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How Gonzaga became America’s most polarizing college basketball program

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In just two decades, Gonzaga has made the seemingly impossible transition from lovable Cinderella to America’s most disliked and distrusted powerhouse.

Eighteen years ago this month, Gonzaga became America’s most popular college basketball team. Making just its second NCAA tournament appearance in program history, an undersized Bulldog team led by junior guards Richie Frahm and Matt Santangelo made Gonzaga a household name for the first time.

The Zags opened up their tournament run with a 12-point romp over Clem Haskins and Minnesota, an at-large bid recipient from the mighty Big Ten. They then completely shook up the entire West Region with an 82-74 triumph over second-seeded Stanford. A victory over Florida to kick off the tournament’s second weekend had Gonzaga in a previously unthinkable position: One win away from the Final Four.

For the next 48 hours, network news shows and national radio stations ran the requisite stories about average people not even knowing where Gonzaga was and about the school’s website crashing from the increased interest their basketball team’s run had garnered the school as a whole. Standard March Cinderella stuff.

Even after falling to eventual champion Connecticut in a hard-fought 67-62 West Regional final, Gonzaga had established itself as an American favorite. A name the country would remember and would keep an eye out for the next time March rolled around. In the caste system of big-time college athletics, that’s the most a mid- or low-major college hoops program could ever hope for.

Then a weird thing started to happen. Gonzaga was back the next year. The year after that, too. And the year after that, and the year after that, and the year after that.

Suddenly, the Bulldogs were every bit as much of a March fixture as Duke. But it wasn’t just March. Gonzaga was scheduling major-conference opponents and playing in big early-season tournaments in November and December, and they were winning. They were winning a lot.

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-First Round-Gonzaga vs South Dakota State Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

Mark Few — who had taken over the year after Gonzaga’s initial Elite Eight run after Dan Monson ironically bolted for Minnesota — had somehow taken a program from the lowly West Coast Conference and turned it into a perennial national player. This, like the Zags’ original run, was cool with America. A new name on the national scene, and one with humble beginnings and a much taller annual wall to climb than the established powerhouses. How could it not be cool?

At some point between then and now, a change happened. Gonzaga went from irrefutably cool to the program everybody outside of Spokane loves to hate.

Now a change that extreme and that complete couldn’t possibly happen overnight. It has to be a layered situation with a genesis that’s hard to pinpoint.

There’s no way to know for certain, but the best guess for when Gonzaga’s heel turn began lies in the final minutes of a game played on March 24, 2006. The date might not ring an immediate bell for you, but the game will.

Led by national Player of the Year candidate Adam Morrison, Gonzaga had earned a No. 3 seed for the 2006 big dance. Such a lofty taking-off point had become old hat for the Bulldogs by this point. They had been a No. 2 seed in 2004 and a No. 3 seed the year after that, both times failing to make it out of the tournament’s second round. The 2006 squad had already eclipsed those trips by making it to the Sweet 16, and appeared destined to play further into the tournament’s second weekend.

From the opening tip on, Gonzaga had dominated second-seeded UCLA on that night. The Zags led by as many as 17 in the first half and had fans across the country talking about them officially “not being a mid-major anymore.” With a little over three minutes to play, the Bulldogs held a 71-62 advantage. They had shown no signs over the course of the previous 37 minutes that such a lead could be squandered. They would not score again.

In the game’s final minute, Gonzaga finally looked like the program from the bottom of college basketball’s totem pole facing the one with 11 national championships. They missed free throws, they threw the ball away, and they gave up uncontested lay-ups. UCLA scored the game’s final 11 points, the Bulldogs lost, and Morrison cried on the court. I’m sure you remember it well.

Gonzaga Bulldogs v UCLA Bruins Photo by Jed Jacobsohn/Getty Images

Even though the team hadn’t played to its seed in each of the previous two years, this was the first time America really felt like it had been taken by the Zags. This wasn’t the country being let down by Gonzaga the scrappy underachiever whose winning would stun everybody. This was America being let down by Gonzaga the established top-25 program that shouldn’t be completely unraveling in the final minutes of Sweet 16 games.

It was more difficult to notice afterward, but the transition continued to unfold after ’06.

Gonzaga continued to make the tournament every year, but most of the time they were seeded somewhere between 7-11. Sometimes they won a game or two, sometimes they didn’t. Like a middle-of-the-road Eastern Conference team in an era of NBA superpowers, the Bulldogs were just sort of there.

Then, the 2012-13 season happened. Gonzaga navigated through a strong non-conference schedule with just two losses, rolled to a perfect record in the West Coast Conference’s regular season, and claimed the conference’s tournament title. On Selection Sunday, the Bulldogs were given a No. 1 seed in a West Region that the public agreed appeared to be the worst of the four the Selection Committee had put together. It was time for Mark Few’s team to finally cash in and make the world a believer again.

The Zags were stunned by ninth-seeded Wichita State in the second round.

Wichita State v Gonzaga Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

Never mind that Wichita State would go on to win the West Region and give eventual national champion Louisville its biggest scare of the tournament, this was a betrayal on Gonzaga’s part that confirmed the party lines of the program’s many detractors. The perceived success of the Bulldogs was the product of a weak conference and little else. This was a program that wouldn’t be able to hack it for 10 consecutive weeks in the ACC or the Big Ten or any other power conference with depth beyond its three best teams. This was no longer a hypothesis, this was a fact. The proof lay in March.

A trip to the Elite Eight in 2015 and a surprise run to the Sweet 16 as an 11 seed the year after that did nothing to shake the nation’s new perception of Gonzaga. The transformation from lovable upstart to perpetually underachieving paper tiger had been completed.

For the past four months on social media, the mere mention of two things has been guaranteed to elicit an immediate and extreme response: The President of the United States of America, and Gonzaga basketball. Somehow, in a season where Duke has fielded perhaps its most controversial player since Christian Laettner, it’s been a West Coast team from a low-major conference that has born the brunt of America’s disdain.

The Zags are the nation’s lone undefeated team? They’re still a joke. Mark Few has power-conference transfers that make this team look and play more like a power conference team than ever before? Don’t wanna hear it. The Bulldogs are going to be a No. 1 seed and they deserve to be? Whatever, they’ll be out in the Sweet 16 or earlier, that’s a guarantee.

This is where Gonzaga is, and where it’s destined to remain until it finally breaks through and plays its way to a Final Four. Never mind that the Bulldogs are about to participate in their 18th consecutive NCAA tournament, never mind that they’ve won at least one game in the dance eight straight times (the longest streak in the country), never mind that they’ve actually played to or above their tournament seed in 12 of their 17 March Madness runs. None of this matters. In the public’s eye, Gonzaga is little more than an example of how easy it is to find consistent success in a low-major conference, and a product of the media that loves to overhype them every chance they get.

But is there something to that second point?

Based on the accomplishments laid out earlier, Gonzaga is obviously a worthy recipient for praise. But is the media overplaying its hand when it speculates that the Zags would win the ACC or when it pegs the team as the most likely of any to cut down the nets at the end of the season? It’s certainly not outside the realm of possibility.

College basketball is a tough sport to cover. There are 351 Division I teams, which means if you want to check out one at any given time, you’re probably missing out on the chance to watch at least 50 others. The American public has little desire to stay up until 1 a.m. (on the East Coast) just to watch Gonzaga play Pacific on ESPN2 in order to establish a more educated opinion on the merits of the Bulldogs as a national title contender. College hoops media members do.

Any media member who’s written anything on Gonzaga this season has immediately been hit with a dozen variations of “they’re overrated/we hear this every year/they’re going to lose early in the tournament” on Twitter. For the people who put significant time and effort into establishing the basis for the story they just wrote, this is like a math teacher being handed the answer to a complex equation with no work being shown.

Yeah, your answer may have some merit, but tell me how you got there. I know your road wasn’t fueled by as much effort as mine was.

With this phenomenon consistently at work, it’s possible that frustrated college basketball writers have at times gone over the top with their responses. If you like a song and someone gives you a well thought out reason why they don’t, you’re probably going to be okay with it and recognize that there’s some validity to the counter-argument. If you like a song and someone tells you bluntly that it’s the “biggest piece of crap ever,” you might be more inclined to come back with a list of reasons why it’s actually “the greatest song ever.”

All of these factors come together to make Gonzaga maybe the most fascinating program in college basketball right now. Somehow, a tiny program with virtually no history before the start of the 21st century has situated itself right next to Duke and Kentucky on the top of America’s college basketball hit list.

Could this course be reversed? Absolutely. All Gonzaga needs to do is do what every major sports figure or team that has been loved, then hated, then loved again did: Win.

LeBron James didn’t win back a segment of the American public after his “The Decision” debacle until he captured his first championship. It’s easy to forget that the Patriots were at the center of a “do we overrate them as a franchise” discussion before they won their first Super Bowl in a decade in 2014.

If Gonzaga holds true to its seed this month, wins the West Region, and plays in the Final Four in Phoenix, the story will circle around to where it was 18 years ago. The college basketball world will both remember and recognize how remarkable it is for the Bulldogs to be in the position they are.

Saint Mary's v Gonzaga Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images

No low major program has ever broken through like this. And to be able to maintain that status, and keep its head coach, for two decades? Unbelievable! One of the best stories to come out of any major American sport.

If an early exit occurs, or even if Gonzaga falls to Arizona in an Elite 8 game where it would likely be an underdog, I don’t need to tell you what the response will be. It’s extreme, it’s indolent, and it’s unfair, but it’s life as America’s most polarizing college basketball program.