John McGrath

John McGrath: It’s time for Gonzaga to snap 57-year local Final Four drought

No team from Washington has advanced to the Final Four since Seattle University in 1958, the year Pope Pius XII declared Clare of Assisi the patron saint of television.

Placing St. Clare’s icon on a TV set, some believed, improved the reception of an appliance that in 1958 still had a bothersome knack for depicting Marshall Dillon and Clark Kent as characters indifferent to the blizzard perpetually surrounding them.

In other words, basketball fans in this state have been waiting a long time to follow a Final Four team with local ties. Gonzaga can snap the 57-year drought Sunday with a victory over Duke, a program whose fans have come to regard Final Four appearances as if they’re no more exotic than airline pretzels.

And while Mark Few’s roster is not home grown — more guys from eastern Europe than western Washington play meaningful minutes — Gonzaga is the closest thing we’ve got to a school capable of creating a rooting interest.

My parents were married in Spokane, and spent their one-night “honeymoon” in the Davenport Hotel. A flimsy connection to the university a few miles away, perhaps, but it’s more of a connection than Duke represents.

The notion of neutral fans in Washington following Gonzaga became a conversation topic on the sports talk shows last week, inspiring a debate so robust that minutes went by without any mention of Russell Wilson. At issue: If your heart belongs to the Huskies or Cougars, is it acceptable to remove the blinders and pull for GU?

Absent a dawg (or a cat) in this hunt, I believe it’s not only acceptable but inevitable to wish the Zags well. Not just because of the, uh, local angle — here’s looking at you, Kentridge High grad Gary Bell Jr. — but because of the way Few’s team plays the game.

During the South Regional semifinals Friday night, four teams combined to miss 145 of 239 field-goal attempts. Depth-perception problems related to staging the doubleheader in a football stadium were an obvious culprit, but the fact remains: Most college basketball games are sluggish scrums overseen by hands-on coaches reluctant to give their players the freedom to relax and improvise and, heaven forbid, make a mistake.

At Gonzaga, 7-foot-1 center Przemek Karnowski has the freedom to throw a behind-the-back pass on the baseline. The Zags, too hot not to cool down from their exhilarating shooting performance Sunday at KeyArena, hoisted their share of clunkers against UCLA. But Karnowski’s assist to Domantas Sabonis, converted into a room-service layup, revealed the essence of a team that stresses creative passing as an offensive component.

Who can watch such high-throttle basketball without admiring its flair and style? Besides, it’s not as if Duke is one of those feel-good stories whose elimination from the tournament will turn a pep-band piccolo player inconsolable.

The Blue Devils have won four NCAA titles, made it to the national-championship game 10 times, and are looking to advance to their 16th Final Four.

“By any measure of success, Duke is king of the hill in college basketball in the 64-team era of the NCAA tournament,” ESPN determined in 2008. Two years later, Duke was king of the hill again.

Duke’s Cameron Indoor Stadium offers what is widely acknowledged as the most tangible home-court advantage in college basketball, and its rivalry with North Carolina is considered the No. 1 rivalry in the sport, if not all sports.

Most Entertaining Game Ever Played? That would be Duke’s overtime thriller over Kentucky in the 1992 East Regional final. Most Successful Coach Not Named John Wooden? Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski, and the nod to Wooden comes with an asterisk. (His UCLA teams won nine championships when the NCAA tournament field was no more 25 teams. Wooden’s 10th and final title, in 1975, found the field expanded to 32 — less than half of what it is today.)

Duke, as its name suggests, is royalty.

Enough already.

Despite its 17 consecutive invitations to the NCAA tournament, Gonzaga hasn’t been this close to a Final Four appearance since 1999, when Quentin Hall’s 3-pointer cut Connecticut’s lead to one with 35 seconds remaining.

Dan Monson’s Gonzaga team was fearless but flawed — it lost seven games during the regular season, and was seeded 10th — and if a time machine could be manufactured enabling the 1999 Zags to take on the 2015 Zags, Few’s club wins by 15.

But Gonzaga isn’t facing Gonzaga in a match up made for a time machine Sunday. Gonzaga is facing Duke, kings of the hill.

If you’ve got an appreciation for basketball’s potential as a beautiful game that celebrates the sheer joy of seamless teamwork, if you’ve got a pulse, or a heart, or a brain, you don’t have much of a choice in taking a rooting interest Sunday.

Gonzaga’s time has come, and it’s come for the rest of us, too. A 57-year dry spell is long enough.

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