SALT LAKE CITY — A few media members still uttered the words “mid-major” and “Cinderella” during Wednesday’s interrogation of Gonzaga’s players and coach a day before NCAA tournament West Regional games.
GU’s No. 1 ranking and top-seed status have rendered those anachronisms laughably irrelevant to the crop of contemporary Zags, who were little kids when Gonzaga started its unbroken string of NCAA appearances in 1999.
Twenty-year-old guards Kevin Pangos and Gary Bell Jr. were 6 at the time. So, when asked about the historical rise of the Gonzaga program, players looked as if they’d been questioned about dial-up internet.
Three Zags at the interview table took a whack at it.
Pangos: “I don’t know much about the past and number-one seeds …”
Forward Kelly Olynyk: “I’m not super versed in the past NCAA tournament knowledge. I didn’t know Gonzaga from Duke, really, when I was growing up.”
Forward Elias Harris shrugged it off with a look interpreted as: Hey, don’t look at me, I grew up in Germany.
Before signing with the Zags, Olynyk went through the customary orientation on GU’s hoop history.
“When they were recruiting us, we all became versed in it and found out what it was all about and their past and history, and where they’re coming from and now where we’re going,” Olynyk said.
Coach Mark Few, the only coach in NCAA history to take a team to the tournament every year in his first 14 seasons at a school, has never been one to assume an awe-shucks, just-happy-to-be-here faade.
“We’ve been a 2 seed, a 3 seed,” he said of previous appearances that carried weighty expectations. “We’re taking our normal approach into this. We have to come out and play our style and play our way and stay in attack mode. I wouldn’t guess it would be any other way as we venture into the tournament now.”
But being No. 1 is different … isn’t it?
“I see it as a great honor; I don’t see it as a weight that’s on our shoulders,” Harris said.
Tournament pressure? Harris (Germany) and Olynyk (Canada) have played for senior national teams in international competitions. As a team, this season, the Zags played 10 games against opponents who are included in this tournament field, winning eight.
“We believe in ourselves and it feels great to be the No. 1 seed, but we believe that we belong and there is no pressure,” Pangos said. “We’re just going to play and have fun out there.”
Athletic director Mike Roth certainly remembers when the Gonzaga program sprouted legs and took its early steps toward the big time. As he was driving into the Salt Lake area this week, Roth went past the hotel where the lowly seeded Zags were billeted in their first NCAA tournament appearance in 1995.
“It’s a Motel 6 now,” Roth reported, saying it’s a long way from the swank, five-diamond Grand America Hotel where the top-seeded Zags are being indulged this time.
While the staff and players are conditioned to downplay the pressure and effect of the high rankings and seedings, Roth is under no obligation.
“From a university standpoint, it’s had a huge impact,” Roth said. “The additional prestige it brings to the institution allows us to (voice) other messages.”
“In the 14 years Mark Few has been (head) coach, only one player has completed his eligibility and not received his degree,” Roth said.
On the current team, Roth stressed, three (Olynyk, Mike Hart and Drew Barham) are already in grad school, while four more are on pace to graduate in May.
A compelling illustration of the length of the Zags’ streak is as close as home for Few, whose 13-year-old son, A.J., has never in his life had to consider such a thing as the NIT.
“His favorite day in the whole (year) is Selection Sunday; he likes it better than he does his own birthday,” Few said. “The No. 1 thing has been great, the No. 1 seed has been great, but for me, the 15 straight NCAA tournaments is the unbelievable accomplishment that we’ve been able to achieve this year. It shows sustained excellence.”
That excellence has been sustained for so long, in fact, that those currently responsible don’t have to be told about the days when Cinderella had to spend nights in Motel 6.Dave Boling: 253-597-8440 firstname.lastname@example.org @DaveBoling