Zags aren’t the team of a year ago, but they’re still dangerous

dave.boling@thenewstribune.comMarch 16, 2014 

Selection Sunday a year ago: As expected, Gonzaga, the nation’s top-ranked men’s college basketball team, received the West Region’s No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament.

It marked an unprecedented height for the Zags and, from a more practical perspective, represented what was expected to be the easiest path to the Final Four.

The seeding was a reward for the approach that fueled the historic rise in the first place: battling through a tough nonconference schedule before taking care of business in the West Coast Conference.

A year ago at this point, it added up to a 31-2 record.

But when they lost their second game of the NCAA tournament to ninth-seeded Wichita State, the Zags were the first top-seeded team to be ousted, and critics snapped that they were unworthy of the lofty rating and seeding.

The loss to Wichita State became less of a smudge when the Shockers topped second-seeded Ohio State in the regional finals and pushed eventual champion Louisville to the edge before losing in the national semifinals.

That run was a springboard to Wichita State’s undefeated season, and now it’s the Shockers who are likely to receive a No. 1 seed Sunday ... and the target that comes along with it.

Sunday, when the Zags learn their opponent in the field of 68, the discussions will not be about reaching new heights but extending an impressive streak to a new length.

By winning the West Coast Conference tournament championship, in addition to the

regular-season title, the Zags (28-6) have earned their 16th consecutive NCAA tournament bid.

Only Kansas (25th), Duke (19th) and Michigan State (17th) will add to longer streaks today. Granted, earning a bid out of the WCC is not the challenge Kansas, Duke and Michigan State face each year.

But more than 300 schools are eligible for this tournament, and only three teams have been lacing up their sneakers this time of year for a longer uninterrupted string than Gonzaga.

Kansas, Duke and Michigan State. That’s it. Those three, with a combined 37 Final Four appearances.

As Gonzaga coach Mark Few said after winning the WCC tournament title game, “It never gets old.”

The formula was changed a bit this season, though, with a lower-key nonconference season, and with a late struggle in the conference that caused the Zags to finish unranked.

Losses to Memphis, BYU, Dayton and Kansas State left them 2-4 against teams in the top 50 of the RPI ratings. Stumbles against San Diego (155) and Portland (176) were even more humbling.

Most predictions have the Zags penciled in at a seventh or eighth seed. It’s certainly a neighborhood with which they’re familiar. But this edition of the Zags could be heating up at the right time.

After senior guard David Stockton drove for the winning layup against Santa Clara in the WCC tournament quarterfinals, the Zags pounded Saint Mary’s and then won convincingly (75-64) against BYU in the title game.

With Sam Dower Jr. (20 points and 13 rebounds in the title game) and Przemek Karnowski on the front line, the Zags have the size to match most NCAA teams. When the guards hit from the perimeter, it’s a combination that’s hard to beat.

In the process of winning the WCC, Few got his 400th career victory. Even more impressive is that he got there in just 499 games.

Only Adolph Rupp, Clair Bee, Jerry Tarkanian and Roy Williams did so quicker.

A Sporting News piece by Mike DeCourcy last week made an interesting point of how the efforts of Few and his staff have “forced the Zags to defy categorization.”

Their string of titles and tournament appearances, he wrote, has gone a long way toward invalidating the term “midmajor” as it applies to teams that occasionally pop up from a nonpower conference, have a run of success and then fade away again in favor of the usual heavyweights.

This year, the Zags will appear in their 16th straight NCAA tournament. Sweet 16, you might say.

Dave Boling: 253-597-8440 dave.boling@thenewstribune.com @DaveBoling

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