SALT LAKE CITY — Gonzaga vs. Northwestern allows for both a fresh, fetching, round-of-32 matchup in the NCAA tournament and a plunge back into one of the ancient adages of sport: the athletic craving for disrespect.
Many a successful team has found disrespect invaluable, almost as if it ought to send thank-you flowers to those who disrespected it. The cases of Northwestern and Gonzaga pit an eager novice in the field of disrespect (Northwestern) against a Ph.D. (Gonzaga) in disrespect studies.
“No one expected us to win the last game,” said Northwestern senior Sanjay Lumpkin, earnestly deploying one of the time-honored arts of disrespect — that of looking at a populace that went roughly 50-50 on a matter and seeing only the 50 that went against. For the first-round game of Thursday in which Northwestern edged Vanderbilt, 68-66, the point spread opened last Sunday as even, before Vanderbilt eventually became a two-point favorite.
In the eternal search for disrespect that always can be mushroomed out of proportion, a two-point indignity like that can be so precious.
Continuing: “No one even expected us to be in this tournament,” Lumpkin said.
That statement carries a vague whiff of truth, because after 78 springs of not being in the tournament, certainly there had developed an expectation that Northwestern would not appear in the tournament, similar to the expectation that spring in the Northern Hemisphere would begin in March. However, after Northwestern got to 18-4 by the end of January, a certain segment of the interested population did expect Northwestern to get into the tournament, even if that segment probably did believe that when Northwestern went 2-5 in February while, as center Dererk Pardon put it, “Of course, it got really heavy for us.”
However again, when Northwestern dramatically beat Michigan, 67-65, on March 1, a win that looks better with each passing day of Michigan flourish, almost everybody with a pulse, an interest and a bracket expected Northwestern to be in this tournament.
Lumpkin concluded, “That’s our mind-set right now,” and that’s a well-worn mind-set. Team pilot Bryant McIntosh offered, “I would be okay with being the David [against Goliath] in this situation,” and, “It’s not going to be just one stone that we have to throw in order to beat them.”
They’re just wading into the sea of disrespect, however, compared with their opponents. For each player and each coach and each fan in Spokane, Wash., and at Gonzaga (33-1), each winter day is a ceaseless process of hearing or reading sneers at the schedule and the West Coast Conference, whose tournament has seen the Bulldogs in the final for 20 — 20! — consecutive years. It’s what happens in a sport with a conference caste system where the “major” conferences are presumed superior, and in a sport in which no team west of Lawrence, Kan., has won the national title in 20 years, and none west of Norman, Okla., has reached a Final Four since UCLA in 2008 (with Norman being barely west of Wichita, whose Wichita State reached the 2013 Final Four).
“It’s like we hear it all the time,” the 7-foot Gonzaga freshman Zach Collins said. “It’ll be on “SportsCenter,” Twitter. Just, we hear it all the time.”
That has enabled 18-year coach Mark Few (18 NCAA tournament bids) and his assistants to ride a balance beam of resentment and confidence. Few takes listeners on the ride: “Well, we took that (disrespected) role. I think we just use that as motivation, just because we hear that every day, that our strength of schedule’s not good. We haven’t played anybody. So I think we hear that all the time and it just kind of makes us angry, because it makes it seem like we didn’t work for every one of those wins we had. So we take it personally, but at the same time we’ve got a confidence like we’re not the underdog. We’re one of the best teams in the country.”
A round-of-32 loss to Wichita State as a No. 1 seed in 2013 threw more echoes into the chamber.
First question to Gonzaga players Josh Perkins and Silas Melson on Friday: “Do you ever secretly wish you guys could face more teams from the Big Ten or the Pac-12 or anything like that?”
Melson: “Honest answer, yeah.”
As Few stressed, Gonzaga has a habit to “pack our non-conference schedule.” This year, it played fellow March Madness combatants Florida (and won), Iowa State (and won), Arizona (and won) and, in conference, Saint Mary’s (and won thrice). Dabbling further in the upper crust, it also beat Tennessee (which went 16-16) and Washington (which went 9-22).
Said Few, “I think if people actually paid attention to that (scheduling), it would be pretty solid.”
In the game of disrespect, however, it would be such an inconvenience.