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Kragthorpe: Zags face great expectations

Published March 18, 2006 1:23 am

This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2006, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Being a Zag was so much easier in the old days, back around the turn of the century when Gonzaga University was college basketball's lovable overachiever, the low-seeded darling of the NCAA Tournament.

Everything's different now that Gonzaga is a brand name. The Bulldogs play in a genuine arena, not a gym. Jack & Dan's Tavern, the unpretentious place just off the campus that's co-owned by John Stockton's father, was recently modernized. Gonzaga's program has become nationally ranked, nationally known and nationally televised.

None of which helps in March.

And this is the state of college sports in 2006: All of the heat is on Gonzaga today 9 against Indiana.

The world is not completely out of whack, because the very reason Indiana can play loose and carefree is that coach Mike Davis is leaving as soon as the Hoosiers lose again, thanks to the unreasonable demands of a job that's scrutinized "every game, every possession," in his words.

Gonzaga's Mark Few has not reached that point in Spokane, Wash. Just the same, there's a certain degree of pressure and expectation associated with the modern-day Gonzaga, and the Bulldogs are at a point where they need to deliver in the NCAA Tournament.

If they lose today, that would make five years without a Sweet 16 appearance 9 after three consecutive trips to that stage or beyond. In those days, the Bulldogs were always protected 9 or motivated 9 by No. 10 or lower seeds. The past two years, they have been knocked out as a No. 2 or No. 3 seed, and they're back at No. 3 this month, trying again to get past the second round.

Maybe they already survived the biggest scare, Thursday's 79-75 victory over Xavier that required a late rally at the Huntsman Center. "It's kind of an extra breath of life," star forward Adam Morrison said Friday.

The Bulldogs will need another jolt today. Gonzaga's current players have been dealing with such pressure throughout their careers, but Few has been around the school long enough to be able to look back somewhat fondly to when Gonzaga was the giant-killer, not the giant.

He loves the recruiting advantages that accompany the program's rise, but the side effect is having to perform in the tournament against teams that now play Gonzaga's former role.

"It's what comes with it," he said. "When you get into this thing, your players can't help but feel that you're kind of the hunted."

Few already is fighting off the idea that another second-round failure would spoil Gonzaga's 28-3 season that featured an unbeaten run through the West Coast Conference and a tough nonconference schedule. Such criticism would be "very shallow," he said. "It seems like we're all getting fixated so much on this tournament and forgetting the entire year."

Well, Gonzaga would not be Gonzaga without such a magnified view of the NCAAs, so Few will have to live with whatever the perception is of his program after this March. He is absolutely right about one thing, though: Seeding is overrated in this tournament, and the process can do as much to unfairly brand an underachieving team as help a deserving one advance through the bracket.

"The bottom line is . . . there's so much parity," Few said. "Just watch these games. I mean, these are pretty evenly matched teams across the board."

But we still call them "upsets," as once pulled off repeatedly by the Bulldogs.

So it is that Indiana, the school that went undefeated 30 years ago, will try today to knock off Gonzaga, the program that never even made the NCAA field when Stockton was playing there.

It's a different world now, yet here we are with Gonzaga and Indiana, two teams with something in common: Each is trying to recapture past glory, while fending off the idea that repeating such achievements is fair to expect.

kkragthorpe@sltrib.com