The Gonzaga Bulldogs – the No. 1-ranked team in National Collegiate Athletic Association basketball – scored a No. 1 seed to March Madness for the first time in school history on Sunday, but after rolling through the season at 31-2, with the fewest losses in Division I, the team faces its stiffest competition of the year in the tournament.
In the rafters of the McCarthey Athletic Center on the cozy campus of Gonzaga University, a small Jesuit school in remote Spokane, Wash., there is a line of banners. With the No. 1 seed, Gonzaga has booked a remarkable 15th consecutive showing in the mayhem of March Madness.
Yet Gonzaga has consistently failed to really make a mark in March. The first year of the current run, 1999, was their best, a surprise sprint to the Elite Eight. In the following 13 tournaments, the team made the Sweet 16 just four times, most recently in 1999.
For all that Gonzaga, led by its star centre, Kelly Olynyk of Kamloops, has accomplished this year, the team will have quite a struggle to make it to the Final Four. The school really hasn't been tested this season, due to a weak schedule, one that is far weaker than any other big-time tournament name. Gonzaga has just two games, going 1-1, against Top 25 teams ranked by the ratings percentage index. The No. 2 seed in Gonzaga's draw, Ohio State, is 4-5 against Top 25 teams, and No. 3 seed New Mexico is 4-2.
Yet, to some, Gonzaga feels as if it could be the so-called mid-major school to finally crack the ceiling and win the tournament, after the likes of Butler came so close, losing in back-to-back finals in 2010 and 2011, or Memphis, a No. 1 seed in 2008, made the final but lost. This year's tournament is more wide open than usual, in a season of parity, with Gonzaga the fifth and final team to reach No. 1 in the national poll.
"We may be watching history in the making in Spokane, Wash," ESPN wrote recently.
Last week, after a practice, Olynyk was sanguine about critics who question his team. He cited Gonzaga's depth. A perfect example is Olynyk, who has emerged from seemingly nowhere as one of the best players in the United States, yet at 26 minutes a game, he has just the fourth-most court time on his own team.
"We have a lot of guys who can do a lot of different things," Olynyk said. "That makes us so strong. You can't really key in on one or two guys because there's a lot of guys that can hurt you in a lot of different ways. I think that's what carries us through this next couple of weeks, if it happens to work out that way."
Beyond Olynyk, Gonzaga features sophomore Kevin Pangos, who grew up near Newmarket, Ont., north of Toronto. Pangos leads the team in floor time and three-pointers.
Olynyk said the team has a rare chemistry.
"Just the guys we have on the team right now, such team guys, and everyone's in it for the team, no one's out on an island trying to get theirs," Olynyk said. "That's what makes this team so special."
The team, too, benefits from veterans. Among Olynyk's roommates in a house of six guys are teammates Sam Dower and David Stockton, and all three are fourth-year guys. Elias Harris is a senior. This is a contrast to teams like Kentucky, which won the tournament last year but saw its whole starting lineup leave for pro ball. Kentucky didn't even make this year's tournament.
"There's not a lot of distractions here," assistant coach Donny Daniels said. "If you drive five miles, honestly, where am I? And it takes a special kind of kid to want to be a part of this. You can't get just anybody to be a part of this. It's a tight-knit group. We've got some veteran guys here that have stayed the course of time and they've built something."