Tuesday, March 12, 2013
Here comes the Gonzaga backlash
By Eamonn Brennan
Led by Kelly Olynyk, the Gonzaga Bulldogs are -- and have been -- contenders for the NCAA title.
Honestly, it's like some people can skip an entire decade.
It's like some people went straight from the "aww, what a nice run, Gonzaga sure is cute" Cinderella attitude of 1999 to "wait, Gonzaga is going to be No. 1 seed?" It's like this weird swath of fans didn't see any of the past 13 years, during which the Zags established themselves as the most consistent non-BCS program in the country — a program that earned its stripes by playing anyone anywhere in November and December and routinely dominating its own league. They've won winning 12 conference titles in Mark Few's tenure, combining regular season and conference tournament titles nine times and, including this year, gone to 14 straight NCAA tournaments.
You hear this sort of stuff a lot about mid-major programs, but never more than at this time of year: "Who have they beaten! They're unproven! Their league isn't that good! They'd be the fifth-best team -- tops-- in [insert my favorite team's conference here]! Herp and derp!"
Usually the origin of this stuff is simple to uncover: Fans want their teams to get in the NCAA tournament, or get that No. 1 seed, and they are willing to use whatever cudgel it takes to make the argument that a mid-major team is undeserving. Or they simply haven't seen a certain team play, and because we humans tend to be visual types, fans don't believe it until they see it (and maybe not even then). But there's also a strain of this attitude that is more difficult to pin down. It's an anti-insurgency thing, a condescension -- you guys are adorable, but the big kids will take it from here.
Everyone loves Cinderella on the first weekend of the tournament. But when she's taking your team's at-large bid, or when she's locking up that fourth No. 1 seed, suddenly everyone's not so in love after all.
Which is why Gonzaga fans should probably brace for impact. The backlash is coming.
In fact, it's already here. You can't swing a jump rope in a circle without finding someone willing to make the case that no, in fact, despite all evidence to the contrary Gonzaga is not that good, and no they shouldn't be a No. 1 seed. They're overrated, and they're not going to win the national title. The WCC stinks. My favorite league is better. Ad infinitum.
So let's make a few things abundantly clear: Gonzaga is good. Like, really good. They have a legitimate national player of the year candidate in Kelly Olynyk, who put up 17.5 points and 7.2 rebounds per game, a 125.7 offensive rating on 29.7 percent usage, and the highest PER in the country. Olynyk is joined in the frontcourt by four-year starter Elias Harris, who, after ditching American-sized portions (newsflash: we're fat) finally recaptured the form that made him an enticing NBA prospect three years ago. Guard Kevin Pangos is one of the nation's best combo ballhandling and shooting threats, Gary Bell Jr. is an excellent shooting guard, Mike Hart is the platonic ideal of a role player, and the Zags bring Sam Dower -- who was ready to start this season were it not for Olynyk's Zeus-like emergence -- and NBA prospect Przemek Karnowskioff the bench. Oh, and just for good measure, David Stockton now often drops dimes that look way too much like his father's.
All told, the Zags finished their season ranked No. 4 in the country in Ken Pomeroy's adjusted offensive efficiency, No. 13 on the defensive end and No. 4 overall. The BPI ranks them fifth. Massey has them at No. 1. The LRMC Bayesian rankings put Gonzaga at No. 2. The Zags may not have played vintage nonconference schedule, even by their own standards, and they may not have had to plow through the Atlantic 10. But they lost two games all year — one to a scorching-hot Illinois team in November, the other at Butler on a fluky-but-amazing last-second game-winner by Roosevelt Jones. (Both Butler and Illinois beat Indiana.)
Oh, and when you go around saying Gonzaga's not getting to the Final Four, or losing on the second weekend of the tournament, or whatever #strongtake you think you're staking out, guess what: Picking a team to lose in the NCAA tournament is the least brave prediction of all time. Of 68 teams, four get to the Final Four. One wins the title. Both of those things are incredibly difficult to do, and rely not only on execution and ability, but also on luck. Oooh, look at you! Picking a team to be one of the 64 that doesn't win four single-elimination games in a row! Let's get you a radio show, bro! You're totally crushing it!
Mark Few & Co. may get to the Final Four; they may not. Crazy stuff happens in March. But dismissing Gonzaga as a "pretender" (or whatever) is not only boring and ill-informed, it reeks of insecurity. This isn't college football. We have a single-elimination tournament to settle the matter once and for all. Why fear insurgency? It's what makes the sport fun. And why do you think Gonzaga is an insurgent, anyway? Did you miss the entire last decade? (If so, you've missed a lot, and we need to get you caught up. First things first: Kanye West.)
Seeding is just a number, anyway. If your favorite team is better, let them go prove it. Until then, stop. It doesn't matter what league they play in; the fact that a Gonzaga could exist in the first place is the beauty of college basketball.
Plus: The Zags are really good. They have been for 14 years. It really doesn't have to be that complicated.