Which Zag streak does it for you?
03-09-18

So the train rolls on. Gonzaga blisters Brigham Young, after walloping San Francisco, after muddling past Loyola Marymount, and the Zags await Selection Sunday with the luxury of being able to exhale for a few days. (Come to think of it, when was the last time Gonzaga had to sweat that day, other than the particulars of where and whom?)

We come at you then, with a question: Which streak is most impressive by Gonzaga?

-- No. 1: the run of 20 NCAA-tournament appearances in a row.

-- No. 2: the streak of nine consecutive victories in opening-round games.

-- No. 3: the darkhorse, the Zags’ string of 21 straight appearances in the West Coast Conference tournament final.

Some background on each before I muddy the debate with my choice:

With that 20th straight appearance in the NCAA tournament, the Zags will rise Sunday to undisputed sixth on the all-time list of such streaks. Inclusive of Sunday, it will look like this: Kansas 29, North Carolina 27, Arizona 25, Duke 23, Michigan State 21 and Gonzaga 20. The streaks by North Carolina (1975-2001) and Arizona (1985-2009) are not ongoing, so GU is No. 4 on the current list, and its co-holder for lo these many years, Wisconsin, will see its streak end.

When I researched “Glory Hounds” a couple of years ago, I computed that GU had forged a tie for No. 10 on the all-time list of consecutive years having won at least a game in the tournament. And when the Zags dispatched South Dakota State last year in the first round on the way to the Final Four, their streak of nine straight years of NCAA wins gave them sole possession of No. 10 on the list. (North Carolina, with 18 from 1981-98, is the king.)

But, of such ongoing streaks, only Kansas, at 11, has a better one than Gonzaga’s nine. A victory this year in the tournament would move GU to a tie for No. 7 all-time with Duke (which has done 10 twice) and Stanford (of all teams, from 1995-2004).

Then there’s the streak of appearances in the WCC final, which has reached 21. A couple of notes on that: The last time the Zags didn’t play in the conference final was 1997, when Saint Mary’s beat USF for the title. The tournament MVP? Seven-foot-three behemoth Brad Millard of Seattle. Coach of that Gaels team? Why, Ernie Kent. (For the record, the Zags, fifth-seeded, bowed to San Diego in the first round.)

Which is most impressive? I’d give a slight lean to the second one -- consecutive years winning games in the Big Dance.

First, let me be clear: Getting to the tournament 20 straight years is a sensational number. If you had proposed to a buddy back in 1999 or 2000 that this would be possible, he would have had you committed.

And it’s obvious that without the sustenance of streak No. 1, there is no streak No. 2. But, to defend my choice against No. 1, it’s true that in a handful of cases, the Zags wouldn’t have made the NCAA tournament without a conference-tournament championship, and that wouldn’t be possible if the league weren’t forgiving.

To my contention: In the recent past, the Zags’ national profile has blossomed, and it’s been getting high seeds -- No. 1 in 2013, No. 2 in 2015, No. 1 again in 2017 and probably a 4 seed this year. So it’s easy to forget that among these nine straight opening conquests in the tournament were some coin-flip type games -- and especially against teams with a daunting portfolio.

-- In 2010, Gonzaga faced Florida State, which had the nation’s No. 1 field-goal percentage defense.

-- In 2011, the Zags drew St. John’s, 21-11 and 12-6 in the Big East (albeit without injured swingman D.J. Kennedy).

-- In 2012, GU got paired with West Virginia, whose forward, Kevin Jones, was averaging a double-double, and the game was 75 miles from the WVU campus in Pittsburgh.

-- In 2014, Oklahoma State was the Zag challenge, a Marcus Smart-led team that had beaten Kansas and taken the Jayhawks to overtime in a Big 12 that was the rage of the nation.

-- In 2016, Gonzaga faced Seton Hall, which was 25-8, 12-6 in the Big East and had just won the Big East tournament.

The FSU and Oklahoma State games paired 8-9 seeds. The Zags were an 11 seed against St. John’s and Seton Hall. They were a 7 against West Virginia’s 10.

The point is, those were tossup games -- at best -- for Gonzaga, and it won each one. NCAA-tournament victories are like gold, and nobody knows it like Zag fans, who have in the past absorbed all sorts of shrapnel from the program’s naysayers.

Indeed, the WCC-finals streak is mind-bending, even as, from 2003-2013, the league afforded double byes, which pushed the top two teams into the semifinals. So about half the time in those 21 tournaments, it’s been necessary to win two games to get to the final, never having an off-night, never suffering the killer upset.

You could argue that the streak of NCAA-tournament appearances is about body of work, rather than single games. Fair point. At the same time, the win-or-else nature of the NCAA victories tilts me to that streak.

You?


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