SPOKANE – Once upon a time – you know, before Gonzaga became GONZAGA – Selection Sunday was the next-best thing to Christmas for Bulldogs fans.
Dan Fitzgerald, the patron saint of Gonzaga basketball if patron saints are permitted to value a cold beer as much as Fitz did, rented out a downtown hotel and basically invited everyone in the city to join players and coaches at a giant party when the Bulldogs earned their first NCAA tournament invitation in 1995.
Fitzgerald back then was the head coach and athletic director, and visions of No. 1 rankings and No. 1 seedings and national title talk did not exist at the little Catholic school on Spokane’s north side.
Fitz is no longer with us, and the all-city parties on Selection Sunday ended long ago. Spokane’s love affair with the Zags is as strong as ever, but it’s hard to go lights-out crazy year after year when the NCAA tournament has became a tradition rather than a stunner in Zagsville.
Not that anyone in Gonzaga’s locker room is yawning about a 15th NCAA tournament in a row. A little extra spice was added Sunday when the Bulldogs earned the first No. 1 seed in school history, but it’s not like anyone in their right mind expected the top-ranked team in the country to be any worse than a No. 2 seed.
“It’s a great honor,” senior forward Elias Harris said of the No. 1 seed, “but in the end, it’s just a number. You’ve got to come out and take every team serious.”
That might be somewhat challenging Thursday. The Bulldogs make their tournament debut in Gonzaga South – Salt Lake City, where John Stockton spread Zags love for 19 years as a Hall of Fame point guard with the Utah Jazz – against a school that sounds like a direction more than a university.
Southern, forever destined to be the “other” college in Baton Rouge, LA, is known more for its marching band than its basketball team. The Jaguars are 23-9, but they play in the consistently atrocious Southwestern Athletic Conference.
How atrocious? Well, Southern defeated Prairie View A&M 45-44 in the conference title game. There is no truth to the rumor that no one noticed the baskets were covered with manhole covers until halftime.
Gonzaga and Southern have met once in basketball. The Zags nipped the Jags, 117-72, in Gonzaga’s season opener two years ago. The game was memorable only for the lack of anything remotely resembling athletic competition.
“I just remember we beat ’em,” Gonzaga guard Gary Bell Jr. said. “I don’t really remember anything about the game plan or anything.”
Perhaps that is because you were a high school senior at the time, Gary. Kelly Olynyk did play against Southern, but he’s doesn’t seem to be shaking too badly at the prospect of the Jaguars seeking revenge for the previous beat-down.
“We can’t look past anybody,” Olynyk said.
“Even Southern is going to be ready to play.”
Yes, but how well? A No. 16 seed has never beaten a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament, and the Jaguars appear to be exceptionally under-qualified to break new ground.
Southern won three in a row and eight of nine, but that pales next to the 14-game win streak and 31-2 record of Gonzaga. How seriously can the Zags take an opponent whose 23 wins include titanic triumphs over the likes of Champion Baptist, William Carey and Spring Hill?
The Jaguars rank in the middle of the NCAA Division I pack (345 teams ranked statistically) in several offensive categories. Southern ranks second in field-goal percentage defense (36.5) and third in 3-point field-goal percentage defense (28.4), but the Jags’ suspect schedule figures heavily in those numbers. Besides, Gonzaga ranks 11th in scoring (77.6), third in field-goal shooting percentage (50.4), 10th in field-goal percentage defense (38.2) and 11th in rebound margin (7.4).
“We can beat any team in the country,” Gonzaga coach Mark Few said.
Was Few bragging? Nah. Like a wise man once said, “It ain’t braggin’ if you do it.”
The Zags are doin’ it, all right. Doin’ it to the tune of a .939 winning percentage that leads the nation. Doin’ it to the tune of 14 consecutive 20-win seasons and NCAA tournaments under Few, who has been coaching Gonzaga for – wait for it – 14 years.
Not too shabby for a diminutive, soft-spoken pastor’s kid who never played college basketball and was never a head coach until he was promoted to replace Minnesota-bound Dan Monson in 1999.
Correction: Few was never a VARSITY head coach until he landed the Gonzaga gig. Few vaguely recalls being the head freshman coach at his alma mater, little Creswell (Ore.) High School.
“I don’t know if it was one or two years,” Few said. “I’ll have to check my resume.”
First, however, Few is intent on adding a national championship to that resume.