This was supposed to be the year that doubting Gonzaga finally paid dividends. The 2015-16 Bulldogs didn't have the right guards, didn't have enough toughness, didn't have enough leadership, didn't have their starting center and didn't have the résumé to finish their season in any tournament greater than the NIT.
Naturally, the Zags are back again for the 18th time.
Lacking a signature non-conference win and losing both regular season games against rival Saint Mary's for the first time since 1995, a Gonzaga season that started with a preseason top-10 ranking seemed destined to end without a rightful dose of March Madness. Despite almost two decades of evidence to the contrary, the cause for doubt seemed justified, even heading into Tuesday night's West Coast Conference championship game.
The Zags had been in "gut check" situations before the WCC Tournament -- both prior games against Saint Mary's and at nationally ranked SMU almost a month ago -- and had failed to respond each time, creating a rare situation where they needed to win three games in Las Vegas or risk seeing the fifth-longest consecutive NCAA Tournament appearance streak ever snapped at 17.
With the spotlight shining brighter than it had all season, against an arch-rival that was looking to beat them for the third time in a season (something Saint Mary's had never done), Gonzaga gave a performance that forced the rest of the college basketball world to take notice. Mark Few's team shot 61.7 percent from the floor, 46.2 percent from beyond the arc and connected on 21 of 22 free throws to roll to an 85-75 victory and knock the Gaels down to the NCAA Tournament bubble.
"This is as courageous a run as we've ever had in the years I have been doing this," Few said. "To show as much guts and toughness and determination from all the stuff they were hearing and feeling and seeing out there ... When we lost to (Saint Mary's) on Senior Night, we went from winning the league to not being in the NCAA Tournament and all this noise and the sky is falling and Armageddon and blah, blah, blah ... We were the hunter this whole tournament, not the hunted. It's a little nice to be in that position. We haven't been in it a lot.
"All is good in Zags-ville."
All is good in Zags-Ville not just because the home team is going to hear its name called on Selection Sunday, but because the Bulldogs have a legitimate chance to do some serious damage in the coming weeks.
Star power speaks louder in March than any other month of the college basketball calendar, and Gonzaga has two bona fide stars looking to make some final college memories.
Kyle Wiltjer has been a top-12 prospect and a McDonald's All-American in a recruiting class that saw him ranked ahead of guys like Michael Carter-Williams and Cody Zeller. He's been a college teammate of Anthony Davis, and a contributor on one of the most dominant national champions in recent memory. He's been a star and a double-digit scorer on the only disappointing Kentucky team of the John Calipari era and the leading scorer on a Gonzaga team that was one win away from making its first Final Four. Most recently, he's been a preseason All-American and a two-time West Coast Conference Tournament MVP.
Credit: Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports
It's been strange to hear some labeling Wiltjer's final collegiate season as a disappointment when he's averaging career bests in points (20.7 ppg), rebounds (6.5 rpg), blocks (0.8 bpg) and free throw percentage (86.7 percent), but that's the price you sometimes have to pay for being a preseason national Player of the Year front-runner.
Regardless of how Wiltjer's senior campaign has or has not fallen in line with his preseason expectations, there's little doubt that he enters the NCAA Tournament playing at the highest level he's reached in 2015-16. He connected on 8 of 12 three-pointers in the WCC Tournament, dropped 29 huge points on BYU in the semifinals and showed a willingness to get on the floor and grab rebounds in traffic that his head coach has been waiting to see since the day Wiltjer arrived in Spokane.
"Nothing is guaranteed," Wiltjer said Tuesday night. "We didn't want to be on the outside looking in on Selection Sunday and I'm proud of these guys for these past couple games, just having the will to win."
While there are few players in college basketball who can match accolades with Wiltjer, there are even fewer who can match NBA potential with Domantas Sabonis, Gonzaga's star center. Forced into a starting role after Przemek Karnowski's season-ending back surgery in December, Sabonis has been a source of pride during an otherwise pedestrian season by Zag standards.
The son of Hall of Famer and international basketball pioneer Arvydas Sabonis, Domantas' next-level skill set has been on full display for the past three months. The sophomore can score with either hand, can hit the outside jumper, has tremendous body control around the basket and has been forced to develop into more of a vocal leader on a team in desperate need of one. His presence alone makes Gonzaga a nightmare matchup for whichever team winds up having to face them in the first round of the Big Dance.
The odd thing about this Gonzaga team, and the characteristic that most believe has been at the heart of their (relative) struggles this season, is its lack of star power at the guard position. The only reason it's strange is because the Bulldogs' lone attachments to its former mid-major status is that it's still a program whose success has mostly been governed by its backcourt. There was Dan Dickau and then Blake Stepp and then Adam Morrison and then Derek Raivio and then Jeremy Pargo and then Matt Bouldin and then Kevin Pangos and then ... well that's the question that has been asked throughout Spokane since November.
While most of the pressure to have an in-season star turn at the guard position has been thrown in the direction of freshman Josh Perkins, it's been Vanderbilt transfer Eric McClellan who has looked like the missing piece to the March puzzle in recent weeks. The senior, who was dismissed from Vandy in January of 2014 after violating the school's academic policy, has been known mostly for his on-ball defense since he arrived at Gonzaga, but showed a different side of his game this week in Vegas.
McClellan, who hadn't scored in double figures in three consecutive games all season, dropped 26 on Portland in the WCC quarterfinals, 15 on BYU a night later and then 20 on Saint Mary's in the championship game. He shot better than 50 percent (7 for 13) from beyond the arc, but perhaps more importantly, connected on all 18 of his free throw attempts.
"Here is the real MVP over here," Wiltjer said while pointing to McClellan in the postgame press conference. "This guy defended his (butt) off, hit shots and I am so proud of him."
If Wiltjer sounded like a proud dad, it's only because everyone associated with Gonzaga basketball knows what the team's guards have been forced to hear all season. McClellan in particular was a constant source of questions about why Few would stick his neck out and give a second chance to a player who couldn't do more for the team on the court.
"They took criticism to heart," Few said of his team's backcourt. "For a while, it was hard for them to take coaching. They took it personally. They've grown up enough to quit taking it personally. We're (all) trying to get to the same place. Through it all, they stayed confident."
With a star in the middle, a star on the outside, and a backcourt playing with the poise and confidence it had been searching for all season, all Gonzaga needed to make some major noise in March was a bid to the big dance. For an 18th straight year, they've got one.
* * *
Best Tournament Player: Was it Carmelo Anthony or Christian Laettner?
Be sure to subscribe to SB Nation's YouTube channel for highlight videos, features, analysis and more