That old national sport: Hating on Gonzaga

Ah, it's that time of year. Brackets, buzzer-beaters, chaos.

And of course, hating on Gonzaga.

Now, everybody who finds his name on the 68-team bracket can talk himself into a perceived slight. There’s so much buzz and blather over the tournament, it’s inevitable that in some form, just about everyone can convince himself he's been wronged.

But nobody seems to get bruised in this arena quite like the Zags, and to a certain extent, they have only themselves to blame. By working themselves into a position of national acclaim, by gaining their second No. 1 seed in four years, they’ve exposed themselves to scrutiny, which is eminently fair.

And the fact they haven’t attained a Final Four only adds to the microscope under which their credentials are parsed.

“I just don’t believe in this team,” said Wally Szczerbiak, the ex-NBA player analyzing for CBS Sports Network. “I don’t trust them.”

We’d never have known, Wally. Referring to Arizona’s draw in the West Region, with Gonzaga as the top seed, Szczerbiak said, “That’s a break. (‘Zona coach) Sean Miller is, I think, ecstatic with this draw.”

Szczerbiak’s sidekick, another former NBA forward, Danny Granger, is similarly skeptical. Referring to possible roadblocks to the Zags’ bid for a first Final Four, he said, “It could be anybody that’s playing well.”

How deep-seated is the anti-Gonzaga burn? Listen to what Mike DeCourcy, Sporting News college basketball writer, said (a bit bemusedly) on a podcast late in February:

“People hate them more . . . people hate them like they hate big oil, big banks and the Dallas Cowboys. Gonzaga has become college basketball’s most prominent target.”

About then, CBS analyst and Sports Illustrated writer Seth Davis penned a few paragraphs on the Zags, touching it off with this: “Every year, the Zags seem to steamroll their way through something called the West Coast Conference, only to get bounced early from the NCAA tournament.”

Really? A year ago, Gonzaga, an 11th seed, took down Seton Hall, tournament winner of the Big East (which produced the 2016 national champion), by 16 points. And then it demolished No. 3 seed Utah. This, a year after Gonzaga went to the Elite Eight before losing to eventual champion Duke.

(Davis went on to temper that sentence, but still, it was a strange thesis statement.)

On Feb. 24, USA Today chimed in on the Zags: “Sure, there’s room for skepticism, considering the Bulldogs have famously underachieved in the NCAAs.”

True, Gonzaga has left wins on the table in the NCAA tournament, especially as a high seed. It’s also true the Zags are 15-3 in first-round games since 1999. And since the 2010 tournament, they’ve been a No. 7 seed or poorer five times, and won at least a game in every case.

Except for Szczerbiak’s and Granger’s, the aforementioned commentary came when Gonzaga was still undefeated, and with the tournament revving up in earnest Thursday morning, it reinforces to me that the defeat to Brigham Young Feb. 25 was indeed a good thing, bitter as it was at the time for GU. This week’s endless analysis – bracket shows, analytics, prediction chatter, Boeheim vs. Greensboro – only underscores how glaring the spotlight would have been on Gonzaga had it been advancing through the tournament with 33, 34, 35 victories without a single loss. It would have been the surpassing national story, with nothing else even close, at least until LaVar Ball opens his mouth again.

Now the Zags are a mere garden-variety No. 1 seed, absorbing potshots.
So this is the week, it says here, they can begin answering.

I think there are perhaps three reasons why this is Gonzaga’s best team, and the third one has to do with all the daggers aimed its way. My sense is, this team has been hauling around a massive chip on its shoulder – a direct result of the doubters. You can see it in player comments and on the floor.

Unrelated to that, it has a greater overall level of talent than any previous Gonzaga team. It can bring two NBA-level (at some point, at least) players in Zach Collins and Killian Tillie off the bench.

And it’s Gonzaga’s best defensive team, ranking No. 2 in KenPom’s advanced analytics.

Will all of that matter? We’ll see shortly. Either the Zags perform, or they face a lot more March Meanness.