By Chris Mahr
For all the mid-major programs that have reached the Final Four in recent years — George Mason (2006), Butler (2010 and 2011) and VCU (2011) — it has been relatively easy to forget about arguably America’s most well-known Cinderella: Gonzaga.
Part of that is attributed to the Bulldogs’ transcendence of the “mid-major” label. They now enter each season with the expectations of a power conference team, their early-season schedule is littered with power conference opponents (including eight this year) and they recruit nationally and internationally like a traditional BCS conference contender.
But another, larger part of the “forgotten” Gonzaga program is the fact that it has yet to reach the heights that George Mason, Butler and VCU have ascended to. For all the success that Mark Few has enjoyed in Spokane (362 wins and counting in 13-plus seasons), he’s “only” gotten past the first weekend of the Big Dance four times — including none since 2009.
Gonzaga’s never even back to the Elite Eight since it’s Cinderella run in 1999, highlighted by Gus Johnson’s “The slipper still fits!” call after beating Florida in the Sweet Sixteen.
Few and Company aren’t only a good bet to make it to the Sweet Sixteen this year. They’re also worthy of being in the Final Four conversation — probably for the first time since Adam Morrison was starring for the Bulldogs.
What makes sixth-ranked Gonzaga (21–2) different than all the previous Bulldogs teams that had Final Four hopes, only to fall short in March? There are three factors in particular.
#1: Newly Discovered Physicality
It would be unfair to call Few’s previous Gonzaga squads “finesse” teams. Yet at the same time, they certainly couldn’t be considered “rugged” either. Whenever they have fallen in the NCAA tournament, it has been to a team that has physically overwhelmed them and gotten them out of their offensively efficient ways.
For the first time in recent memory, the Bulldogs have the bodies to battle back. Eight of the 12 players on Gonzaga’s roster stand 6-foot-5 or taller — including Kelly Olynyk, a Thor-like 7-footer who leads the Bulldogs in scoring (17.9 PPG) and is a bona fide First Team All-America candidate.
Having that kind of size on the floor has been a boon to a Gonzaga defense that often failed to get big stops in previous tournament games. The Bulldogs are allowing less than 62 PPG and under 40% shooting to their opponents.
#2: Toughness-Inducing Schedule
Gonzaga is, once again, turning in a sterling season offensively (10th in the nation in scoring at 78.7 PPG) but isn’t relying on that offense to win games.
The Bulldogs have also toughed out wins against Clemson (57–49), Washington State (71–69), Kansas State (68–52) and Oklahoma State (69–68). Had it not been for a miracle sequence in the final 3.5 seconds against Butler, Gonzaga would have beaten them playing Butler’s style of basketball (at Hinkle Fieldhouse, no less).
Mark Few always puts together tough nonconference schedules but this year’s was especially brutal. Eight of Gonzaga’s 14 gamees before the New Year came against power conference opponents.
Throw in worthy challenges from a deceptively deep slate of West Coast Conference opponents — the nation’s fourth best mid-major league, according to WarrenNolan.com — and the Bulldogs are preparing themselves admirably for the unpredictability of March Madness.
#3: Flying Under the “Mid-Major Darling” Radar
Considering their record and ranking, Gonzaga isn’t shouldering nearly the “mid-major darling” load that it has in previous seasons when the team had similarly lofty ambitions – especially when Adam Morrison was on campus.
Rather, most folks have been concerning themselves with the watershed season that the Mountain West Conference (CBB’s second-highest RPI behind the Big Ten) is enjoying. Or Butler’s buzzer-beating heroics. Or VCU’s “40 Minutes of Hell”-like defense. Or the continued offensive wizardry exhibited by Creighton star Doug McDermott.
In other words, says Gonzaga, let the nation’s other teams and players garner all the “scrappy underdog” accolades. We have everything that we need to make a deep run into March. An anchor in the middle (Olynyk). A matchup nightmare of a swingman (Elias Harris). A dead-eye 3-point shooter (Kevin Pangos) and a confident combo guard (Gary Bell, Jr.).
It’s enough to make America remember, come tournament time, how far Gonzaga has come since its days as college basketball’s favorite underdog. And it could very well be enough to give the Bulldogs the one thing they need to complete the transition from mid-major to powerhouse: a Final Four berth.
Chris Mahr is the managing editor of Lost Lettermen. His column appears on Tuesdays and Thursdays. You can follow him on Twitter at @CMahrtian.
Photo Credit: James Snook/USA Today Sports