When you think about teams making the NCAA Tournament year-after-year, you think about the blue bloods: Duke, Kansas, North Carolina, Kentucky; certain programs you should always expect to see in the Big Dance. And those same programs are likely in contention for a national championship.
One of the most consistent programs of the past two decades, which has become synonymous with March Madness with 19 consecutive Tournament appearances (to become 20 on Selection Sunday), doesn’t have the lineage of a UCLA or Kentucky. We are talking, of course, about Gonzaga.
Last season, the Zags made it all the way to the National Championship game and led eventual title winner North Carolina in the final minute. Gonzaga’s success is especially amazing when you consider the small, Jesuit university in eastern Washington had never even made it to an NCAA Tournament less than 30 years ago.
Before the slipper still fit in 1999, the Bulldogs had hardly worn Cinderella’s footwear at all.
Sure, Gonzaga won shares of conference titles, but it was never enough to advance any further than the NIT. Even with John Stockton running the point, the Zags waited until the 1990s before reaching the Dance.
They came close to making it during the ’93-94 season. Gonzaga won the West Coast Conference regular season title outright for the first time in school history. Gonzaga’s chances were dashed, however, when San Diego knocked the Bulldogs off during the conference tournament. They landed in the NIT, defeating Stanford before a loss to Kansas State.
Gonzaga started the season strong, winning nine of its first 10 games. Their lone loss during that stretch came at Wichita State. Things went well for Gonzaga as it entered into conference play.
And then…the Zags started the WCC season losing six straight games, an unfathomable occurrence today. To put that into perspective, Gonzaga lost a total of six games in the last two seasons combined. In the current era of Gonzaga basketball, plenty of seasons end with just six total losses.
Regardless, the losing streak took Gonzaga out of contention for winning the regular season WCC title. If they wanted to win the conference, they’d need to do it during the tournament.
Gonzaga won seven of its last eight games to finish at 7-7 in the WCC and the No. 4 seed at the conference tournament in Santa Clara.
The Bulldogs and head coach Dan Fitzgerald had a chance to avenge the previous year’s loss to the Toreros. However, it took them a little while to accomplish that, falling behind by as much as 12 points in the first half.
John Rillie helped Gonzaga by scoring 32 points to pull ahead and defeat San Diego 74-57.
The next night, Gonzaga took on Saint Mary’s, a precursor to what has become the WCC’s preeminent rivalry. Rillie once again had another big night, as he scored 30 points.
What’s more impressive, however, was Gonzaga’s defense stepping up and allowing just one field goal in the last 8:51 to defeat the Gaels 69-59.
The Zags needed just one more win to make it to their first-ever NCAA Tournament. Only one team stood in their path: the Portland Pilots.
Gonzaga found themselves trailing 40-38 at the half. However, they wouldn’t be down for long. Once again, Rillie stepped up and put together a phenomenal game, this time setting a new career-high with 34 points. His three-pointer with 7:45 left put them ahead for good at 56-53. The run ballooned from there. Gonzaga won, 80-67.
Rillie, who would be named the conference tournament’s MVP, made eight three-pointers in the championship game. During the regular season, he averaged 13 points per game. In the conference tournament, he averaged 32.
Gonzaga entered the NCAA Tournament in the West Region as a 14th seed. Their opponent in the first round? National Player of the Year Joe Smith and the Maryland Terrapins
The Bulldogs stay at the Dance didn’t last long. Even with Joe Smith in foul trouble, Duane Simpkins scored 21 points as the Terrapins advanced to the second round, defeating Gonzaga 87-63.
Gonzaga trailed 40-25 at halftime. When Smith picked up his fourth foul early in the second half, the Zags went on a 16-4 run to whittle the lead to 51-44. Simpkins stifled the rally and put the game out of reach for Gonzaga.
The Bulldogs got their taste of the NCAA Tournament. However, it would take a few years before they made it back. Two of their next three seasons, they’d win or clinch a share of the WCC regular season title, but they wouldn’t win the tournament title and wound up in the NIT.
They’d make it back to the NCAA Tournament in ’99, when Gonzaga made it all the way to the Elite Eight and took the first steps toward become a national power. Gonzaga hasn’t missed an NCAA Tournament since, and with Mark Few’s track record, it seems unlikely that they’ll miss out on the Dance anytime soon.
At one point, Gonzaga was the epitome of the Cinderella team. That moniker might not describe the program now; not with two straight decades of Tournament appearances, three Elite Eights and a national runner-up finish. We expect to see Gonzaga as a contender.
But what the Zags have done is prove that the little guy can pack a big punch. Anyone can make a run in the NCAA Tournament. That’s why we root for the little guy. That’s why we cheered for Gonzaga.