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In 1999, when some little religious school somewhere out West came back from a three-point deficit in 20 seconds via a dramatic tip-in to cement a spot in the Elite Eight, everyone rejoiced. In 2021, when Gonzaga reached its second national championship game in five years but fell short against the other-best team in the country that season, everyone rejoiced.
When the Zags burst onto the scene now 24 years ago, they were supposed to fade back into obscurity as a good little mid-major should. When Dan Monson immediately bolted for the Minnesota job, as a coach who achieves anything a no-name program is supposed to do, everything was as it should have been. Then Mark Few had to go and ruin it.
Unlike George Mason, Butler, FGCU, and others who came from dirt and made deep tournament runs in the last 20 years, Gonzaga’s coach stayed, and the program grew exponentially. It did not go quietly into the night.
This was not supposed to happen.
You can know this was not supposed to happen from the wider reactions to Gonzaga’s success. The Bulldogs lived long enough to become the villain, and fans across the country – the same ones who love when VCU goes from First Four to Final Four or when Lehigh tells Duke to go home – revel in their misfortune.
Why? This is a sport that prides itself on the underdog. It’s a main draw to March Madness, for diehards and casuals, and every St. Peter’s and Loyola Chicago are heralded during their runs. Why has the general public turned so sharply on Gonzaga?
Because college basketball is full of snobs.
Sure, the little guy can make appearances at the big boy table. It’s cute when they think they’re really part of the club. They get to wear the glass slipper, dance around a bit for our enjoyment, then go back away into the attic where they remain harmless. Then the next token Cinderella gets its turn, and the saga continues. Wu-Tang, Wu-Tang.
Gonzaga made the critical error of wanting more. The Zags have played in every NCAA Tournament since that Elite Eight in 1999 and appeared in two national title contests, two Final Fours, five Elite Eights, and 12 Sweet 16s. The Zags are currently riding a run of seven-straight second weekends, the longest active streak in the nation. Over the years, they’ve picked up non-conference wins against programs like UCLA, Kansas, Arizona, North Carolina, Duke, Connecticut, and many more whose names hold sway in the sport.
The Zags have been ascribed the attributes of postseason chokers. Detractors moan that the truck-stop conference the Bulldogs play in allows them to rack up easy wins, and it gets them high seeds in March, which they squander. Reality says otherwise, but that won’t stop the snobbery.
If we assume that all higher seeds should win in the NCAA Tournament, then we can assume that any No. 1 should reach the Final Four, any top-four seed should reach the Sweet 16, and so on. We know this never happens, but that’s the bar for overperforming and underperforming.
Dating back to 1999, Gonzaga has underperformed relative to its seed six times, overperformed five times, and performed exactly to its seed 10 times. In the same time frame, Kentucky underperformed six times, overperformed four times, and performed exactly to its seed 10 times (and didn’t qualify for three tournaments), while Duke underperformed 12 times, overperformed once, and performed exactly to its seed nine times (and missed the tournament once).
This is not to declare Kentucky or Duke as serial underachievers. Quite the opposite. It is to illustrate that Gonzaga’s March showings have largely lined up with expectations relative to seeding. The Zags haven’t underperformed in the tournament any more than some of the other biggest names in the sport, and Gonzaga has done it without any of the advantages afforded in Lexington and Durham.
This is the root cause of the national disdain for the Bulldogs. Gonzaga should not be in the same conversation as Kentucky, Duke, and the like. For maybe one or two years, okay, but for more than 20? To spend almost an entire decade straight in the Sweet 16? No, something must be off here. Clearly, the Zags must be a joke, because if they can accomplish all that with the resources they have, then why isn’t my power-conference team achieving it?
So, an alternate reality is built wherein the Bulldogs are not so serious. Sure, they have a number next to their name and get into the tournament, but they’ve never been to the Final Four, so they’re not actually a big deal. Oh, they did that? Twice? Okay, well, they haven’t won a national championship. Told you they’re just a paper tiger.
What these moving goalposts continue to ignore is that Gonzaga should be an afterthought in this sport. Nobody cares that New Mexico State has never won a national championship despite appearing in all by one tournament since 2012 nor that Davidson is yet to reach the Final Four with an 0-3 record all-time in the Elite Eight. Holding those programs to that standard would be ridiculous. But Gonzaga dared create something capable of consistent high-end competition, so rather than be in awe of what’s been built against the odds, it must be torn down.
Some caveats: if you’re a St. Mary’s fan, BYU fan, or fan of another WCC team, then hating Gonzaga makes perfect sense. If you’re from Washington state or otherwise have a connection to a program that plays Gonzaga with some regularity (UCLA, Arizona, etc.), then please, continue as you were. Sports fandom is tribal – if your tribe doesn’t like the Gonzaga tribe, then let the hate flow. Plus, Mark Few was cited for a DUI in 2021. My intention is not to paint Gonzaga as the innocent bastion of college basketball heroism.
But these are not the rallying cries of your average Zags hater. The mistrust of Gonzaga from fans nationwide is not rooted in local rivalries or Few’s penchants for refreshment. It’s snobbery, elitism, and envy. It’s fans of teams in bigger conferences who like to laugh at Goliath when David hits him once but grow weary when David spends years in the weight room and starts to regularly give Goliath a hard time.
Some tiny Jesuit school in Spokane, Washington – with no great history of success, no giant student body, and no power-conference affiliation – should never compete in men’s basketball as Gonzaga has, and some people can’t stand it.