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After 18 Years Of Success, Gonzaga Still Has Something To Prove

Gonzaga has made 18 straight NCAA Tournaments, which is enough that it's become easy to take their greatness for granted. This year, they're out to challenge that.
March 23, 2016, 6:39pm
Photo by Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

This feature is part of VICE Sports' March Madness coverage.

There is a moment early on in HBO's five-part chronicle of the Gonzaga basketball program when the school's coach, Mark Few, blithely declares that he's presided over the creation of a monster. This was a few months back, when Gonzaga was struggling, relatively speaking, through the regular season and seemed to be anything but a lock to make the NCAA tournament for an 18th consecutive year. In that context, Few's statement makes perfect sense, but the truth is, Gonzaga is a college basketball monster the likes of which we've never quite seen before.

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Throughout the episodes that follow in the series, it becomes clear that the Zags largely operate on a different scale from the state schools and major-conference institutions they will compete against in the Sweet Sixteen this week. For instance, there is an endearing scene in which some of the players go bowling with a starstruck Spokane woman, a moment that gets at how Few's team is an oversized fish in a tiny pond. The Zags' McCartney Athletic Center, which opened in 2004 to accommodate the school's run of success in the early 2000s, holds 6,000 people; Syracuse, the team they face on Friday, plays its home games in a dome with a capacity of over 35,000.

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For years, Few's program has been marooned in the weird purgatorial realm between major and mid-major. The Zags play in the modest West Coast Conference, but they regularly schedule non-conference games against national powers, and six times since 2004, they have been a top-four seed heading into the tournament. In only one of those years, last season, did they advance beyond the Sweet Sixteen. One of their best players, Kyle Wiltjer, is a transfer from Kentucky, but he left Kentucky largely because he didn't see an opportunity to get the kind of playing time there that he's gotten at Gonzaga.

So: I don't know how to characterize Gonzaga at this point. The Zags, a No. 11 seed, are the lowest-remaining seed in the field, but they've blown out their first two opponents, and have been so good for so long that it feels disingenuous to characterize them as a prohibitive underdog. And yet maybe this is the way it was supposed to be. Maybe there's something fitting to the notion of the Zags making their first Final Four in a year when nobody was quite sure they'd even make it to the tournament in the first place.

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And maybe doing so would still mean something larger for the sport.

When the whole squad egregiously underseeded. — Photo by Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

Here's something we can say for certain: College basketball is better because of what Gonzaga has done. The Zags are the measuring stick for every aspiring basketball school in the country; ask pretty much any mid-major coach about their model for success—and I asked several over the course of the season—and they will inevitably mention Few and Gonzaga.

How could they not? They are one of the primary reasons that programs like Northern Iowa and Butler have emerged, and Few's quiet contentment with the job he has likely serves as an inspiration to coaches like Northern Iowa's Ben Jacobson as they decide whether to move up the ladder. In a way, Gonzaga doesn't have to make a Final Four or win a national championship. They'd no doubt love to, but they've already won by helping to alter the power dynamics in a top-heavy sport.

Still; there's skepticism about this democratization and what it means, particularly among the NCAA tournament's selection committee, which notably snubbed several mid-majors this year, including St. Mary's, the Zags' WCC foe and a team that defeated Gonzaga twice during the regular season. As The New York Times' Marc Tracy wrote, a bevy of first-round upsets could easily mask the fact that the other 15 teams in the Sweet Sixteen are from power conferences, a fact that leads one to wonder if competitive imbalance still exists despite the minor miracle Few has pulled off at Gonzaga. And that's why this Gonzaga tournament run, if it keeps going, could potentially be the most important one since the Zags' initial run to the Elite Eight in 1999.

Alright, okay. — Photo by Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

It's not impossible to see that happening, either. Throughout the HBO series, you can see Few encouraging his team to play with more confidence and toughness, and Few and his assistants are consistently laboring to develop inexperienced guards Eric McClelland and Josh Perkins; in Gonzaga's 82-59 second-round victory over No. 3 seed Utah, McClelland finished with 22 points and Perkins added 10. "We weren't the most coachable guys at the beginning of the season because we wanted it so badly and we wanted it so quick," McClelland said. "We've been playing free, we've been playing confident, we've been playing loose. Most importantly, we've been playing together."

In the locker room after Gonzaga defeated St. Mary's to win the WCC tournament and secure a tournament bid, the HBO cameras caught Few telling his team that this was, "the most courageous run we've ever experienced in this program" over the past 18 years. There's no reason it can't become historic, as well. After all these years, most of us have started to take Gonzaga for granted; we see them as a miraculous story, but one that's begun to feel as if it's more about glass ceilings than glass slippers. And so there's something liberating for Few and his team to be able to feel like underdogs again.

"It's been really comforting and freeing, we can go into these games and kind of just let it rip, play great basketball, play confident," Few said after the Utah game. "I think certainly these last two games have shown that. I thought we did a great job in our league tournament of playing like that, even though we were the two seed. No matter how anybody wants to dress it up, I don't think we should have any expectations on us."

They do, and they don't. This is the paradox of Gonzaga. After 18 years, their legacy is secure, but the Zags still have something to prove.