Can Gonzaga finally live up to being…Gonzaga?

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Today, the good dudes at CBSSports.com unveiled their preseason lists of Final Four/national title favorites, players of the year, coaches of the year and conference champions.

For the most part, the lists leave little to truly debate. The overall team talent pool is down this season, and that leaves the best teams to truly rise to the top.

One of those teams is Gonzaga. Jeff Goodman and Matt Norlander picked the Bulldogs to make the Final Four this season, which would be there first in school history.

To me, this is a cycle. Every year (or every few years) Gonzaga has a team that people say is a “Final Four-caliber team”. Then every year that team plays average against their non-conference schedule or plays a lackluster slate. They then proceed to lose to a few in-conference games to a St. Mary’s/San Francisco/Portland. They may win the West Coast Conference tournament, but their RPI is never high enough and they end the season with a 5-though-9 seed and at-best a Sweet 16 exit.

My point is, since 1999 and the days of Matt Santangelo and that magical Elite Eight run, the Zags have had one of the most solid “mid-major” programs in the history of the phrase. They’re an enviable program.

But they’re still not the “Gonzaga” everyone expects to see year-in and year-out.

See, there’s always a trail that leads back to Gonzaga when pundits and publications label mid-major teams. Quick, what’s the first team when you think of the term “mid-major”? Probably Gonzaga. Because they’re the benchmark.

When VCU and Butler both made their Final Four runs in 2011 and 2012, they were compared, however loosely, to Gonzaga. As far back as the Antonio Gates-led Kent State team that made the Elite Eight in 2002, the Bulldogs were looked upon as the standard — at the time just three years removed from Dan Munson’s Elite Eight squad — and the Golden Flashes heard the “this is a Gonzaga-like run” lines.

That’s a compliment to the program. Gonzaga, since the turn of the century, has been viewed as the alpha dog when it comes to mid-major consistency. So much so that the Bulldogs are no longer considered a “mid-major” program by traditional standards. They don’t play a mid-major non-conference schedule. They recruit nationally and internationally and along with Syracuse, make the best use of their geographic location by grabbing a ton of top-tier Canadian talent. They have the advantage of not having to compete every fall with a football program. The fan-base is concentrated, but rabid. The McCarthey Athletic Center, better known as “The Kennel”, is widely viewed as one of the best home-court advantages in all of college basketball.

But in order to fully break away from that mid-major tag, the Zags have to make a final big splash. They have to make a Final Four.

For a team that does as well as the Bulldogs do recruiting — they’ve had six players in the NBA since 2002, not to mention it’s the alma mater of John Stockton  — and in a conference that routinely provides enough tests to prepare them for the rigors of the college basketball postseason as the WCC does, Gonzaga, to a degree, has underachieved on a national scale.

Fan-bases can deny it all they want, but the term “mid-major” isn’t exactly a compliment. And in all truthfulness, the Bulldogs shouldn’t be viewed as a mid-major team anymore. But the only way to do that, even after all they’ve accomplished, is to be one of the last four teams standing in late March or early April.

That’s not to say that the Zags are a failure. No program with 10 conference tournament titles, 12 regular season conference championships, five Sweet Sixteens and an Elite Eight appearance, all in the last 13 seasons, can be called a failure. Mark Few has stated that he’s totally happy and content in Spokane and there’s no reason to think he won’t cap his coaching career there. Few and Gonzaga are seemingly a perfect fit for the long haul.

But sooner or later, the Zags are going to need to make a Final Four if they want to live up to that national hype that they receive on a yearly basis. Not for respect, respect is already there. But to be Gonzaga. The same Gonzaga that every year gets it’s lion’s share of the hype it’s expected to live up to.

David Harten is the editor of The Backboard Chronicles. You can follow him on Twitter at @David_Harten.

VIDEO: Mike Brey celebrates Maui win shirtless

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Notre Dame head coach Mike Brey celebrated his team’s win in the Maui Invitational by going shirtless in the team locker room:

This came after Brey spent the entire tournament coaching in shorts and a t-shirt:

Mike Brey (Darryl Oumi/Getty Images)

I think it’s safe to say Brey enjoyed himself on the islands.

No. 13 Notre Dame lands come-from-behind win to beat No. 6 Wichita State in Maui

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Notre Dame led twice during Wednesday night’s Maui Invitational title game.

At 4-2, and, after Martinas Geben hit the second of two free throws with 2.3 seconds left, at 67-66.

That score would end up being the final, as the 13th-ranked Irish erased a 14-point second half deficit to knock off No. 6 Wichita State and bring home that Maui trophy.

Bonzie Colson led the way with 25 points and 11 boards while Matt Farrell chipped in with 15 points, four assists, four boards and three steals. Geben chipped in with 12 points, including those two free throws that served as the eventual game-winners.

Beyond the simple fact that they did it against one of the best teams in the country, what makes this comeback so impressive is that the Irish didn’t rely on a flurry of threes to change the course of the game. This comeback came through grit, toughness defensively and, if we’re being honest, a little bit of luck.

With less than 20 seconds left on the clock and the Irish down by three points, Colson airballed a pretty good look at a three from the top of the key. On the ensuing inbounds, Farrell stole the ball and happened to find Colson under the rim for a layup. The lead was cut to one, and Wichita State proceeded to miss the front end of a one-and-one after being fouled.

The ball once again ended up underneath Notre Dame’s basket, but this time it was the Irish ball, and after a gorgeous inbounds play, Geben headed to the line for two shots. The first shots somehow managed to go down after bouncing off the back of the rim, the backboard and the front of the rim twice.

And with that, Notre Dame would get off of the islands with another quality win for their résumé and a title to their name.

No. 8 Kentucky finally has it easy against Fort Wayne, 86-67

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LEXINGTON, Ky. (AP) — Nick Richards had career highs of 25 points and 15 rebounds, and 70 percent first-half shooting propelled No. 8 Kentucky to an 86-67 rout of Fort Wayne on Wednesday night.

Kentucky’s 19-of-27 shooting before halftime countered the Mastodons’ eight 3-pointers that kept them close for a while. Once Fort Wayne started missing, it couldn’t match the length or speed of the young Wildcats (5-1), who eventually led 78-48 with 6:50 remaining on the way to their most decisive win this season.

Richards thrived in both halves and on both ends, making 9 of 10 from the field and all seven free throws for his first career double-double. The 6-foot-11 freshman’s previous highs were 10 points against Utah Valley and nine rebounds against Kansas last week.

Quade Green, Kevin Knox and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander each added 11 points as Kentucky shot a season-best 33 of 55 (60 percent) and dominated the rebounding 44-21.

Junior guard John Konchar had 19 points and Bryson Scott 18 for Fort Wayne (3-2), who had won three in a row before losing on 40 percent shooting.

BIG PICTURE

Fort Wayne: A year after upsetting Indiana, the Mastodons led Kentucky 37-36 with 3:51 left in the first half behind 8-of-22 shooting from long range. They went cold from outside and elsewhere after that and the Wildcats pounced to lead at the break and stretch the advantage to 30 points in the second half. The Mastodons’ 12 3-pointers were their third-highest total this season.

Kentucky: Something had to give after all those tense performances and the Wildcats thrived because of their size and best shooting effort this season. Richards couldn’t be stopped on either end, and teammates seemed in sync for the first time. Sophomore forward Wenyen Gabriel came up just short of a double-double with 10 rebounds and nine points.

UP NEXT

Kentucky hosts Illinois-Chicago on Sunday to wrap up the Rupp Classic before getting a few days off.

Fort Wayne visits East Tennessee State on Saturday. ETSU lost 78-31 to Kentucky last Friday.

VIDEO: Providence beats Belmont on Kyron Cartwright’s buzzer-beating three

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We got the first wild buzzer-beater of the college basketball season on Wednesday night, as Kyron Cartwright answered a Belmont bucket with 3.7 seconds left by going 94-feet to hit a leaning three at the buzzer:

Providence won the game 65-63.

Cartwright finished with 17 points in the win.

Four Takeaways from N.C. State’s upset win over No. 2 Arizona

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Five games into the Kevin Keatts era and N.C. State already has themselves a signature win.

The Wolfpack upset No. 2 Arizona in the opening round of the Battle 4 Atlantis, 90-84, sending Sean Miller home without reaching the Final Four once again. Allerik Freeman led the way with 24 points, while Braxton Beverly chipped in with 20 points off the bench and the combination of Abdul-Malik Abu and Omer Yurtseven combined for 21 points and 17 boards.

This wasn’t a fluky win, either.

N.C. State had control throughout. They were up 15-6 before Arizona woke up, they didn’t trail in the first half and they were the ones that made the Wildcats chase them down in the second half. It was quite impressive, as Keatts had this group playing hard and pressing for 40 minutes. It’s been a while since N.C. State fans can say that they’ve seen that.

Here are three things to takeaway from that win.

1. Arizona is going to have some things to figure out on the defensive end of the floor if they want to win a national title: Deandre Ayton is a man amongst boys. In his first college basketball game against competition that actually deserved to be on the same floor as him, Ayton finished with 27 points and 14 rebounds, a performance that makes me so damn excited to see just how good Marvin Bagley III, Miles Bridges and players of that ilk are if Ayton does not end up being the No. 1 pick in the NBA Draft.

Trier struggled in the first half, but he still managed to put together a 27-point performance, with 24 of those 27 coming in the second half. They put up 84 points. That wasn’t the issue.

The 90 points they allowed was.

Even more concerning was the fact that the Wolfpack scored those 90 points on just 73 possessions. The bottom-line is this: That’s not good enough, not when N.C. State is hardly a contender for the Final Four, let alone a national title challenger.

2. Kevin Keatts is making the most of the talent Mark Gottfried squandered: I’m not sure quite how good the Wolfpack actually are. I don’t think it’s possible to tell this early, even after a win over a team like Arizona. But what is undeniable is the simple fact that this N.C. State team plays are and with most passion and intensity than any Mark Gottfried team did.

They look like they are trying. They look like they care. And frankly, that often matters more than the simple stock-piling of talent. There’s no way anyone could look at this N.C. State roster and think that it has more talent on it than, say, a team with Dennis Smith Jr. or a team with T.J. Warren. The Wolfpack may not have a future lottery pick on this roster. But they do have guys that play their tails off, that play as if they have a point to prove and that play as if they are being coached.

It makes you wonder what could have been had Keatts been in Raleigh last season.

3. Braxton Beverly getting ruled eligible is going to be a big deal for N.C. State: Earlier this fall, Braxton Beverly was one of the biggest stories in college basketball, believe it or not. He had transferred to N.C. State from Ohio State after enrolling in summer courses prior to Thad Matta’s firing. He was ruled ineligible for this season with the Wolfpack, and it turned into the cause celebre for college basketball media members looking to circle the wagons and bash the NCAA.

It took longer than it should have, but Beverly was eventually cleared by the NCAA. He’s eligible to play this season, and he just so happens to be the point guy on the N.C. State press and one of their best shooters. He put up 20 points on the No. 2 team in America. I think he’s going to be relevant this season.

4. Arizona’s point guard issues rose to the forefront: When the Wildcats made their push in the second half, they did it on the strength of hustle plays and transition buckets. Jumping passing lanes and going coast-to-coast. Beating N.C. State’s press and getting a layup. Points that came off of offensive rebounds. Where they struggled was with their half court execution. The question with this team entering the season was with the point guard play. Was Parker Jackson-Cartwright going to be good enough to carry this team to a title? I’m not sure we can truly say we got on answer on Wednesday – N.C. State’s pressure, which was ratcheted up by the fact that Arizona couldn’t get a stop, played more of a role than anything – but Jackson-Cartwright certainly did not put in the kind of performance that would make Arizona fans feel comfortable.