LAS VEGAS -- The skeptics had already come out, launching a preemptive strike to discredit Gonzaga's case for a No. 1 seed in preparation for when the brackets are unveiled on Sunday. Zags coach Mark Few and his players have heard it over and over. Gonzaga doesn't play in a "real" league, that the WCC is a mid-major conference. The Bulldogs are a fraud, and will bow out early yet again.
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They are right. Well, at least the part about the WCC. It is a mid-major conference, and it's not even quite as powerful as it was a year ago. Saint Mary's is missing a sidekick to Matthew Dellavedova, and BYU has taken a step backward since The Jimmer departed a couple years ago.
But this Gonzaga team is hardly a fraud. I've seen Indiana play numerous times, watched Duke on countless occasions, and seen the likes of Miami, Michigan, Georgetown and Kansas. Are the Zags deserving of a No. 1 seed based on their resume? A case can certainly be made. The Zags were flawless in league play, churning through without a single setback, and also rolled through the WCC conference tourney. Few always loads up in the non-league slate, and this season they took down No. 14
Wonder how they would fare in, say, the Big 12? Well, they went 5-0 against teams from that league this season. That's not including a thrashing of Texas in a scrimmage back in October.
It honestly doesn't matter whether this Gonzaga team receives a No. 1 seed on Sunday. There's honestly minimal difference between a No. 1 and a No. 2 seed this year, anyways. What does matter is whether this Gonzaga team can continue to make history. The Zags earned the No. 1 overall ranking for the first time in program history, and will likely be kept close to home, either in Salt Lake City or San Jose. The highest seed Gonzaga has ever received was a No. 2 seed back in 2004, and the Bulldogs lost to Nevada in the second round.
But this program is different. This team is different. It's Gonzaga's best opportunity to get to the Final Four, due to the makeup and unselfishness of this group and the lack of dominance in today's college basketball landscape. But this team is better than the Adam Morrison team in 2006 that earned a No. 3 seed and ultimately lost to UCLA in the Sweet 16.
"We're more balanced," Few said after his team shut down Saint Mary's guard Matthew Dellavedova and wound up with a convincing 65-51 victory against the Gaels in the WCC title game. "And we've become a very good defensive team."
"There have been plenty of games when our offense hasn't come through," Gonzaga fifth-year senior Mike Hart added. "But we've hung our hats on our defense.
Say what. Gonzaga and defense? Seriously?
That's right. Guys like Hart and guard Gary Bell Jr. have rubbed off on the rest of the team. Kevin Pangos is no longer a liability on that end of the floor, Elias Harris has improved and 7-footer Kelly Olynyk is a difference-maker on both ends of the floor. Dellavedova finished with just two points in the loss and the Gaels shot only 39 percent from the game. Kansas State managed only 52 points and Oklahoma State finished with 68.
This team has only dropped two games all season. One was way back on Dec. 8 on its home floor against an enigmatic Illinois team. The other in arguably the Game of the Year this season, a 64-63 setback to Butler on an errant inbounds from David Stockton that turned into a Roosevelt Jones buzzer-beater.
Even Saint Mary's coach Randy Bennett, who has seen plenty of Gonzaga teams in the past decade since he's been in Moraga, maintains this team is different.
"Legit," he said after his team lost to the Zags for the third time this season. "This is the best, and they've had some really good ones."
There are big men, and a plenty. It starts with Olynyk, who is as efficient as just about any player in the nation on the offensive end. He's averaging 17.3 points and seven boards per game in 25.5 minutes per game while also making 66 percent of his shots from the field. Harris has gone from vastly overrated after his freshman season and become one of the most underrated players in the nation. Pangos was the team's top offensive player a year ago, but has accepted his role and just does whatever the team needs him to do in order to win. Bell and Hart provide the defense -- and then Few has weapons that he can bring off the bench. Big weapons -- as in skilled 6-foot-9 junior forward Sam Dower and 7-foot-1, 300-pound Polish freshman Przemek Karnowski.
"They just keep coming with them," Bennett said. "When they sub, that's when they wear you out."
This is a frontline that can stand up with anyone in the country. The backcourt was the team's core a year ago, but now it's taken a back seat to the big guys up front. If there's one piece missing, it's a athletic wing player who can get buckets. But trust me, this team passes the eye test. However, Few knows that doesn't matter. Instead, they'll talk about the fact that this team hasn't advanced to a Final Four, how they have played a bunch of cupcakes in the non-league and aren't worthy.
"Other teams get the benefit of the doubt. We don't," Few said. "They say we can't go into the Big Ten, but who knows if those teams can go to Moraga or BYU and win, either."
"It's just fuel to the fire," Hart added. "People doubt us and we cherish that."
Now it's time to prove it.