Gonzaga shy to accept the pressure of No. 1 seed expectations

By Matt Norlander | College Basketball Writer

The road has been paved for Gonzaga to reach the regional finals. (US)

SALT LAKE CITY -- A day removed from getting a scare against No. 16 Southern, Gonzaga players don't want to acknowledge the reality of the situation. And neither does their coach. This is to be expected, however. There is the new scope that Gonzaga is seen through, whether they want to admit it or not. And I don't blame them for deferring, as you'll read right here.

"That's for you guys to [talk about]," Zags guard Kevin Pangos said Friday. "The expectation is not for us to make the Elite Eight. Our expectation is to play the next game."

"I try to avoid all talk of being No. 1," Zags senior forward Elias Harris said. "That's poison right there."

"We know people are talking," Gonzaga center Kelly Olynyk said. "People have their own expectations, their own insights about what we should and could accomplish -- and we have our own. ... We're just a big family right now and none of us want to stop playing with each other."

The bottom line is this team will need to minimally reach an Elite Eight on behalf of its coach, lest the heavy criticism truly come down on Mark Few and his program -- as it probably should. You could say that's not fair, but it is now an unavoidable narrative. It is now pressure and part of what Gonzaga's identity is. It is part of Mark Few's legacy. The Zags long ago shed the plucky label and have rightfully and impressively created an isolated imperium off regular-season records in the past 12 years.

Gonzaga has graduated to a top-20 program, yet Few does not have an Elite Eight to his name. He has four Sweet 16 trips in 13 seasons and will play for a fifth Saturday night against No. 9 Wichita State.

"This deal has nothing to do with me whatsoever," Few said Friday. "It never has and it never will."

Stop right there. Few's just brushing off reality or accepting to embrace it with the press. He's considered one of the nicest, most balanced men in the profession. A smart man. But he can't be honest with that statement. His legacy is affected directly with this team, this year, and how it performs in this tournament compared to other ones in the past. This is the group that should break through. The no-really-we-swear-they're-Final-Four-good Gonzaga. What's empirical: No Bulldog team has ever been this good on offense and on defense. This is the first and very well may be the only No. 1 team Gonzaga will ever have under Few.

And a large part of the 50-year-old's reputation will come to form based on what happens Saturday, and then next weekend, should Gonzaga get to LA. And if Wichita State does beat Gonzaga, the close shave against Southern suddenly factors in as preamble for what could be the latest and most notorious "yeah, but" footnote to Gonzaga as a program and Few as a coach.

He may not want to believe that, and the team may not want to talk about it, but this is how Gonzaga is seen right now: A really great program that's relevant nationally but still a pretender come March. I get no joy in passing along the message, but it's pragmatic reality, again, for now. A Final Four run changes a lot. For the record, I picked this team to win it all.

"At this point in the year, I don't think we need to worry about aesthetics," Few said. "We're not getting style points and not getting graded. You either win or your season's over."

And it's looking even better for Gonzaga now than it did on Selection Sunday, though the sword has grown two points. Because the easier the road, the tighter the squeeze. And now the bracket has afforded Gonzaga some flexibility -- yet no wiggle room. With La Salle ripping an upset of K-State Friday and Ole Miss doing the same to Wisconsin, Few's team by far has the best path to the regional finals. If you can't do it this year, then when? That's what they'll say. That's what I'm saying now.

"I personally try to avoid all that talk and avoid having all the pressure on my back," Harris said. "We just go game by game and take the upcoming challenges."

The refreshing part about Few is how he's able to be the perfect kind of coach for the situation he's in. This is just basketball after all, and it's not the end of the world if a really nice man who did what no coach in history has done (the Gonzaga empire-build) just happens to hit the same wall every year.

"My deal is to make this experience as great as it possibly can be for my guys," Few said. "It's about the program and the school and the community. ... I don't ever think about my legacy. That's to be determined by wife and kids, and what kind of family guy I am and what kind of dad I am."

Oh, I absolutely believe Few on that. He added that he didn't find getting a No. 1 seed for the first time in school history too big a deal -- until he saw how Spokane and the fans reacted to it. And he knows what it means to the players to make history in that regard. I believe him there, too. Few's charm comes in his simplicity and broadview.

If Gonzaga loses Saturday or if he reaches a Final Four, his life probably truly will not change that much. Alteration won't come to him, personally, save for some pride and thrill for his players.

But for his program and the legacy attached, there's never been a bigger year than now for the man who took Gonzaga from an upstart team with a funky name to a program with a respected one.

 
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