SEATTLE – Gonzaga faces unfair stakes when it takes the court for games like Sunday evening’s at KeyArena, an extra burden the other teams in the field will never know. By this point, nothing the Bulldogs do within the West Coast Conference will matter to the rest of the country, and they know it. “They pretty much think we’re going out there and not even playing, just coming up with a W,” senior guard Gary Bell Jr. said.
The NCAA tournament is an annual referendum for a lot of programs, but none more intensely than Gonzaga. The Bulldogs were playing Iowa here Sunday, but really they were playing for their reputation.
“It’s a barometer because of the conference we play in,” Gonzaga assistant coach Tommy Lloyd said. “People want to see what you do in these moments. Sweet 16s, Elite Eights, Final Fours, they’re concrete evidence of success. There’s nothing abstract about it. People on a national stage, they want to see it. It helps cement or reaffirm the standing of our program.”
If you thought it might be a fraud before Sunday night, what do you think about Gonzaga now? What else could it do to convert the non-believers? They deconstructed Iowa in their 87-68 romp to the Sweet 16, bullying, shooting and dominating their way to the program’s first appearance in the second weekend since 2009.
“Now, we finally got these two wins,” Bell said. “It kind of shuts up the critics.”
And, to be clear, Gonzaga Coach Mark Few heard them. In victory, he bristled at the notion that Gonzaga had been labeled a March underachiever. It is easy to point out where the Zags have fallen short. Since advancing to three straight Sweet 16s from 1999 to 2001, Gonzaga had made just two Sweet 16s and zero Elite Eights in the past 13 seasons. They lost twice as a 1 seed before the Elite Eight, including an exit in the round of 32.
But step back, the coach would advise, and consider the bar Gonzaga has been asked to clear. They have made the tournament in 17 consecutive seasons. They have now won a tournament game in seven straight years. Is that the resume of a pretender?
“It’s just interesting to see the corner or whatever that we’re being painted into,” Few said. “I mean, I don’t know who is being held to that standard.”
In a way, Gonzaga doomed itself with success. In the past 16 seasons, Gonzaga ascended from a small-conference curiosity to a nationally known commodity. As the country watched for the Bulldogs to take the next step, they plateaued instead. They emerged as a program to be reckoned with, but not a powerhouse.
They may reach that tier this season, with a group of players who cannot remember a March without Gonzaga in the brackets. Gonzaga’s tournament history is mostly painful: Blake Stepp fell short against Arizona and Adam Morrison cried and Robert Sacre got hurt and Kelly Olynyk bowed out early. But they have a team now good enough, and confident enough, to reverse it.
“Gonzaga is a different animal than it used to be,” Lloyd said. “They didn’t know Gonzaga as a Cinderella. These guys know Gonzaga as being a great program. They’re not coming to be part of Cinderella. They feel like they belong.”
Their trouncing of Iowa swung the door wide for their first trip a regional final since they first crashed into March back 16 years ago – and maybe their first ever Final Four. On Friday in Houston, the Bulldogs will meet 11th-seeded UCLA, a team they beat in Pauley Pavilion by 13 points in December. If they survive the Bruins, their next opponent would likely be Duke. Maybe they would beat Duke, maybe not. But we know for certain their powerful offense will score on Duke’s suspect defense.
The path is there for Gonzaga. So is the talent. Domantas Sabonis and Przemek Karnowski – one the son of an international legend, the other a 7-foot-1 Polish monster – give Gonzaga towering, skilled size. Experienced point guard Kevin Pangos flits around screens and zips pocket passes and drills open three-pointers. Bell Jr. drives into the paint whenever he damn well pleases.
Kyle Wiltjer, a Kentucky transfer, can score any way you want him to and, even at 6-foot-10, spaces the floor to make room for the rest of Gonzaga’s offensive firepower. Sunday, he made 10 of 12 shots, including 4 of 6 threes, for 24 points.
“We’re a big, physical team and we can beat you in a lot of different ways,” senior guard Kyle Dranginis said. “We’ve been doing that all year. People kind of brushed us off a little bit. We definitely use that as some motivation and determination.”
They made believers out of the Hawkeyes. Iowa planned to use its mighty front court against Gonzaga, but the Hawkeyes discovered the folly in that. They had played Wisconsin, a team few question as elite, twice in late January. Playing Gonzaga reminded Iowa players of trying to counter Frank Kaminsky and Sam Dekker and the rest of the Wisconsin oaks.
“You really can’t compare them to anybody,” Iowa guard Anthony Clemmens said. “If so, you can compare them to Wisconsin, because they have so many weapons. They’re big, athletic and they all can shoot. When you got that, you’re tough to beat. I think they’re an even matchup. They have size. Wisconsin has size. They have knock-down shooters, good guard play. It’s an even matchup.”
Said Iowa forward Gabriel Olaseni: “I feel like they compare very well. They have talented big guys like Wisconsin. They just do a great job of establishing post position. Just like Wisconsin, you have to adjust. They brought multiple big guys, and so does Wisconsin. It’s two very good teams.”
For now, the Bulldogs care only about how they compare to UCLA. Bell said their previous victory over the Bruins would “definitely” give Gonzaga confidence Thursday night in Houston. But then, they do not lack for confidence, regardless.
“We don’t take a backseat to anybody,” Bell said.
“We haven’t proved anything yet,” Karnowski said. “It’s good to go to the Sweet 16. It’s awesome. You cannot celebrate that for a long time.”
Gonzaga took apart a Big Ten power Sunday night, but already they knew little would change the next time they walked onto the court. They are prohibitive favorites against UCLA – just think about that, Gonzaga is the one in that pairing with more to lose from a reputation standpoint. That is how it works for Gonzaga, the program for which March means judgment.