WALLA WALLA - Make no mistake about it, the Zags are no longer the darlings of the mid-majors.
As a matter of fact, they haven't been for several years now.
One obvious reason, of course, is that very few in the world of NCAA men's basketball view Gonzaga as a mid-major any longer. Twelve consecutive appearances in the NCAA's big dance will do that.
You can be sure that the college basketball experts, prognosticators and media types no longer give the Zags a second look when they scan their brackets in search of those interesting David vs. Goliath stories. And in the same breath, chances are slim to none that any of the NCAA's bona fide big boys are likely to overlook a Gonzaga matchup should it come their way.
It's the price the Zags must pay.
About the only time Gonzaga doesn't receive elite status is when the NCAA's basketball brokers get together to concoct their tournament bracket. And it's not exactly a dart-throwing contest.
Even though they were ranked in all of the major college polls throughout the season, the Zags were exiled to Buffalo, N.Y., for the first two rounds of the tournament. As a No. 8 seed, Gonzaga barely survived an opening-round game against ninth-seeded Florida State, and for their trouble the Zags were blown out by No. 1 seed Syracuse in the second round.
Blame it on that loss to Saint Mary's in the West Coast Conference postseason tournament championship game in Las Vegas.
It's uncertain where Gonzaga would have landed had it defeated Saint Mary's for a third straight time. The Gaels, as a No. 10 seed, were shipped to Providence, R.I., where they defeated seventh-seeded Richmond and No. 2 seed Villanova to advance to the NCAA's Sweet Sixteen for the first time in school history.
Good for the Gaels, who have suddenly become one of the feel-good stories of this year's tournament. But Saint Mary's isn't the only mid-major still breathing the rarefied air that Gonzaga has inhaled no fewer than five times during its 12-year run of NCAA excellence.
Butler, a No. 5 seed, Northern Iowa, seeded ninth, and 12th-seeded Cornell also survived the first two rounds. Counting Saint Mary's, mid-majors comprise one fourth of the Sweet Sixteen field.
(For the record, Xavier, another Sweet Sixteen qualifier, is likewise considered a mid-major even though the Musketeers belong to the Atlantic 10 Conference. The Atlantic 10 is considered a high-major conference, one step between the mid-majors and the BCS conferences).
What's interesting from this perspective is that the four mid-major survivors - Butler, Northern Iowa, Cornell and Saint Mary's - are largely successful in ways reminiscent of Gonzaga's original formula. They rely more on finesse than raw athletic power, sink free throws and demoralize opposing defenses with a steady barrage of deadly 3-point shooting.
Cornell is the best example. The Big Red fired up 739 3-pointers during the regular season and sank 43 percent of them. No fewer than five Cornell players shot better than 43 percent from downtown during the year, and a sixth was at 39 percent.
Saint Mary's shot 41 percent from 3-point distance during the season, connecting on 278-of-677 treys. Mickey McConnell shot a stunning 52 percent, sinking 75-of-145 shots from beyond the arc.
Northern Iowa, at 36 percent, and Butler, 35 percent, weren't quite as proficient from 3-point distance, but they took their chances. Northern Iowa put up 643 shots from outside the arc during the regular season and Butler fired away 683 times from downtown.
By contrast, Gonzaga attempted just 495 3-pointers during the regular season. And even though they connected on 36 percent of their long balls, the Zags' reluctance to shoot 3s directly resulted in diminished offensive firepower.
Freshmen Elias Harris and Bol Kong were the Zags' most effective 3-point shooters - 46 and 43 percent, respectively - but they attempted just 105 3-pointers combined. Senior Matt Bouldin shot 38 percent (57-for-150) and junior Steven Gray 33 percent (48-for-146) to lead the team's downtown attack. No other Zag attempted more than 27 3-pointers.
This is a departure from Gonzaga's early years of NCAA success.
Blake Stepp, a 2004 graduate, ranks as Gonzaga's most prolific 3-point shooter with 288 makes in his four-year career, including 98 as a junior and 79 as a senior. Dan Dickau, class of 2002, holds the single-season record with 117 3-point makes during his senior year.
Richie Frahm and Matt Santangelo, four-year teammates who graduated in 2000, formed Gonzaga's most dynamic 1-2 scoring punch from beyond the arc. Frahm ranks second behind Stepp on the career list with 280 3-pointers, and Santangelo is third with 252.
As the Zags have gradually moved away from their 3-point offensive philosophy - they've averaged 533 3-point attempts over the past six seasons - they've become more inside oriented.
Harris, the talented recruit out of Speyer, Germany, is a 6-foot-8 force that is at his best attacking the basket. Sophomore Robert Sacre, the 7-footer, is a legitimate post. And 6-11 freshman Kelly Olynyk is another Zag who will be expected to develop his inside game.
They follow the likes of Josh Heytvelt, J.P. Bautista, Ronny Turiaf and even the mercurial Adam Morrison as more recent Gonzaga players who were asked to do some of the heavy lifting around the basket. Morrison, of course, Gonzaga's most recent all-American, never met a shot he didn't like, inside or out.
So as Gonzaga has attempted to become more and more like the Kentuckys and Ohio States of college basketball, the Zags look less and less like the excitable, let-it-fly mid-majors who will be in action this weekend.