If you’re an average individual, chances are you know Gonzaga University because of the above clip — John Stockton went there — or because of the below clip:
Secondary note of importance: that UCLA-Gonzaga game may be one of the best things you’ll ever see, and it may have elevated Gus Johnson to a second echelon in the pop culture fandom world.
Here’s more Gus Johnson, now coming in on my actual point: Gonzaga has literally defined the idea of “the mid-major” or “big-time Cinderella” since the late 1990s. Johnson ever called them beating Florida (10-6 game) with “THE SLIPPER STILL FITS!”
Mark Few has been the head coach of Gonzaga since 1999-2000; the lowest number of wins his teams have recorded in a season is 23. They’ve made the tournament every year he’s been the head coach, and have been a 2-seed, a 3-seed (twice), a 4-seed, and a 1-seed. Still, the furthest they’ve ever been is the Regional Final (Elite Eight), which happened in the first run — the same year they beat Florida. As a 1-seed (2013), they lost in the Round of 32. In 2004, as a 2-seed, they lost to Nevada (a 10-seed) in a game perhaps most associated with “The Invisible Ladder.”
Last night, they got run out of the gym by a 1-seed (Arizona) who has struggled with injuries and offense this season.
So now our narrative is set: is Mark Few just a really good WCC coach who can’t win against the elite programs in America? Consider: some of his notable NCAA Tournament losses have come at the hands of UCLA, North Carolina, and Wichita State (on their surprise Final Four run). He hasn’t been past the Sweet Sixteen since the end of the Clinton Presidency. Is it time to assume his Bulldogs will never get that deep run again, and that the 2013 loss to WSU might have ushered in a new era of the prominent mid-major in college ball?
But start here: he’s not leaving Gonzaga. He’s been a target/name/pipe dream for schools like UNC, Oregon, Indiana and Arizona in the last decade. He’s from Crestwell, Oregon, loves to fish, loves the outdoors, and has four kids still school-age. He wants that family consistency and will likely be at Gonzaga for years. This isn’t quite a Marvin Lewis with the Bengals situation, because Few has racked up big wins in key spots in his tenure. The big question is: when you see a team like Wichita State fall to Kentucky at the end of an undefeated season, or you see Gonzaga consistently win 28-32 games and lose in the second/third round, is it really possible for a “mid-major” to run all the way to a title? Or is that a pipe dream?
At this exact moment, it feels like a pipe dream. Go back to 2001 and list the national champions in order: Duke, Maryland, Syracuse, UConn, UNC, Florida, Florida, Kansas, UNC, Duke, UConn, Kentucky, Louisville. Notice anything? All marquee. For it not to be a major-name program, you’d have to go back to 1994, then you’d have to make the argument that Arkansas isn’t a major program (I would, as it’s more of a football school). The Texas Western title — which took place when LBJ was President — might be the last time a school possibly construed as a “mid-major” won a national title. College basketball, or at least the NCAA Tournament, is ultimately a big program game; you can see a George Mason run and it’s amazing to watch, but ultimately Florida knocks them down. Or you can see Mercer knock off Duke, and … well, they’re out one round later.
Few doesn’t have a top-40 class coming in via ESPN, but he only had one true senior on this year’s team, so pending NBA exits and the like, the Zags should be strong again in 2014-2015. They were six games up on BYU in the overall win column this year, and two games up on ’em in conference, so they have a little space to work with entering the next campaign. (They also won the WCC Tournament over BYU by 11.) Will they win it all after a 28-win season next year? Probably not, but Few’ll be right there keeping on and trying.