SALT LAKE CITY — It’s a question that would have been unthinkable a decade or so ago:
Has Gonzaga underperformed in the NCAA basketball tournament?
Zag zealots and Zag naysayers could have a lively barroom discussion on the topic, which clearly ruffled coach Mark Few’s feathers when he was asked after the West Coast Conference tournament about his program having sometimes fallen short of “media expectations” in the past.
“I think I have to do a better job with this notion that we haven’t achieved in the tournament,” Few said brusquely. “Educating the masses will be one thing I’ll focus on. But my guys, I’ll probably focus more on them.”
With the Zags, it has been a mixed bag since they stormed to seven NCAA-tournament victories in the first three seasons of their 15-year run in the big dance.
Since that 1999-2001 stretch, they’ve been to two Sweet 16s, in 2006 and 2009.
Have they been nails in the first round? Yes, mostly. Have they had the extended, Elite Eight or Final Four run that would summarily end the debate? No.
Have they experienced the crashing, early shocker that seems to befall even the best programs? No. Have they sometimes exited with an uncompetitive effort? Yes.
Part of this give-and-take is about labels and perception. To wit: How do you regard Duke and its coach, Mike Krzyzewski? Underachievers? No chance.
But in the past eight years, Duke has: Three times as a No. 1 seed, failed to advance past the Sweet 16; lost in the second round as a No. 2 seed; and stopped in the Sweet 16, also as a 2 seed; been bounced as a No. 6 seed by No. 11 Virginia Commonwealth; and suffered one of history’s great stunners last year, losing to 15th-seeded Lehigh in its first game.
The Blue Devils, however, also had a national title in 2010, Krzyzewski’s fourth, so they’re safe.
How about Kansas and Bill Self? In 2005, the Jayhawks, as a No. 3 seed, lost to Bucknell. A year later, as a No. 4, they fell to Bradley. In 2010, as a top seed, they were KO’d in the second round by Northern Iowa.
But Self won the title in 2008 and got back to the championship game last year, redeeming his postseason reputation despite another pre-Final Four departure as a No. 1 seed in 2007.
Gonzaga’s performance has been much flatter — a lower ceiling with a higher floor.
For instance, in 11 of its 14 NCAA appearances, it has won its first game, and it can be argued there were extenuating reasons for the three whiffs, such as being sent three time zones east to play poorer-seeded Davidson with Stephen Curry in its backyard in 2008. In 2007, the depth-shy Zags wheezed to the finish without suspended center Josh Heytvelt.
There’s little doubt Gonzaga’s most glaring lost opportunities came in 2004-06. At KeyArena in 2004 as a No. 2 seed, the Zags lost a second-round game to 10th-seeded Nevada (the Wolf Pack had Kirk Snyder, the No. 16 pick in the NBA draft that year, as well as a future NBA center in Nick Fazekas).
In 2005, Gonzaga, seeded third, bowed out in the second round to Bob Knight’s Texas Tech team. And in ‘06 came the most gut-twisting of all games in Zag lore, the meltdown against UCLA in the Sweet 16, taking away the chance to play in the Elite Eight against Memphis, a team the Adam Morrison-led Zags could have run with.
In this debate, it seems there’s a counter to every argument. The past three years, Gonzaga has opened with games against power-conference opponents, and in all three, the betting line was just about a tossup.
Gonzaga won each one by an average of 15 points. It’s that next step that’s been troublesome.
Recently, Zag exits have been marked by some blowouts. They bowed out in the Sweet 16 in 2009 to an abundantly talented North Carolina team, the eventual national champ; in 2010 against top seed Syracuse; and they got Jimmered in 2011, providing little resistance to the arsenal of the BYU star.
Indeed, after that Syracuse defeat in Buffalo, Few said something that he never would have uttered back in 2000-01, when his first two teams ran to the Sweet 16.
“If they play harder than you, you’ve got no shot,” he said. “And they played harder than us. We were not as intense and nasty as we needed to be.”
Last week, when he defended the Zags’ performances in the NCAA tournament, Few said, “This team is very grounded. It’s a team that enjoys playing together. It’s not one that spends a lot of time on the noise outside the program.”
Only one way to still that noise, and the opportunity now awaits Gonzaga.