Gonzaga fighting to keep unbelievable NCAA tourney run alive

James Snook-USA TODAY Sports
James Snook-USA TODAY Sports

For nearly two decades, Gonzaga basketball has represented the ultimate in mid-major success while dominating the West Coast Conference and redefining the term ”Cinderella” to aspiring giant-killers from every corner of the country.

But despite a deceptively-solid record of 23-7, and a 15-3 mark within the conference, Gonzaga is actually in danger of missing out on this year’s madness thanks to a few early losses and a conference schedule that’s been tougher than expected.

And unless the Bulldogs can win the upcoming WCC Tournament in Las Vegas, they could easily miss the madness for the first time since the 20th century.

In last Saturday’s regular season finale, WCC leading-scorer Kyle Wiltjier and sophomore Domantas ”Son Of Arvydas” Sabonis helped Gonzaga escape the state of Utah with a 71-68 win over BYU to give the Bulldogs a share of their 15th conference crown of the past 16 years.

”It’s a pride thing. Gonzaga has taken control of the WCC the last whatever years,” said Wiltjier. ”For us seniors, it’s just a matter of a pride thing.”

Being remembered as the face of the team that finally ended Gonzaga’s unbelievable run isn’t what Wiltjier had in mind when he left Lexington in search of playing time following his freshman year at Kentucky.

But if the unthinkable happens and these Bulldogs do become N.I.T.- bound, a trio of non-conference losses will have played a key role in the selection committee’s decision.

On neutral ground at November’s ”Battle 4 Atlantis”, the then-no.10 Bulldogs let an early lead slip through their grasps and missed several key opportunities at the charity stripe in a 62-61 loss to then-No. 25 Texas AM.

Less than ten days later, a visit from then-No. 19 Arizona resulted in a three-point loss after Gonzaga squandered its ten-point halftime lead in front of the home crowd on December 5th, and the following Saturday, a 71-66 loss to UCLA knocked the Bulldogs out of the top-25.

For any other team in the country, 23-7 is far from struggling. But as a relatively big fish that outgrew their proverbial pond long ago, the Bulldogs are expected to cruise through their conference schedule, play for the WCC tourney title, and at least make an appearance at the NCAA Tournament like a veteran who proudly dons his uniform on Remembrance Day.

A former assistant, head coach Mark Few has epitomized coaching consistency since taking the reigns ahead of the 1999-2000 campaign, leading the Zags to 16 straight appearances in the NCAA tourney, five trips to the Sweet 16, 15 WCC regular season titles, 12 conference tournament crowns, and an appearance in last year’s Elite Eight—where Gonzaga lost to eventual national champ Duke.

This season however, missed opportunities, a pair of conference losses to Saint Mary’s, and another to BYU in mid-January, has left many believing that the Bulldogs’ bark is far worse than their bite.

But as the current keepers of the streak, the Bulldogs will be playing for much more than just their post-season lives when they take the floor against third-seeded BYU in the conference tournament semi-finals on Monday.

”We definitely have a lot more we have to take care of, but this [win over BYU] is a big confidence booster going into the WCC Tourney,” said senior guard Kyle Dranginis following last weekend’s win.

Although they’ve often gone unrecognized in past regular seasons, the Bulldog’s absence will not go unnoticed if they fail to reach this year’s NCAA Tournament.

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