Memory Lane: Gonzaga's rise

Memory Lane: Gonzaga's rise


This week: Illinois first met Gonzaga in 2001, when the 'Zags still were fighting for respect.

Date: Nov. 15, 2001

Headline: All bark and bite


SPOKANE, Wash. – Gonzaga''s basketball media guide is believed to be the first in history to come complete with 3-D glasses.

You''ll need hem to experi-ence the guide's cover, which features a collage of 3-D action shots of guard Dan Dickau dribbling and shooting a basketball that leaps off the page right into your living room.

As if Gonzaga needs gimmicks to stand out.

These days, the Zags arethe end-all and be-all of small-conference basketball, a program that''s proven it can hang with the big boys.
Gonzaga is the model for midmajor programs in college hoops. Just don''t tell coach Mark Few.

"I gotta admit I cringe when you say midmajor,''  said Few, the coach who''ll bring Gonzaga to Champaign for a Friday date with Illinois. "I still don't get that thing. If we're basing this thing on winning and having success in the tournament, I don't understand how you can call anything 'mid' about what we've done around here.

Indeed, Gonzaga''s recent history is merely major.

Gonzaga is one of three programs to reach the Sweet 16in each of the past three NCAA tournaments.

Michigan State and Duke are the others.

Some major names in college basketball won't make that mistake anytime soon.

The Bulldogs' list of NCAA tournament victims the past three seasons includes the likes of Minnesota (which liked Gonzaga so much, it hired coach Dan Monson), Florida, Louisville, St. John''s and Virginia.

"They've been creeping up on people for years, playing harder than a lot of people and surprising them with their energy and their passion, Illinois center Robert Archibald said. "I don't think they''re going to surprise people any more."

No, these days most of the college basketball world knows Gonzaga's name. Even if they're a little hazy on the pronunciation.

For the record, it's Gone-ZAG-a, and that middle syllable rhymes with bag. But even some people at the university answer their phones Gone-ZAY-ga.

The Zags aren't picky. Call them what you want.

Only, don't call them plucky. Don''t call them underdogs. And don''t call them a Cinderella story.

That clock struck midnight a long time ago, and the Bulldogs keep dancing.

The waltz started under Monson, who after an NIT berth in 1998, led the Zags to the West Regional final in 1999, where a 67-62 loss to eventual national champ Connecticut ended one of the most memorable runs in recent tournament memory.

Few took over the following year with a veteran team that still had its doubters.

"The first year it was, well, we came out of nowhere," Few said. "Then the year after the Elite Eight run, it was like, 'Well, that was kind of a flash in the pan, they caught lightning in a bottle.' Then we went to the Sweet 16."

The next year, naysayers had plenty of ammunition after the Bulldogs lost five seniors, including all-time assists leader Matt Santangelo (who broke the career record of some kid named Stockton).

All the Zags did was ride inside force Casey Calvary and sharpshooting guard Dickau, a transfer from Washington, to another Sweet 16 trip.

So why are the Zags still saddled with the underdog rep?

For one, there's Gonzaga''s size (fewer than 5,000 students) and its location (tucked away in Spokane where ESPN rarely ventures).

For another, there's the Zags' league.

Since its inaugural season in 1953, the West Coast Conference has sent multiple teams to the same NCAA tournament seven times, and it never has had more than two teams in one tourney.

"I think there''s a lot of similarities between Gonzaga and Tulsa," said Illinois coach Bill Self, who coached three seasons at Tulsa in the Missouri Valley Conference. "I think Gonzaga is a program that everybody in the basketball world knows about, but the average fan may not know about them because (Dick) Vitale and Digger (Phelps) and the polls don''t suggest they should talk about them."

Even without the hype, people are starting to talk. Gonzaga received the 27th-most votes in the preseason Associated Press poll.

And Few said the recent tournament successes have allowed Gonzaga to recruit the types of players who would scarcely have given the Zags a thought three years ago.

Players like Dickau, who, despite having a high school teammate, Zach Gourd, playing at Gonzaga, didn't give the Zags much thought out of high school when he chose Washington.

"I didn''t want to go there because it was too cold," Dickau said.  "I didn't want to go to a cold school, and then I went to where it rained every day in Seattle, so I don't know about that."

He does know, though, that he's had a blast at Gonzaga, a wild ride he wants to take one more time with another deep tournament run.

Don't bet against it. The little program that could is rapidly turning into the little program that does.

"We don''t have a football stadium, and we don't have a private jet," Few said, "but I don''t think that has anything to do with winning basketball games."

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