Tuesday, March 07, 2006

The Real Deal?



It's funny. When Gonzaga first entered the pantheon of big time college basketball by shocking the world and reaching the Elite Eight in 1999 and the Sweet Sixteen in 2001 and 2001, the Zags immediately earned a reputation as giant killers, as the unknown little guys who beat the big boys. Then, instead of disappearing as a once-in-a-lifetime group of players slowly moved on, the Zags maintained their success and gradually became, themselves, one of the big boys. It's been one of the better stories in college basketball over the past several seasons. It's as if midnight never struck for Cinderella.

Now, seven years after their rise, things are slowly reversing. Despite being ranked annually - as high as fourth currently - and featuring the potential Player of the Year in Adam Morrison, the Zags are in danger of becoming a paper tiger. After all, they haven't been past the second round in four years. Granted, one of those losses came to Arizona in a double overtime thriller destined to go down as one of the all-time great games, but still, you can only fail to live up to the hype so many times before you earn an unwanted reputation.

So it'll be interesting to see what the Zags do this time around.

After beating Loyola Marymount last night 68-67 by surviving a horribly missed layup by LMU's Chris Ayer as time expired, the Zags will probably be the second seed in the Oakland region. Naturally, big things are expected.

But I wouldn't hold my breath. For a team so highly thought of, the Zags sure play a lot of close games in the relatively underwhelming West Coast Conference. On their homecourt, no less. Look, I don't want to be critical of a team that stands 26-3 and just won its conference with an unblemished record, but when you're ranked fourth in the nation, feature the 1-2 combo of Morrison and JP Batista, and are playing on your homecourt on national television for a spot in the tourney, you really should do better than merely surviving because some 12-17 team of no-names blows an untouched layup at the end. Hell, LMU was up 13 points before its best player, Brandon Worthy, picked up an early fourth foul and was forced to sit for a lengthy stretch.

But then, who knows? Gonzaga played well early in the season against the likes of Michigan State, Connecticut, and Memphis. Maybe they became bored with their conference foes and played down to their level. Maybe they'll be able to turn it on when the tourney starts.

Or maybe not. We shall see. It'll help if they play a little defense for a change.

Personally, I'd like to see Morrison go far if only because he's so damn likeable. When he gets suitably psyched and begins pounding his own head and urging the Zags fans to wake up, it's both inspiring and funny. It doesn't hurt that he looks an awful lot like a meamber of the band in Almost Famous. Or that's he's really damn good. If Morrison can carry the Zags deep, he'll forever cement his college legend, mustache and all, before likely heading off to the NBA.

Incidentally, I have to give some quick props to Gonzaga's McCarthy Center - the Kennel, as it's dubbed - an arena the Zags have yet to lose in since it opened in 2004. Despite being so new, the place has an old feel to it. It just looks like meaningful basketball games have been played there for decades, though they haven't been. It's big enough to be a daunting cauldron for opponents to play in, yet small enough to be cozy. The joint sort of reminds me of a Cameron Indoor for the Pacific Northwest.

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