It was a long time coming.
From having John Stockton as their only claim to fame, to becoming the poster-school for the Cinderella attachment to all “mid-majors,” Gonzaga University over the last decade had worked themselves into a position of earned respect. They became a program that was considered a constant threat to the throne every March.
And in one weekend, they lost it all.
Going into the NCAA’s “Big Dance,” the main complaint coming out of every state on this side of Utah was how the Zags, despite being the No. 1-ranked team in the country, didn’t deserve to be one of the four No. 1 seeds going into the tournament.
“They ain’t play anybody,” is all that was heard. Their 31-2 record was tainted because the competition in the WCC, their whole “best team in college basketball” label was a fraud, their whole style considered chump.
The selection committee knew this going into making them a No. 1 seed, but could not find a reason to justify how the No. 1-ranked team in the country was not going to be one of the top four teams going into the final field of 68. They knew the pushback they were going to hear.
By 10 p.m. EST on Saturday, it had blown straight up in the committee’s faces.
What we have to understand is that the “blow up of Gonzaga” isn’t just about Gonzaga. The after effects of them losing so soon and struggling to get out of their first game against a No. 16-seed team (they beat Southern University by six, the closest a No. 1 seed has come to losing in the opening round game in 23 years) will be held against every team like them for at least the next 20 years.
It will impact VCU, Butler, James Madison, George Mason, Davidson, Creighton, Valparaiso, LIU Brooklyn and any perennial bottom-feeder from the Pac-12 that might get lucky one year. Hell FGCU could win this thing this year and still not get a No. 1 seed going into the Dance. Gonzaga just screwed that opportunity up.
Just as hard as it has been for schools like Boise State and Oregon to get into the final BCS Bowl game of the season, the path for basketball versions of those D1 schools is going to be just as impossible.
A mid-major getting a No. 1 seed is about to be harder than getting Pope Francis to put on those red Prada slippers he’s supposed to wear.
Lesson learned. The bracketologists (aka: the committee) that put this thing together every year don’t mind Dick Vitale or Billy Packer or Jay Bilas going off on them for omissions and mistakes they make in selecting the at-large bids. Or going off when they can’t differentiate a true No. 2 seed from a legit No. 1. They don’t even mind when Joe Lunardi embarrasses them by doing a better job of imitating them then they do trying to be themselves.
What they won’t stand for is being made fools of by teams that make them look bad for doing them favors, for doing what in their heads they know is wrong, but in their hearts is the right thing to do.
There will be none of that anymore. Because of Gonzaga every No. 1 (and maybe No. 2) seed going into the NCAA final 68 will be from one of the Big Six Conferences. Trust that.
If you are from the Colonial Athletic Association and you go through the entire season undefeated, but your RPI is shaky (Gonzaga’s final RPI this year was 10 with a 6-3 record vs. teams with RPI’s above 50), a 3-seed is about the best you are ever going to get now. If Stephen F. Austin State University (which finished 27-5 this season) were to luck up and get one of John Calipari’s recruiting classes, and were to beat every SEC or ACC team on their non-Southland Conference schedule, and won their conference tournament by an average of 50 points per game, a No. 4 or 5 national ranking would be the highlight of their season. A 3-seed would be the starting point in the conversation of where they’d be placed in the Dance.
Of all the schools that have come into this tournament with the No. 1 spot on their backs that came close to losing in Game 1, Gonzaga is the only school that isn’t an HBECU (Historically Basketball Elite College or University). 1985 Michigan, 1986 Duke, 1989 Oklahoma, Georgetown and Illinois, 1990 Michigan State, 1996 Purdue, 1997 UNC, all have hoop pedigrees that make Gonzaga come off as mutts: A mixed breed of misfit ball players that lucked up on top-billin’ and never deserved it in the first place.
This matters because it took so long for them to get there( from 1999 when Don Monson put the program on the basketball map by sneaking into the Elite Eight, Gonzaga has been the model school for how a “small” school can work their way into the “big boy” conversation) and since Monson left, Mark Few has led them to 12 consecutive NCAA bids and five Sweet 16 appearances.
They were the ones who laid the foundation for the Butlers and VCUs and George Masons to get respect. So to lose after finally breaking through and gaining full acceptance is especially sad.
Sad for the ripple-effect this is going to have on the college basketball landscape. Sad for choking when the spotlight was finally and deservedly on them.
I’m not going to say that Gonzaga got what they deserved. That would be too cold. It’s much easier to say that they just f--d it up for every other NCAA basketball program that followed their lead.