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Gonzaga is college basketball’s powerhouse underdog

The Zags weren’t supposed to be back in the Sweet 16 this season, which means we probably should have all seen it coming.

UNC Greensboro v Gonzaga Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

The “debate” over Gonzaga’s spot in the hierarchy of college basketball was tired 10 years ago. It is ridiculous now.

The answer to the “mid-major/not a mid-major” riddle has been straightforward ever since the Zags made it apparent they didn’t plan on missing another NCAA tournament until long after all of us are dead: Gonzaga is a power program that happens to reside in a mid-major conference.

The answer is simple. The reality of the answer is complicated.

Since its emergence onto the national scene at the very end of the last century, Gonzaga has dominated the West Coast Conference. The Bulldogs have built gaudy record after gaudy record and claimed the league’s auto-bid to the NCAA tournament 16 times since 1999. They’ve then silenced critics who doubted the process that led to those gaudy records by crashing the Sweet 16 eight times, and being the only program other than Kansas that has won at least one game in the Big Dance in each of the last 10 years. A run to the national championship game last year didn’t hurt either.

Still, this combination of raw power surrounded by, well, not raw power isn’t supposed to exist in the modern game. The fact that it doesn’t exist anywhere else in the modern game (certainly not after Wichita State’s move to the American Athletic Conference) makes it even more difficult for hoop heads to comprehend.

In this way, and so many others, Gonzaga is college basketball’s ultimate contradiction; an inexplicable anomaly thriving in an era where we like to be able to explain everything.

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-First Round-UNCG vs Gonzaga Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

On the surface, Mark Few is undeniably old school.

Gonzaga is one of the only programs at any level of college basketball that still uses the redshirt for more than just one or two extreme cases every five years or so. The 2017-18 Bulldogs roster featured eight players who have redshirted. That’s down from 11 on last season’s national runner-up squad.

“Capping out their potential has always been the goal,” Few said at the Final Four last year. “If you’re not getting the top five or 10 or 15 players in the country — which we don’t get coming out of high school — you focus on, ‘Let’s get these other guys that we evaluate properly and know how hungry they are and their potential and then let’s do it that way.’”

The heightened emphasis on redshirting and maximizing a player’s talents over the course of four or five years makes Few sound oddly like Bobby Knight at Indiana in the 1970s. Hear him talk about virtually anything else and that parallel is shattered immediately.

Gonzaga is also decidedly new school.

The program’s coaching and training staff monitor everything about their players, from their diets to their sleep schedules to their DNA. They put them through team-building exercises, they force them to do brain exercises, and there are mandatory twice a week yoga sessions for everyone who wears the red, white, and navy blue.

Also partaking in the yoga sessions is Few, who talks often about wanting his players to be their own problem solvers, not just soldiers following orders. Knight, to go back to the previous comparison, seemed more content with the latter coach-player rapport.

Gonzaga’s breakthrough last March may not have changed the way the program goes about its business, but it has certainly changed the way the program is viewed from the outside.

Twelve months ago, any talk of the Bulldogs being a viable national title threat was met with immediate retorts about the program’s propensity for “choking” and not being able to make it past the Sweet 16. Fast-forward to Selection Sunday 2018. Just moments after the release of the brackets, the fourth-seeded Zags knocking off top-seeded Xavier in the Sweet 16 was already the second weekend upset everyone was calling. The Bulldogs were the trendy Final Four pick out of the West Region, and no one had a problem with it. Now Gonzaga is just two wins away from proving the American public right for a change.

It’s not easy, but it’s possible, to make the case that Gonzaga doing what it has done this season is even more impressive than what they were able to accomplish a year ago. The best-case scenario for the program heading into 2017-18 seemed to be this would be “the year between the years.” The Bulldogs would fight with Saint Mary’s for the WCC title, they’d made the NCAA tournament for a 20th straight year, maybe they’d win a game, and then they’d bring back nearly all of their players and gear up for a much deeper run in 2019.

Instead, Few and company have been a national player from start to finish in 2017-18. They lost just one conference game on their way to WCC regular-season and tournament titles, they earned a respectable No. 4 seed on Selection Sunday, and now they seem like as safe a bet as any on the wild left side of the NCAA tournament’s bracket to make it back to the national title game.

Being two wins away from a return trip to the Final Four a year after losing your top three scorers — a group that included a First-Team All-American who still had a year of eligibility left — as well as a surprise one-and-done defection showcases a level of resiliency we only expect to see from six or seven programs in this sport. Even five years ago, when Gonzaga was already solidly established as the ultimate “non mid-major,” it was hard to see Few’s program getting to a point where it could belong in that elite of the elite club.

The give and take with Gonzaga’s bizarre “power program in a non-power league” setup was supposed to be that the Bulldogs were capable of fielding a Final Four-caliber team every three years or so, but when there were drop-offs, the drop-offs were going to be relatively severe. Clearly that isn’t the case anymore.

There are no “bridge years” for Gonzaga anymore, no “year between the years.” The Bulldogs are right in the middle of the hunt for the 2018 national championship, and logic says they’re going to be in the same spot next year and the year after that.

It’s one of the few things we can pin down about college basketball’s ultimate contradiction.