Make way for Gonzaga

Dan Wetzel
Yahoo! Sports

It has been 25 seasons since a team from outside one of the nation's power conferences reached the Final Four. Penn and Indiana State, led by Larry Bird, both did it in 1979.

In the quarter century since ESPN has become a major player, creating a direct correlation between national television exposure and recruiting might. Major conferences were constructed, expanded and then expanded again, establishing a division between the haves and have-nots. The formulas for selecting the NCAA Tournament and distributing its revenue were altered, and the rich got richer.

As much as March has been built on maddening upsets and charismatic Cinderellas, by the time the final weekend arrives it is all about the big boys.

Yet here we are, with the season beginning Thursday at the Coaches vs. Cancer Classic in New York, and one of the chic picks to reach at least the national semifinals is decidedly small-school, non-power-league Gonzaga.

The Bulldogs are ranked 10th nationally heading into Friday's matchup at Madison Square Garden against No. 17 Saint Joseph's. They return everyone of note from a 24-9 team that reached the NCAA Tournament for the fifth consecutive year. They have an All America candidate in guard Blake Stepp. Their frontcourt is as big and deep as any in the nation. Their newcomers are oh-so talented.

To put it simply, Gonzaga is loaded.

"We'll definitely be the deepest, most athletic and most [offensively strong] team we've had," head coach Mark Few says.

Gonzaga reached the Elite Eight in 1999 and the Sweet Sixteen the next two seasons. It was a remarkable run that should have petered out by now.

It hasn't. The Zags have become well-known and well-respected despite residing in distant Spokane, Wash., and the low-profile West Coast Conference.

These days they routinely beat the Pac-10 for recruits, and for good reason. The school has just about everything you could want, including plenty of TV time and a brand new arena set to open next season.

The keys to Gonzaga's growth from March darling to national program were the school's decision to continue believing more was possible, and Few's choice to stay in Spokane and not chase the first big contract waved in front of him.

An assistant at GU for 10 seasons, Few took over after the Elite Eight season and hasn't let off the accelerator. He has won 105 games in four years. Few looks settled in for the long haul in a town where he is popular, well-compensated and 15 minutes from some of his favorite fly-fishing spots.

He has seen the growth of the place. It still is a bit incredible.

"One of the things I am most proud of is that we didn't just sit back after the first Elite Eight and be content," Few says. We went out and signed elite kids, kept our identity of developing guys and kept our team chemistry even as our talent level grew.

"We were not just a flash in the pan."

Can Gonzaga ascend to another level beyond this one? Final Fours legitimize programs like nothing else.

Few is taking the long view.

"I think it is really dangerous and unfair to put everything on a single thing, whether we make it to a certain level in the tournament," Few says. "It is a one-and-done event; there are so many factors that go into it. I think the season needs to be judged on the [entirety]."

He points to last season's Kentucky squad, a team whose postseason loss in the Elite Eight partially overshadowed its regular-season glory (a 26-game win streak).

"Kentucky had one of the greatest seasons in recent college basketball history, and it kind of lost a little because people put so much focus on the tournament. I'm not going to judge our team on the NCAA Tournament."

Others will, though. In part because they want to believe a small Jesuit school in a far-off city, with a roster full of real student-athletes, still can crash the biggest party in college basketball.

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