Gonzaga Payday: Save the Last Dance for Them
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It takes a strong athletic program to take on geography in the national consciousness and win, being so successful that it becomes socially acceptable to mangle an historic pronunciation. Only two really come to mind:
The Fighting Irish rang this one up decades ago, thanks to the legendary efforts of Knut Rockne (pr: 'kah-noot rock-nuh' in case you're not Scandinavian; yes, he was born in Norway and didn't cave in to the Americanization of his name until later) guiding the Four Horsemen, George Gipp, and a cast of leather-helmeted legions in feats immortalized by that literary lion of sportswriting, Grantland Rice, whose tomes to the masses didn't come with a pronunciation guide.
It's only been in recent times that another program has ascended to this lofty plateau of linguistic light-bending. Somehow fittingly, it's located in a city whose founding fathers got the pronunciation of the local tribe right but just couldn't master the phonics of their own language; the native clan called Children of the Sun thus became the namesake of Spokane, Wa. With that sort of insularity and with total disregard to the original Gonzaga, the Spokanites insisted theirs -- Bing Crosby's alma mater, by the way -- be called Gonzaga (pr: 'gone-ZAG-ah'). Given the team's 13-year run (and counting) of consistent success, they've prevailed.
Even more impressively, since the Zags became a lovable, tenacious mainstay in the Big Dance from 1999 onward, alumni donations to the general fund have, by all accounts, increased by 400%.
Now, if a college basketball program can do all that, shouldn't it be able to win a national championship?
The Zags are a Brandon Paul super-performance (Illinois) and a poor inbounds pass (Butler) away from being undefeated. As usual, their non-conference schedule was loaded with teams that had the brass to play them. Six were from the Big XII; if Gonzaga was in that circuit, they'd be 6-0 right now, and that includes a win at Oklahoma State.
Coach Mark Few has unleashed Kelly Olynyk 2.0 on the unexpecting world this season. The 7-footer who grew up as a guard until he grew up took a sophomore redshirt year to convert from a perimeter player into an omnipresent force anywhere on the court. He has power, agility, touch, creativity, and a team-first attitude. With the rough-and-steady Elias Harris just as accomplished inside and out, the Zags have the critical core of a neutron bomb. They're joined inside by the sure-shooting of Sam Dower and the 7-1, 305lb freshman Przemek Karnowski, who blocks out the sun as well as opponents' shots. Outside marksmen Kevin Pangos and Gary Bell Jr have range, cunning, and quickness. David Stockton's DNA does not need to be traced. Mike Hart is every coach's dream with his ceaseless floor game gluing together any loose end the Zags may have.
It's almost impossible for a majority of them to have a bad game all at once. The quality of their depth is breathtaking. If Gonzaga has any weakness, it's defending the arc consistently (reference: Mr Paul). However, Few has had two months to fix it. He probably has.
On top of that, the term mid-major has become an anachronism. Two of the last three Final Fours have featured lesser-branded schools -- yes, let's get to the root of the bias -- and those weren't flukes. It shouldn't be a shock anymore to see similar colleges there on a regular basis.
This year, it definitely won't be a shock to see Gonzaga. What's more, it wouldn't be a surprise to see them cutting down the nets. No team has more versatility. Few teams are as battle-tested on the road, as the Zags are year in and year out. And as a sidebar, the last school west of the Mississippi to win it all was Arizona in 1997. Odds are it's time for that geographical anomaly to even out.
The Zags were 55:1 to be king of the Dance before the season began. The number closed to 33:1 in December. They're 20:1 now. For all the reasons mentioned here, that's still an incredible price. Expect the numbers to narrow even more.
Get 'em while they're hot. There's only one way to pronounce winner.