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Gonzaga’s latest March exit will continue to fuel doubters

Rejoice, Gonzaga haters, your reign will continue for at least another 12 months.

Arkansas v Gonzaga Photo by Steph Chambers/Getty Images

The Gonzaga Bulldogs will not be the champions of the 2021-22 men’s college basketball season.

Alternate lede: It’s open season for Gonzaga haters for at least another 12 months.

The Zags, the NCAA tournament’s No. 1 overall seed for a second consecutive year, were knocked off by fourth-seeded Arkansas in the Sweet 16 Thursday night, 74-68.

The result was no fluke.

Eric Musselman’s team was more physical, seemed more prepared for the moment, and made far more clutch plays down the stretch than their favored opponents. Now, the Hogs will play in a regional final for the second straight year and are one win away from their first trip to a Final Four since 1995.

In Fayetteville and the surrounding areas, that will be the big takeaway from Thursday night’s upset in San Francisco. Virtually everywhere else, the focus will lie with the other side.

Gonzaga is just the fourth program in the history of men’s college basketball to go to seven consecutive Sweet 16s — Duke, North Carolina and UCLA are the other three. They’ve been to 23 consecutive NCAA tournaments, the third longest active streak in the nation (Kansas and Michigan State are the only programs with longer streaks). They’re the only program besides Kansas that has won at least one game in each of the last 12 NCAA tournaments. Lastly, Gonzaga has been a No. 1 or No. 2 seed six times since 2013.

Bur none of those numbers really hone in on the primary focus here: Zero. The number of national championships this absurd ascension from anonymous mid-major to national powerhouse has produced. At the end of the day, it’s the one that matters the most, and it’s the only one detractors of the Zags care about.

A year after coming one victory away from becoming college basketball’s first unbeaten national champion since 1976, Gonzaga was once again back as the NCAA tournament’s No. 1 overall seed. They were the betting favorites to cut down the nets in New Orleans, they led the nation in scoring average, they led the nation in scoring margin, they were No. 1 in virtually every college hoops metric in existence, and they had two national Player of the Year candidates in Drew Timme and Chet Holmgren.

All that tells one side of the story. The responses to any tweet or Instagram post from a major national brand about Gonzaga tell the other.

They don’t play in a real conference

They always choke

They’ll choke again next year

They’ll NEVER win the one that matters most

After another quiet domination of the West Coast Conference, followed by another No. 1 seed and another March Madness where they won’t be the last team standing, you can only expect those comments to intensify. That’s the way this works.

Thursday’s loss was different than the March (or April) heartbreak of Gonzaga’s other recent runs. For all the talk of their constant choking and early exits, the Bulldogs had never before lost in the Sweet 16 when they’d been a No. 1 seed. The fact that their first third round failure as a top dog coincided with Arkansas’ first win ever over a No. 1 seed (0-10 previously) should provide a healthy dose of salt in that still fresh wound.

“After a week or so we’ll look back and we’ll be able to — it’s hard,” a dejected Gonzaga head coach Mark Few said after the game. “We’re not used to losing in this round. Over these last four or five years we’ve been able to advance past this round and keep it going, so I think we’re a little bit in shock.”

Shocked might be how the Gonzaga players will feel for a while, but a healthy chunk of the sports world who watched Few’s team play Thursday night would likely tell you (at least now) that they weren’t even mildly surprised.

Gonzaga’s first NCAA tournament appearance came in 1995, but for all intents and purposes, its true introduction to March Madness came in 1999. It was then that the 10th-seeded Bulldogs pulled three consecutive upsets before taking a narrow loss to top-seeded UConn in the Elite Eight. The world learned who Gonzaga was, and the program hasn’t missed a Big Dance since.

Somewhere between then and now, the little program that could became the overrated program that cannot and never will. The latter title will stick for at least another year.

In college basketball, the narrative remains the narrative until the most seismic of shifts explodes the narrative into a million indistinguishable pieces. The anecdotal will always trump the tangible in this sport, and there is no gradual stigma shed. Your reputation is your reputation until you do something that turns it inside out and morphs it into its antithesis. The razor-thin margin between two extremes seems wholly unfair, but it’s also a direct reflection of the NCAA tournament and the unabated power it wields.

Thirty years ago, Mike Krzyzewski was a good coach who was never going to be great because he couldn’t win the big one. Six years ago, Jay Wright and Villanova could never make it out of the tournament’s first weekend despite their lofty seeding. Three years ago, Virginia’s style was never going to translate to success in a three-week, single elimination tournament.

Fairly or unfairly, Gonzaga is still a program from a mid-major conference that will never achieve the status of being a college hoops powerhouse because they’ll never get the job done when the stakes are the highest.

Maybe that changes in time. Maybe it doesn’t. All we know for now is that it’s definitely not changing before 2023.