Unlike any other sport, college basketball — historically — provides an opportunity for the Davids to beat the Goliaths. That ability for the underdogs to rise from the ranks of the unknown and challenge the powerhouse schools in the most critical games is, likely, the main reason that the sport is as popular as it is. The NCAA tournament offers the platform for these Cinderella stories and through the years, we’ve witnessed the most unlikely teams reach the biggest stage of the Final Four to compete for a championship.
The most notable mid-major school from a non-power conference could be the Gonzaga Bulldogs, who have been a part of the past 18 NCAA tournaments — including this season. Despite all of their success, the Bulldogs have never reached the Final Four. During their stretch of consecutive tournament appearances, they’ve received two-seeds and even one-seeds. Being highly ranked has only set them up for failure, in a sense.
This season, however, Gonzaga received an 11-seed in the Midwest region; a low seed for a school with as solid a reputation as theirs, even if their performance in the regular season wasn’t the greatest. With the lower seed though, the Bulldogs have potentially played the best basketball out of any of the remaining teams in the tourney, which is now down to just 16. Round one saw the Bulldogs roll over six-seed Seton Hall by 16 points.
Round two saw them obliterate a highly sought-after Utah team — who was the three-seed — by 23 points. That’s an average margin of victory of nearly 20-points in their first two games, which is made more impressive by the fact that it came against two teams who were seeded in the single digits. No other team in the entire Sweet 16 had to go through two higher-ranked teams in the first two rounds, yet the Zags made it look easy.
With how well the Bulldogs are playing, could they be in position to reach the Final Four in a season where they were almost an afterthought (remember, they likely wouldn’t have made the Big Dance if they hadn’t won their conference tournament)? Let’s examine the road ahead to see if they can make history.
In the Sweet 16, two double-digit seeds remain in play for a championship run. Both of those teams are in the Midwest region of the bracket and they will play each other in the regional semifinals this Friday. Syracuse, the 10-seed, will face off against Gonzaga in a battle of two great basketball programs. The Orange, despite a down season that nearly saw them miss the tournament all together, have played similarly excellent basketball in their two wins, albeit against much easier competition than the Bulldogs.
Syracuse benefited from the most shocking upset of the tournament when Middle Tennessee knocked out Michigan State in the first round, setting up the Orange for a walkover win in the round of 32 over Middle Tennessee. Even though they are the higher seed, Gonzaga has to be considered the favorite in the “much anticipated” 10 versus 11 matchup. If Gonzaga can get by Syracuse, they will face the winner of Iowa State versus Virginia for a right to play in the Final Four in Houston.
Just last season, as a two-seed, the Bulldogs reached the Elite 8, where they lost to the eventual national champion Duke Blue Devils. With many of the same players from last year on this year’s squad, the Bulldogs would be prepared for that opportunity and would give either the Cyclones or Cavaliers everything they can handle. For any team to be successful at this time of the year, a couple of players have to stand out and take a heavy load of the responsibility on the court.
Gonzaga has that in senior Kyle Wiltjer and sophomore Domantas Sabonis. In round one, Wiltjer went for 13 points and seven rebounds while Sabonis went off for 21 points and 16 boards. Round two saw Sabonis go for 19 points and 10 rebounds while Wiltjer chipped in with 17 points (senior guard Eric McClellan also stepped up against the Utes with 22 points). With go-to guys being so critical in the tournament, the duo of Wiltjer and Sabonis is potentially the best there is.
That’s a big reason to like the Bulldogs’ chances of completing their unlikely run to Houston. With an experienced head coach in Mark Few, who has seen just about everything in his 17 seasons at Gonzaga, and a team full of players ready to prove the world wrong, it’s not a stretch to consider the Zags a favorite in the Midwest region as the Sweet 16 looms. They’ve played better than anyone else in the region to this point and have a serious chip on their shoulder.
Even though they’re an 11-seed, the success of the Gonzaga program makes it difficult to consider this team a Cinderella story. However, if they do complete their run and reach their first ever Final Four, their story becomes one of the most compelling ones in the history of the game. Exactly 18 years ago, they started off as a little-known school from Spokane, Wash. that hadn’t made any noise in the sport.
Then, in the 1998-99 season, the Bulldogs reached the Elite 8 as a 10-seed, laying the groundwork for mid-major programs. Over the next 15-plus seasons, Gonzaga built a reputation and earned respect on the college basketball landscape, earning higher seeds in the tournament as a result. Yet, until last season, they failed to make it as deep in the tournament as they did in the first of their 18 consecutive appearances.
Now, the Bulldogs are in the same position that they were in 1999, a team that nobody gave any attention to but is in position for their most memorable season ever. With destiny seemingly on their side, Gonzaga’s story could come full circle by the end of the week.