.

Then the refrain became “Gonzaga can’t reach the Final Four.” The Zags did that and now have done it again, so the narrative shifted again. The Zags keep reaching the red zone, even as the goal posts are pushed further and further away. Now what you see and hear the most is something like “Gonzaga can’t win the big game.” Monday night confirmed that “the big one” is only the national championship. Somehow, that has cemented Gonzaga as the only college basketball program that enters each season considering anything less than a national championship as a failure.

At face value, that is an insane reality to live in. Gonzaga would be the smallest school (by undergraduate student population) to win a men’s basketball championship since La Salle in 1954. It would also have the smallest current endowment of any school to win a title since La Salle. Schools like Gonzaga don’t usually contend for championships. Typically, they make a run or two, piece things together between one great player and the next, try to catch lightning in a bottle one season, and fade back to obscurity.

Gonzaga is the first Cinderella to refuse to turn back into a pumpkin at midnight. Now it’s several weeks after the ball at the palace and people are sick of this girl hanging around in her glass slippers.

As a person paid to write college basketball analysis, I can show you the numbers and the X’s and O’s to argue that these Zags were one of the best college basketball teams of the last decade (joining Baylor in that conversation).

As a fan? I can sit here and be very proud of Gonzaga’s 31-1 season that included a trip to the championship game, but nothing changes the narrative until Mark Few puts scissors into the nylon of the net at season’s end. Next year, the voices will only grow louder. The Zags are already the Vegas favorite to win the 2022 title. The Bulldogs are going to be very good or great again next year. No one will really care either way unless they win it all, in a dark modern twist on the 1990s Buffalo Bills. Gonzaga, a tiny school from Spokane, has somehow joined the likes of LeBron James and Alabama football in the realm of “Championship or Bust” mentality.

I am going to continue enjoying rooting for a team that has been to six straight Sweet Sixteens and two of the last four Final Fours. I know that Mark Few is one of the best coaches in college basketball and will be enshrined in the Hall of Fame some day. I hope and I think he’ll have his moment as a champion soon. Until then, and I know this is corny, but I keep replaying the same Tom Petty song over and over this morning.

“The waiting is the hardest part.”

*******

Shane McNichol is the founder, editor, and senior writer at PalestraBack.com. He has also contributed to ESPN.com, The Action Network, Rush The Court, Larry Brown Sports, RotoBaller, and USA Today Sports Weekly. Follow him on Twitter @OnTheShaneTrain. You can find every post from this blog on Twitter by following @PalestraBack.

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