I’m guessing a segment of college basketball fans in our region, if they’re currently unattached to a team in the NCAA men’s tournament, will take up the banner of UNC Wilmington.
Yes, they’re a 12th seed with a tough matchup against Virginia in their first game, but their nickname is “Seahawks,” and locals will find it convenient to their cheering habits.
As for tournament interests, Washington Husky fans are left to wait until next season when they’ll either introduce the best recruiting class in school history or a new coach.
And WSU Cougar fans, well, sweeping the Huskies had to be gratifying.
Otherwise, this is the best chance in years for a state team to make the men’s Final Four (UW made the Final Four in the women’s tournament last season), and that makes the tournament of regional interest, even if you’re not typically a Gonzaga supporter.
Zags fans take justifiable pride in this being their 19th consecutive NCAA appearance, and it’s the second time they’ve been a regional No. 1 seed.
Others, for some reason, are chronically irritated by Gonzaga’s success as if it were a festering boil on their backside.
They respond to any positive coverage about the Zags with outraged emails about their weak conference (no one has ever argued that point), and their lack of success in the tournament (although they have a 24-19 all-time record and have advanced to seven Sweet 16s).
The argument that they haven’t always played up to their seeding, though, is fair.
And in some ways, I think the relatively easy voyage through the conference season, which pads their record and sometimes their seeding, works against them. It’s obvious they’re not hardened by the weekly demands placed on teams in tougher conferences.
But the talent, the depth and versatility of this GU team have experts predicting a performance to match their No. 1 seeding in the West Region. And these widespread expectations are something new for the Zags.
Joe Lunardi, ESPN’s prime NCAA bracket analyst, predicts Gonzaga will win six straight tournament games and bring the national championship back to Spokane. “Gonzaga’s 32-1 season is neither a fluke nor unexpected,” he said, citing their ranking in the top-10 nationally in both offensive and defensive efficiency.
The voluble Dick Vitale, never one to understate his opinions, picks the Zags to make it to the NCAA title game, losing there to North Carolina.
Nate Silver, noted statistical analyst, gives defending champ Villanova a 15 percent chance of winning the title. But the second-highest percentage, at 14, is Gonzaga. Kansas (10), Kentucky (8), Duke (7) and North Carolina (7) follow.
Rece Davis, ESPN college basketball host, has the Zags in the Final Four.
ESPN’s Myron Medcalf points to nine-man depth and the ability to play big or small depending on the opponents’ strengths as his reason for calling GU his favorite to win it all.
These are analysts who make a living studying college basketball.
Of course, they make mistakes, too.
While the West Region doesn’t appear to be the most competitive, Arizona, Florida State, West Virginia and Notre Dame stand as major threats if they end up in GU’s path.
Historically, the Zags have stumbled when they have a star go cold, get key players in foul trouble, or run into problematic defensive mismatches.
Could happen again.
Or, they might play at 100 percent and still lose to a hot team, perhaps Arizona, a team they beat early in the season without one of their key contributors.
The Zags’ staff is aware of all of this. And they seem to have structured and prepared this bunch specifically for the weeks ahead.
It’s made this season seem like more of a mission than ever. It’s not just winning 32 of 33 games, but stomping opponents the way they have, by an average of 23.4 points.
And there was the domination of rival Saint Mary’s (a No. 7 NCAA seed with a 28-1 record against non-Gonzaga opponents this season).
The Zags knew the Gaels provided the best chance to show themselves against a tournament-quality opponent. And in three meetings, they dispatched them by an average of more than 16 points.
The last men’s team from this state to make it to the Final Four was Seattle U in 1958, when Elgin Baylor’s club lost to Kentucky in the title game, with Baylor getting the Most Outstanding Player award.
Maybe the Zags don’t make it, but this is their best chance, and it should be more interesting than pulling for UNC-Wilmington.