Alright, Zag Twitter. Sit down and listen for a minute. Some of you have spent the past two weeks lambasting me for doing the unthinkable: having a team other than God’s gift to mankind, the Gonzaga Bulldogs, ranked atop my power rankings. Now, it’s my turn to talk.
At this exact point last season I had Gonzaga sitting at No. 3 in my rankings, behind BYU and Saint Mary’s and absolutely nobody cared.
Even though, at that moment, Gonzaga was No. 12 in KenPom, well ahead of my No. 1, BYU, at No. 67 and my No. 2, Saint Mary’s, at No. 35. San Francisco was as high as No. 42 when I had them ranked ahead of Gonzaga this season. It’s not really any different than it was last year.
So why the outcry this time? Probably, at least in part, because San Francisco isn’t BYU or Saint Mary’s. Unlike those programs, with track records of success, San Francisco doesn’t field the best airport team. There’s no way they could be, at any moment, playing better basketball than the Zags, right?
What am I talking about? Well, let this quote from the now ancient past help explain:
“We’re not the best airport team. We don’t look that good warming up. Looking at us and then seeing the name on the jersey, people, I would imagine, have a tendency to overlook us or not take us so seriously.”
That was Matt Santangelo, a guy who spent two seasons being overlooked before helping the Zags run to the Elite Eight two decades ago.
San Francisco in 2018 is Gonzaga in 1998. I’m not saying the Dons are going to make a deep run in March, but the similarities between the teams are striking. The biggest difference, to me, is that the ones overlooking the Dons this season are the people who should know better than anyone. It’s Zag fans, and it’s shameful.
For two weeks I contended that San Francisco was playing better basketball than Gonzaga.
I wasn’t saying I thought San Francisco would beat Gonzaga, or have a more impressive season, or put together a better resume. Simply, in that moment, that the Dons looked better than the Zags. Gonzaga was playing without Killian Tillie and without Geno Crandall, a full one-quarter of the Zags’ ideal rotation. There was no backup point guard. There was no depth. The Zags looked sluggish and vulnerable on the defensive end and at times uninspired, though still efficient, on the offensive side.
San Francisco, meanwhile, was rolling along at full-strength. Every player in the Dons’ starting five has spent at least three years with the program. All of them except for junior center Jimbo Lull have been full-time starters in previous seasons, too. They’re experienced at every position and deep at every position.
Frankie Ferrari has turned into the consummate college point guard. He’s running an offense that never turns it over and pounds the ball into the paint almost as well as Gonzaga. And, on the defensive end, the Dons are consistently dominant in a way Gonzaga hasn’t even come close to being this season.
I know Gonzaga was playing tougher competition than San Francisco for those two weeks, but that doesn’t change the fact that San Francisco was simply playing better.
You wouldn’t say that Gonzaga was better than Stanford in 1999, would you? But, for 40 minutes in the Round of 32, the Zags played better basketball than the No. 2 seeded Cardinal.
Twenty years later it seems we’ve forgotten this. And my mentions on Twitter are proof enough.
You know what some of you guys sounded like over the past two weeks? Louisville fans, Kansas fans, Duke fans, or fans of any team that found itself close behind and looking up at Gonzaga back in early March 2013, when the Zags sat atop the AP Poll for the first time in program history.
Cardinals fans cried, “They don’t play anybody!” Blue Devils fans, with their southern accents making a mess of things, inexcusably exclaimed “Gunzahguh?!” And fans of every power conference team in America shouted, “There’s no way those scrubs from the WCC could beat my team!”
That’s us now. Like it or not, you’ve become the blathering idiots we’ve spent the past 20 years trying to ignore. You’re the people who can’t seem to believe that a team like San Francisco, with its tiny gym and no-name recruiting could be capable of playing better basketball than a team like Gonzaga, despite everything Gonzaga has done in years past to prove just how possible that actually is.
What makes this program so damn special is the fact that it came from nothing.
I grew up a Zag fan and have watched this radical transformation firsthand. We’re not a blue blood. This isn’t a program with a noble birth. We’re a team from a town nobody can pronounce that few people knew existed before the spring of 1999. Forget that history and we’re as good as neutered.
We’re quickly heading that way as it is. I’ve seen the Kennel Club start to filter out soon after halftime multiple times this season. When the students aren’t there, the regular fans tend to stay longer but they bring almost no energy into the building. And online, where the worst in any fanbase comes out, Gonzaga fans have lost touch with reality.
This is still a team that plays in the West Coast Conference, calls Spokane home and puts in the work required while also overachieving in every way. This is a team that now sits at the table with Duke, North Carolina, Kentucky and the rest. But it’s also a team that really shouldn’t be there. Those teams didn’t want us pulling up a seat in the first place because doing what Gonzaga does, outside of the power structure, is a threat to their bottom line.
I’m of the belief that Gonzaga’s position as a college basketball powerhouse is less assured than any other program operating at the highest level of the sport. Gonzaga stole a seat at the blue bloods’ table by spending more than 20 years playing with a chip on its shoulder. When I look at Gonzaga fans lately, I don’t see that chip. I see false entitlement.
Gonzaga and its fans had a chip back in the day. San Francisco and its fans have one now. Gonzaga, the team, still plays like it has a chip on its shoulder. But the fans? Some, not all, but some really need to go and find theirs again before we lose our collective identity.