Charles Leclaire-US PRESSWIRE - Presswire
Gonzaga was supposed to be the first mid-major of our generation to make the Final Four. That didn't happen, but this season could be as good as ever for Mark Few's team to tackle that challenge.
They pioneered what it meant to be an upset specialist in the modern college basketball era.
And yet Gonzaga, a house-hold name despite being a school with an undergraduate enrollment of less than 5,000 in an average conference out west, has never actually been the last post-season Cinderella standing, or participated in a Final Four.
Since the Bulldogs really arrived back in the late 90s, Butler has played in two consecutive National Championship games, Xavier has reached the Sweet 16 five times, and both Virginia Commonwealth and George Mason have made it to the third weekend of the NCAA Tournament.
Gonzaga has done none of that. The Zags have only been to the Sweet 16 twice in the last 10 years, maintaining that darling status based purely on name recognition, not post-season success.
This year, that may change -- or maybe it's just season where we think it's supposed to change -- as CBSSports.com released their preseason selections this week, with two of their venerable guys, Jeff Goodman and Matt Norlander, casually slotting the Bulldogs into the Final Four.
That's a big deal.
Not necessarily picking Mark Few's team in October to win an NCAA Tournament regional and play in the Final Four; we've all dipped our toes in that once or twice. But to actually consider what it would be like if this team did finally reach the top of the proverbial mountain (because every program not named Duke, Kentucky and North Carolina just need to reach the Final Four to celebrate) is fun to think about.
That mind-bender becomes more nutty when you consider who Gonzaga brings to the table this season.
In years past, the Bulldogs have had talent and depth to rival any team in the country. This season, they boast Elias Harris, a former potential NBA Draft lottery pick looking to reclaim that distinction with an exceptional senior season, and Kevin Pangos, a sophomore point guard who exceeded expectations with his ability to both score and distribute.
And that's sort of it.
Unknown complimentary pieces from outside U.S. borders such as Przemek Karnowski and Kelly Olynyk could emerge as a formidable pair of seven-footers, and junior Sam Dower may turn into a match-up nightmare for frontcourt players who simply can't defend the perimeter. While those names will excite a few people, they aren't the head-turners you would expect for a Final Four contender.
But maybe that's how it's going to have to be for Gonzaga if it wants to reach its first Final Four.
With enough talent to compete and create intrigue, but not enough to generate preseason top 10 buzz, it seems as though the Bulldogs have sort of reverted back to their roots: the underdog who over delivers when we least expect it.
It's a bit strange to tell your friends that Gonzaga may be a sleeper this season. But with a solid point guard, versatile big men and a proven head coach, we may wake up in April and see the Bulldogs as one of the last four standing.
Perhaps Goodman and Norlander are on to something after all.