SAN JOSE, Calif. (AP) — Gonzaga had great players go through Spokane, great teams that won year after year, laying the foundation for the program’s big breakthrough this season.
Now the bar will be raised.
No more questions about when the Zags will reach college basketball’s final weekend. Their Final Four jinx over, a national championship becomes the next goal.
“They’ve been pretty phenomenal all year,” Gonzaga coach Mark Few said after the Zags beat Xavier for their first Final Four berth. “And we’ll go down there to try to win the thing.”
The program Few helped build from scratch during his 28 years at Gonzaga — 18 as head coach — has been one of college basketball’s most consistent teams.
The Zags have played in the NCAA Tournament 19 straight years, the nation’s fourth-longest streak, reached the Sweet 16 eight times, won the West Coast Conference Tournament 16 times.
Yet no matter what Gonzaga has done, respect has not followed. The Zags have routinely been dubbed overrated for beating up on teams in a weak conference and failing to reach the Final Four.
They changed perceptions, likely for good, with a dominating performance in the West Region final Saturday night in Silicon Valley.
Playing with poise with the pressure of history weighing upon them, the Zags stormed past Xavier 83-59 to earn their first trip to the Final Four, next weekend in Arizona.
Gonzaga played a dominating all-around game, playing crisply on offense, as it usually does, while adding the dose of stingy defense that had always been the program’s Achilles’ heel.
The Zags should have the easier side of the bracket in Arizona, too, facing the winner between South Carolina and Florida in the desert, not one of the athlete-filled teams from the Midwest and South.
“We had a plan for ourselves,” said point guard Nigel Williams-Goss, the Zags’ steadying influence after transferring from Washington. “We believed from Day 1, when we all stepped foot on this campus, that we could go to Phoenix. We didn’t shy away from setting that goal and we bought in.”
The players before helped paved the way by setting the standard in Spokane while constantly hearing the they’re-overrated cries.
Few was forced to find high-character players who would fit into his system during the foundation-setting years of the program. He has stuck to those principles even as the wins have opened more recruiting doors, leading to a long list of talented-and-heady players like Ronny Turiaf, Adam Morrison, Kevin Pangos, Kelly Olynyk, Dan Dickau and Domantas Sabonis.
Those previous players came close to the breakthrough this team pushed through this season.
The 1999 team turned the nation’s attention to the small Catholic school in Eastern Washington by reaching the Elite Eight. The Zags, coached by Dan Monson with Few as an assistant, lost their Final Four bid in a 67-62 loss to Connecticut.
The 2006 team, led by a long-haired Morrison, faced UCLA in the Sweet 16 and came up just short in a two-point loss that left its star player in tears.
Gonzaga again reached the Sweet 16 in 2009 with point guard Matt Bouldin running the show, only to get blown out by North Carolina.
The Zags’ last bid to reach the Final Four came in 2015, when Sabonis and Kyle Wiltjer helped them reach the Elite Eight for the second time. That attempt came up short as well, with Duke beating Gonzaga by 14 on the way to the national title.
Now the barrier has been broken, made possible by the foundation set by the previous players and teams.
“Our culture is just so strong,” Few said. “This was a culture win and a culture statement and couldn’t be prouder.”
For more AP college basketball coverage: http://collegebasketball.ap.org and http://twitter.com/AP_Top25