Gonzaga Bulldogs head coach Mark Few calls out a play during their NCAA West Coast Conference Basketball Championship final against the Saint Mary's Gaels in Las Vegas

Can Gonzaga finally live up to being…Gonzaga?


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.

Tom Izzo’s point is valid, but he’s wrong about the new fouling rules

Eron Harris, Tom Izzo
AP Photo/Jae C. Hong
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On Sunday night, after No. 3 Michigan State knocked off No. 23 Providence in the final of the Wooden Legacy, Spartans head coach Tom Izzo made sure to make his feelings known about the new college basketball officiating mandates.

He doesn’t like them.

At all.

“I just think we’re taking the flow of the game away,” Izzo said. “Maybe it’ll change. We’ll play by the same rules everybody else does. But I think I can voice my opinion to say that I don’t agree with it.”

Part of what frustrated Izzo was that, in a matchup between the two best players in college basketball, both Denzel Valentine and Kris Dunn were sent to the bench with foul trouble.

“I didn’t like it either way,” Izzo said. “I didn’t like having Denzel on the bench, and I didn’t even like watching Dunn on the bench.”

“Don’t tweet this now and leave out the officials,” he added, according to CBSSports.com. “It’s not their fault. Because that’s the way they’re mandated to call them. So I am really either blaming the rules committee, which ends up on the coaches somewhat. So I’m looking in the mirror and blaming myself because I should have argued it more maybe. I just don’t think it’s fun to have these guys sitting.”

This is nothing new for Izzo. This was calculated. He basically said the same thing after Michigan State, then No. 1 in the country, beat Oklahoma in the Coaches vs. Cancer Classic two seasons ago, when the rules committee tried to implement these same rules. It was his pushback that started the campaign to get rid of the freedom of movement rules.

But here’s the thing: we all knew this was going to happen. We knew there was going to be an adjustment period, for coaches and players and referees alike. In the long run, freedom of movement is good for basketball. It’s part of the reason the NBA is so much fun to watch these days, as their emphasis on the freedom of movement got us out of the days where the Detroit Pistons were winning titles without scoring 80 points.

Physicality is ingrained in college basketball. Coaches teach defense a certain way. Players play defense a certain way. The guys in the NBA are stronger, but the style of play is much more physical in the college game than the pro game. That doesn’t change overnight.

It changes when those rules are enforced and those fouls are called, and, as a result, the players and coaches learn to adjust to them.

Kennesaw State blows eight-point lead in 16 seconds, loses to Elon

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Kennesaw State entered Monday night at 1-6 on the season, but with 19 seconds left, it looked like the Owls have their second of the season locked up. Kendrick Ray made a pair of free throws with 19 seconds left to put KSU up 89-81, and all they had to do was avoid a complete meltdown to get out with a win.

They couldn’t.

A Luke Eddy layup with 16 seconds left cut the lead to six, and after KSU’s Nigel Pruitt missed two free throws, Dainan Swoope his a three with seven seconds left to make the score 89-86.

On the ensuing inbounds, Kennesaw State threw the ball away … and then proceeded to foul Eddy when he was shooting a three. This is what that disaster looked like:

Eddy would hit all three threes before, shockingly, KSU turned the ball over again. Elon could not capitalize this time, sending the game to overtime, where the Phoenix outscored the Owls 14-4.

Elon won 104-94.

Here’s what the comeback looked like on the play-by-play:

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