Yes, Butler has the Final Four credentials, even coming within a half-court miracle of winning a national championship.
But for staying power, for that tip-of-the-tongue name when talking about college basketball’s most successful mid-major program, it’s Gonzaga.
Maybe the name helps — Gonzaga. Gone-ZAG-uh, not Gun-ZOG-uh.
The Zags. More people know them by the Zags than their real nickname (which we won’t mention because you, astute basketball observer, obviously know it).
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Maybe it’s the colorful personalities, some with hair down to their shoulders that make us think, “Hey, these guys are cool — and they can play.”
But mostly, it’s about winning. A lot. And with a coach who could probably have a job at any school in the country today if not for staying put and building on his success.
And now, they’re No. 1.
Wichita State gets an up-close look at Gonzaga on Thursday in Salt Lake City. If both teams win, they’ll play on national television Saturday with the Shockers getting their chance to knock off the pride of the mid-majors.
Here’s a look at the Zags — er, Bulldogs — and how they got to No. 1.
FEW IS BETTER
Shocker fans remember L.D. Swanson for one thing — buzzer-beaters. The WSU guard had two in a 10-day span in 1994, the second coming from about 22 feet in a 54-53 Cessna Classic victory on Dec. 29, 1994 in Levitt Arena.
The victim? Gonzaga. Mark Few was an assistant coach on that team, which three months later made its first NCAA Tournament appearance.
Dan Fitzgerald built Gonzaga hoops from the brink of extinction in the 1980s, then handed it off in 1997 to Don Monson, who parlayed two successful seasons into the Minnesota job (he’s in the NIT this year coaching Long Beach State).
Few was an assistant all that time, then got his shot in 1999. He hasn’t left the Spokane sideline since.
PLAY ANYBODY, ANYWHERE
From 1960 to 1999, Gonzaga played 19 regular-season games against ranked teams. In Few’s 14 seasons, the Bulldogs have played 49 regular-season ranked opponents, but get this: Only five visited GU’s McCarthey Athletic Center. In-state rivals Washington State and Washington (2) were three of the five. (San Diego State ’10 and Illinois ’12 get big thanks from the Bulldogs, too.)
Gonzaga played 90 percent of its ranked foes in road games or on neutral courts. Name recognition helped the Zags to a pair of Maui Invitational appearances in Few’s first six years, and they’ve also been occasional visitors to Madison Square Garden for neutral-court games. Not many mid-majors do that.
DOMINATE YOUR CONFERENCE
UCLA won 13 straight Pac-8 titles under John Wooden, and Kansas has won nine straight in the Big 12 under Bill Self.
Between them is Gonzaga, which won 11 straight West Coast Conference titles before the streak ended last season. (A new one started this year at 16-0.)
Few’s WCC record is 179-21. Two-hundred games, .895 winning percentage. You can’t think about being a national power without putting a foot on the neck of the rest of your conference. Gonzaga has a big foot.
Get to the NCAAs, repeat
This is where Butler Nation makes its argument. Gonzaga gets loads of respect for making its 15th straight tournament appearance this week, but it’s not as if Few and his coaching staff have been busy during Final Four week during his tenure.
Gonzaga hasn’t been to a regional final under Few. Four Sweet 16 losses in 13 appearances under Few is noble, but not earth-shattering. Gonzaga makes its mark during the regular season.
FIVE WHO’VE MADE STRIDES
Barry Collier, Thad Matta and Todd Lickliter all turned Bulldog success into bigger jobs, but Brad Stevens (165-48) has made it much more than a Horizon League dynasty. His 2010 and 2011 teams reached the NCAA championship game, losing both but gaining so much national respect. The Bulldogs are reaching Gonzaga’s “beyond the mid-major label” level just in time to go, reports say, to the Big East Conference next year.
Only three schools have appeared in one of the final polls the last five years: Duke, Kansas… and Xavier. Four Sweet 16 appearances in the last five years sure helps. The Musketeers are making their 12th tournament appearance in the last 13 years. But there’s been no Final Four berth — yet — which keeps XU just shy of the Gonzaga-Butler level.
Dana Altman, Shocker killer, gets most of the credit here. He took over a team that last 22 times in 1993-94 and over the next six years won more games than the previous season. The Bluejays made seven NCAA appearances over nine seasons, vaulting to the Missouri Valley’s dominant program and making the move to the 18,000-seat CenturyLink Center look like a stroke of genius instead of a chance of playing in a half-empty arena.
The Patriots’ Final Four run in 2006 — remembered as the year of the mid-major when WSU and Bradley also made the Sweet 16 — was a sign that the mid-major was here to stay, at least in terms of making a consistent dent in the tournament bracket. But Mason’s success, while still good, never got close to the ’06 level. Jim Larranaga’s team was 27-7 in 2010-11, then he hooped down to Miami. Retread coach Paul Hewitt is 34-25 over the past two seasons.
Shaka Smart’s Rams lost to Butler in the 2011 national semifinals, a week after upsetting Kansas in the regional semifinal. Win that game and maybe Smart’s Rams are respected as much as Stevens’ Bulldogs. Not that college basketball doesn’t respect VCU and Smart, a 36-year-old coach who in three seasons has seven NCAA Tournament victories. Unlike Jeff Capel and Anthony Grant, who had success at VCU before bolting for BCS-conference jobs, Smart has held firm in Richmond. Much like Mark Few.