Every year before the season I have conversations with my family and friends about how good this Gonzaga team is going to be. Being a school mostly known for its basketball team, basketball usually is the topic of choice. Most years I am optimistic. A reoccurring pattern if you will, with the same generic/enthusiastic response “we are going to be really good this year” or “we got unlucky last season. This year will be our year”.
Somehow, Gonzaga always seems to win between 25 and 30 games. In most seasons Gonzaga beats a few highly ranked teams, wins their conference, the conference tournament, gets a lower than expected seed, and then loses a nail biter in the NCAA tournament. The 2013 tournament team was supposed to be an outlier in this trend.
Last year was a perfect opportunity for the Zags. They only had two losses, both to highly ranked teams in Illinois and Butler. Oh yeah and not to mention they were ranked number one in the country. Then came the knock out, gut wrenching defeat to Wichita State.
As I have been thinking about this and having some conversations about the upcoming season, I have started to question my generic response. Yes, Gonzaga this year will be a very solid basketball team. Will they be better then last year? No. Do they have the potential to go far in the tournament? Of course. Any team with a decent seed has a chance. The tournament is about matchups more than anything and while Gonzaga has had some favorable and not so favorable matchups they simply have not been able to get it done. For a program with 15 straight NCAA tournament appearances, the Zags have made it to the sweet 16 five times, the elite 8 once and never to a final four. They have been a great program missing a key link: a final four.
If you look at the past 8 years since the 2005- 2006 team led by Adam Morrison, Gonzaga has made it to the sweet 16 twice. That’s not to say they haven’t had some really talented teams; but for whatever reason, come tournament time it does not work out. I have watched every agonizing tournament defeat and have been the first one to blame how hot the other team got from the three-point line. This past defeat, Wichita State made 14 threes. BYU in 2010 made 14 threes as well, 2008 against Davidson, 11
threes. Gonzaga also has run into some of the best players in the tournament: Jimmer Fredette, Stephen Curry, Jared Sullinger, Wes Johnson, and more.
Some of this blame has to be on the Zags. They have run into hot players and great shooters but maybe it is because the Zags didn’t guard the three-point line. Maybe its because they didn’t run the right plays or use the right personnel. The possibilities are endless but the Zags are partly to blame. Such a reoccurring occurrence is unordinary but nevertheless it keeps happening and Gonzaga has to find a way to get around it. Gonzaga had a team shoot lights out yes, but for the first time in years we were the team to beat, the 1 seed that was suppose to glide to the round of 16. Instead of gliding we were stumbling. Falling. Vulnerable to an underdog and a position the Zags regularly found themselves in for more than a decade. If Gonzaga can’t get passed a 9 seed being a huge favorite how can Gonzaga get over this hump?
Gonzaga is no longer the team that’s satisfied getting into the tournament and maybe winning a game. It’s passed that. Gonzaga has high expectations each and every year because of what they have accomplished. However, this hump I have spoken of is in the way.
There is no exact science to why the Zags haven’t been able to go as far in the tournament in recent years. Gonzaga has produced star players and NBA players and each year they have increased their recruiting talent. Will this finally be the breakout year? Will this be the year where the Zags like in the early 2000’s are overlooked and make a run? Gonzaga fans hope so.
After each heartbreaking loss, there is optimism for the next season. No one can say what will happen this season. No one knows which players will step up and have a great season or how the tournament will play out. I know one thing is for sure: the Zags will get over this hump. It may be this season it may not. A perennial top 25 program that finds ways to win will eventually have sustained success in the tournament. The past 8 years have been filled with ups and downs. Gonzaga is no longer an underdog. They have arrived. While last season will be looked at as somewhat of a disappointment, that team made strides the program could only dream of and soon the next stride will be that sweet tasting final four run. When it happens, I will be watching. Every heartbreak will be in the past and the Zags will finally be over the hump.