"The slipper still fits!"
Those words, spoken by announcer Gus Johnson more than a decade ago, still hold a special place in Gonzaga lore. On March 18, 1999, Johnson first introduced the world to a tiny school from Spokane, Wash., who could play basketball with the big boys of the major conferences.
That game, a 73-72 victory over the Florida Gators in Gonzaga's second NCAA Tournament appearance ever, became the first of a 15-year streak that culminated in this year's No. 1 seed. In that span, Gonzaga has gone from the little school that could to a national power, taking charter flights across the nation, battling it out with major schools for major recruits, and getting as much airplay on ESPN as anyone.
Still, among all the success, one thing has eluded Gonzaga since their 1999 run into the Elite 8 -- namely, postseason success. A loss to the Connecticut Huskies on March 20, 1999 was the pinnacle of Gonzaga's taste of March Madness. In the 13 years since, the Zags have never advanced past the Sweet 16. In fact, they've only hit the Sweet 16 four times -- two of which were back in 2000 and 2001. The Bulldogs, for how great they have consistently been during the regular season, have been perennial bracket-busters in March, and not in a good way.
It only took about a day after the seeding announcement for a whole load of people to consider the Zags overrated, overseeded and not worth banking the office betting pool on. To a certain degree, people are right, as Gonzaga is probably overrated. But in a year where the top seeds fell one after another in some weird, choreographed, flirtatious dance with destiny, you could make the argument that each of the top teams in college basketball are slightly overrated.
That is the key takeaway, as even if Gonzaga is overrated, they aren't overrated by much. Kenpom rates them as the fourth-best team in the nation, Jeff Sagarin rates them as the sixth best, as does RPI, while ESPN's foray into the world of college hoops metrics rates them as the fifth best. Gonzaga may not be the top team in the nation, but they aren't that far off from it.
The Zags are led by the frontcourt of Elias Harris and Wooden Award finalist Kelly Olynyk, while sophomores Kevin Pangos and Gary Bell man the backcourt. Those four names are so capable of scoring that head coach Mark Few is able to employ hustle-specialist Mike Hart as the fifth man in the starting rotation and doesn't have to worry that only one player in college hoops takes less shots than he does.
If Olynyk or Harris find themselves in foul trouble or are struggling against the competition, Few can bring in 6'9 junior Sam Dower or 7'1, 305-pound freshman Przemek Karnowski off the bench, two players who very well would be starters or major contributors on any other team.
Olynyk leads the Bulldogs with 17.5 points per game, a number not nearly as flashy as Doug McDermott, Nate Wolters or Marshall Henderson. He isn't even the leading scorer in the WCC -- that honor belongs to Tyler Haws of BYU -- but Olynyk does his scoring more efficiently than anyone else in the nation, leading the NCAA in Player Efficiency Rating at 37.2, and he's third in the nation in field-goal percentage at 65.2 percent.
Pangos is no slouch with the ball in the backcourt either. His points per game are down from his freshmen year, but his long-range shot has gotten better. Pangos hits 42 percent from beyond the arc and is always liable to pull up and take the three, over and over again. In the off chance that both those two players are struggling from the floor, there's always the 14.9 points per game from Harris and the 9.2 points per contest from Bell.
The main criticism of Gonzaga always stems from something they can't control -- the quality of opponents in conference play. For the fourth year in school history, the Bulldogs went undefeated in conference play. But for the first time in those four years, the Bulldogs did so while crushing their opponents, winning their conference games by an average of 19.4 points.
Their non-conference affairs were business as usual for the Bulldogs, as they went 5-0 against the Big 12, highlighted by a win on the road against the Oklahoma State Cowboys. Their two losses on the year came due to Illinois' Brendan Paul deciding to explode for 35 points, and a wild finish at Hinkle Fieldhouse against Butler.
It won't be a cakewalk, but compared to the other top seeds, the committee handed the Bulldogs their region on a silver platter. Gonzaga has established a more consistent program than most major-conference schools across the nation, and if there was any year to pick them going all the way, this would be the year to do it.