SALT LAKE CITY – ESPN broadcaster Neil Everett has anointed the Gonzaga basketball team “America’s team.”
This, of course, comes as news to the Dallas Cowboys. The fact that Everett hails from Spokane – trivia buffs will be delighted to learn that he hooped at Lewis and Clark High – just might have something to do with the on-air swag Everett applies to the Zags.
Considering the trials and tribulations the Cowboys have endured in recent years, perhaps the Bulldogs would prefer to be known as Slovenia’s team. Lord knows the Zags would be getting more respect in Slovenia than in the land of red, white and blue.
Gonzaga’s colors. Naturally.
The Zags, you may have heard, are ranked No. 1. Own the best record in big-boys college basketball. Routinely pound opponents by such unsightly margins that responsible adults cover the eyes of small children.
The talking heads, however, do not seem overly impressed with the best darn team in the state of Washington. The same goes for most people who type for a living.
The overwhelming consensus among media – not to mention the pretty boys and girls on television – is that Gonzaga will fall short of the Final Four. It has even been suggested that Gonzaga may be destined to become the first No. 1 seed to bow to a No. 16 seed when the Bulldogs make their Big Dance debut Thursday against Southern.
FOXSports.com blurted, “The Zags could be the first No. 1 seed to lose its NCAA opener.”
“We could be the first to make that happen,” Southern coach Roman Banks agreed. “We’re not afraid to be the first in anything.”
Ain’t gonna happen, coach. The only thing your team is doing first in Salt Lake City is packing up to go home.
No less an authority than President Obama picks Gonzaga to knock off Southern. The president also tabs the Zags to beat Pittsburgh Saturday, then lose to Wisconsin in the Sweet 16 next week in Los Angeles.
“Even though (Gonzaga’s Kelly) Olynyk is a great big man – he’s got great hair, does a great job – I think Wisconsin is going to pull off the upset,” Obama told ESPN.
Take it for what it’s worth. The man does know something about winning. Let’s just hope he’s not handling Gonzaga’s travel budget, or the Zags might be washing dishes to earn bus money to make it back to Spokane.
It is Southern’s unfortunate fate to make its first NCAA tournament appearance in seven years against a Gonzaga team that has played in the gala event each of the past 15 years. As an added bonus, the current edition of the Zags is the best in school history at a) playing basketball and b) staying focused.
“This team is very grounded,” Gonzaga coach Mark Few said. “It is a team that enjoys playing together. It’s not one that really spends a lot of time on the noise outside the program.”
Critics huff and puff about Gonzaga’s cream-puff schedule, but Southern has beaten up on the likes of William Carey – and how unfair is that, playing against just one guy? – Spring Hill and Champion Baptist.
Southern’s strength of schedule ranks 347th in NCAA Division I. Uh, that’s not very strong, since there are only 347 teams.
Two years ago, Southern may have ranked 347th on the court and in the classroom. The Jaguars finished 4-26, and though they improved to 17-14 last season in Banks’ first year on the job, the NCAA banned Southern from post-season play due to shabby academics under the previous regime.
“We had to put together a plan in the classroom and actually walk kids to class,” Banks said.
Just two “kids” remain from the team that wandered north from its home base in Baton Rouge, LA., and lost 117-72 at Gonzaga two years ago. The Bulldogs scheduled the game (read: handed the financially strapped Jaguars a large sum of money) as a favor to then-Southern athletic director Greg LaFleur, the father of Robert Sacre, Gonzaga’s star center at the time.
Geesh. If that’s how the Bulldogs treat someone when they’re doing them a favor, what gruesome result awaits an opponent the Zags rather dislike?
The Bulldogs have no particular gripe with the current Jaguars, it’s just that Southern is next up on GU’s schedule (1:10 p.m., TBS). That alone is bad news for Southern, and the Bulldogs figure to be fan favorites in a city that adored Gonzaga legend John Stockton when he played for the Utah Jazz.
The Jaguars are 23-9 – 22-4 since a 1-5 start – and Banks says his team boasts “one of the better backcourts in Division I.” The Bulldogs (31-2 with 14 straight wins) also have quality guards, and their front-line combo punch of Olynyk and Elias Harris should feast on the undersized Jags. Banks labels Olynyk “definitely one of the five best players in the country.”
Of course, Banks also uttered the dreaded “Gunn-ZAW-guh” phrasing, so he may not be quite as familiar with the Bulldogs as he would like you to believe. The Zags can’t wait to make believers out of Banks and a nation of doubters Thursday afternoon at EnergySolutions Arena, which is located on John Stockton Drive. Naturally.