By Dave Boling The News Tribune
The No. 1 seed bestowed upon Gonzaga means the Zags are expected to win four games over the next two weeks and progress to the Final Four of the NCAA men’s basketball tournament in Atlanta.
No pressure there, considering no team from the state of Washington has gone that far since the Eisenhower administration.
And it was considerably easier back then.
Seattle University reached the title game in 1958, when Elgin Baylor earned the Most Outstanding Player award, although his Chieftains fell to Kentucky in the final game of a tournament that included 28 teams.
When Washington lost to Kansas in the 1953 national semifinals, the Huskies had to win only twice to reach the Final Four amid a field of 22.
And when Jack Friel’s Washington State Cougars lost to Wisconsin in the 1941 championship game — eight months before Pearl Harbor — they made it to the Elite 8 just by being among the eight teams invited.
In the 14 consecutive appearances preceding this one, the Zags have never gotten past the Elite 8. But this could be the year that they break through.
Gonzaga (31-2) is not only the top-ranked team in the country, but on Sunday also collected the No. 1 seed in the West Regional and face 16-seed Southern University (23-9) Thursday at approximately 1:10 p.m. in Salt Lake City.
“We’re definitely honored by the accomplishment,” coach Mark Few said. “I’m glad (the selection committee) acknowledged the year these guys had.”
It’s the highest seed for a Washington team since the Huskies, with Brandon Roy and Nate Robinson, had the No. 1 seed in the 2005 West Region and eventually lost to fourth-seeded Louisville in the Sweet 16.
Gonzaga has had its chances over the years, but has run into powerhouse teams. Five times the Zags have lost to a No. 1 seed, and twice to the eventual national champion (‘99 to Connecticut in the Elite 8, and ‘09 to North Carolina in the Sweet 16).
Here are some theories on what it takes to get to a Final Four, and how the top-seeded Zags stack up.
This one is obvious.
Bob Rondeau has been the voice of UW basketball since the mid-80s, and has seen the Huskies’ four Sweet 16 appearances.
“The biggest thing is one that comes with a capital T — talent,” he said. “I think you find more often than not, the team with the talent wins, and a lot of times when you get to the Final Four, you can say, ‘It’s our (NBA) lottery picks against your lottery picks.’”
But even top-level talent isn’t created equally.
Guard Matt Santangelo was instrumental in leading the Zags on their deepest run — to the Elite 8 in 1999, when they went down to the wire against UConn in a game that would have taken them to the Final Four.
“I’m biased, so I think you need a good, tough guard,” said Santangelo, who handles radio commentary for Zags games.
“But I’ll take that a little bit broader; I think you need a playmaker, a guy who, when all else fails, can just take the ball and go make the play. Typically, that’s a guard, and I think Gonzaga has fantastic guards, but they also have playmakers inside with Elias Harris and Kelly Olynyk.”
The Zags lead the nation in offensive efficiency, and share the scoring load, with seven players scoring 20 points or more in a game this season.
“But when it comes to March, and everything breaks down, you need a guy — or two — who can take the ball and say ‘I got you on my shoulders and we’re going to get this done,’” Santangelo said. “And they’ve got a couple of them.”
The Zags beat NCAA tournament teams Oklahoma State and Kansas State this season by scoring in the 60s, but also beat Baylor by pumping in 94.
“I think we’re (versatile enough) to play against anybody,” said Mike Hart, the Bulldogs’ senior guard. “We can adapt; that’s one of our strengths.”
Santangelo has seen the Zags be powered by interior play some games and others where they’ve struck from the perimeter. And they have depth enough to mix and match.
“They can play big, they can play small and they can play skilled,” Santangelo said. “But they also showed at Provo (Utah) against BYU that they can play tough when they have to, too. It may not be necessarily pretty, but they find ways to win ballgames.”
When asked to compare this edition of the Zags to the ‘06 team that was a No. 3 seed, Few touted the Adam Morrison-led offense, but pointed out that this season’s club is more balanced and better defensively.
They’ve faced zones and pressure man-to-man defenses, and teams that play fast and others that force “low-possession” games, Few said. “(But) these guys have aced every test so far.”
Rondeau pointed out that success for most teams starts at the top, with a coach “who isn’t going to be intimidated” nor is overwhelmed by the moment.
“Certainly, Mark Few is not going to intimidated,” Rondeau said.
As for the team, the Zags have faced unprecedented pressure much of the season, rising up the rankings to No. 1 and then claiming a top seed in the tournament.
“I think this team can handle it,” Few said of the attention. “Every game we’ve played this year we’ve been the higher-rated team, so I don’t think this is much different than anything else we’re dealing with. They’re very grounded, low-maintenance (players), and they’ve handled all this stuff remarkably well.
Seeing the list of powerhouse teams that have booted state representatives out of the tournament, it’s obvious a few upsets in the brackets can provide an easier path.
“I have a little practical knowledge of it,” Santangelo said. “Once you get to the Sweet 16, you really have a crapshoot, especially this year with the parity in college basketball.”
Early commentary on Selection Sunday held that the West was the weakest region. Looming on the other side of the regional bracket with a No. 2 seed is Ohio State, a team that dropped Gonzaga in the second round last season on its way to the Final Four.
Rondeau recalled the Roy teams that were ousted by Louisville and UConn as teams that “had the talent to get to a Final Four” — given the right matchups.
“I don’t think it would have been fluky at all for those teams to get there,” he said. “Any team that gets there, almost universally, they have at least one of those coulda-shoulda games where a bounce of the ball makes the difference.”
This point was stressed by a number of Gonzaga observers. The consensus is this team is driven to win for the sheer joy of getting the chance to play another game together.
Frankly, they’re having a lot of fun and enjoying the ride.
“You’ve got to savor this,” Hart said. “Being a No. 1 seed, being No. 1 in the nation, you’ve got to realize how special it is to do it here at Gonzaga. … (It’s) a storied program that has done a lot of things, but those are two things it hasn’t done.”
And another of those few things the Zags haven’t accomplished is getting to a Final Four. But this stands as their best chance.