Gonzaga (26-6) at Ohio State (28-7), 2:45 p.m. EDT
Before VCU. Before Butler. Before George Mason, there was Gonzaga.
The Bulldogs have spent the last 14 seasons busting brackets. Their mix of steady guard play and just enough muscle have made the Jesuit school nestled in eastern Washington a perennial threat to play deep into March.
Yet all those upsets, all those higher seeds sent packing early have failed to help the `Zags shake the “underdog” label.
What some programs would consider a sign of disrespect, the Bulldogs see as a badge of honor.
“That’s where we came from, that’s where our roots are and that’s part of the tradition of being at Gonzaga,” guard Mike Hart said. “Really, we love it.”
Even if the Bulldogs are “mid-major” in name only.
Since starting its run with a dash to the regional finals in 1999, Gonzaga has as many tournament victories (17) as Ohio State. One of the schools will get No. 18 on Saturday when the seventh-seeded Bulldogs (26-6) face the second-seeded Buckeyes (28-7) in the third round.
Ohio State hardly feels like a favorite. The Buckeyes didn’t exactly play like one while loping through a lackadaisical win over Loyola (Md.) on Thursday night, winning almost in spite of themselves.
They’re well aware of what will happen if they come out with the same lack of intensity.
“We’ll lose,” senior guard William Buford said. “You can’t treat (Gonzaga) like slouches. That’s what they want you to do, but you can’t.”
West Virginia tried. The Mountaineers dismissed Gonzaga’s toughness, pointing to their brutal Big East schedule as proof they were the grittier team. It hardly looked like it when the Bulldogs rolled to a 23-point victory.
The Buckeyes got a good long look, watching from their seats behind one of the baskets as Gonzaga buried West Virginia under a barrage of 3-pointers and suffocating defense that sent the Mountaineers to their worst tournament loss in 28 years.
“I think that was tremendous, what they did,” Ohio State forward Jared Sullinger said. “It kind of woke us up.”
Just in case it didn’t, Sullinger can turn the tape on in his head of what happened the last time the Buckeyes came out flat in the tournament against a quality opponent. Ohio State was the No. 1 seed in the East last year only to lose to Kentucky in the regional semifinals.
The memory still stings. If Kentucky’s Brandon Knight doesn’t hit that pull-up jumper in the final seconds, maybe the Buckeyes beat North Carolina two days later and advance to the Final Four. If that happens, maybe Sullinger heads to the NBA instead of returning for his sophomore year.
“One shot can change your whole season,” he said.
Or the trajectory of a program.
Gonzaga was the school best known for producing Hall of Fame guard John Stockton until 1999, when the 10th-seeded Bulldogs ripped off three straight victories, including a 73-72 win over Florida in the regional semifinals on Casey Calvary’s basket with 4 seconds to go.
“We had no business tipping it in,” said coach Mark Few, an assistant under Dan Monson at the time. “(But) as long as you can keep getting in the tournament, putting yourself in the position to advance, that’s the most important thing to me.”
The Bulldogs have done it better than just about anybody over the last 14 years, even if they’ve been unable to parlay that consistency into a Final Four berth the way the VCUs and Butlers of the world have done.
It’s a glass ceiling the school is eager to break through. While not making it to the last weekend of the season has been a sore spot, Few points to Gonzaga’s remarkable consistency.
Only Kansas, Duke and Michigan State have longer tournament streaks than Gonzaga. VCU can’t say that. Butler can’t say that.
Neither can Ohio State.
“I think that’s probably the greatest thing we’ve had going with our program, is the continuity,” Few said. “We haven’t really dropped off success-wise. You get in this tournament, it’s a crapshoot. It’s about matchups.”
And Gonzaga likes its matchup with Ohio State. True, Sullinger is a handful and the Buckeyes rarely beat themselves. Neither do the Bulldogs. Freshman guard Kevin Pangos admitted to some jitters before playing West Virginia, then all he did is score on his first shot less than a minute into the game and the `Zags took off from there.
Playing like you’ve been there before has become part of the standard at Gonzaga. Pangos is the latest in a lineage of guards that traces all the way back to Stockton, whose son David is a sophomore reserve.
The program was hardly a household name back then. It is now, as the Bulldogs have created a niche all their own. They’re too consistently good to be considered a mid-major curiosity, too small to be considered a national power.
“I think we’re just Gonzaga,” senior center Robert Sacre said. “There’s no other name for it. We’re our own unique program. I think that’s what makes Gonzaga so unique. We’re our own program. We do our own thing.”
They’ll try to do it once again on Saturday.