The skeptics' grumbling started at the end of the regular season, when Gonzaga ascended to No. 1 in the national polls for the first time in school history. It continued louder on Selection Sunday, when the Zags were given a No. 1 seed over options like ACC stalwarts Miami and Duke. It was amplified even more by the Bulldogs' way-closer-than-it-should-have-been 64-58 escape from 16-seed Southern in Thursday's first round. And now it will become deafening after the Zags were unceremoniously dumped from the NCAA tournament in the Round of 32, 76-70, by a Wichita State team that was blindingly hot from the arc.
The Bulldogs, somewhat unfairly considered annual March underachievers, knew what was at stake in this year's NCAA tournament. But this loss will continue to feed the choker narrative. Four times under Mark Few, the Zags have been granted a top-3 seed in the NCAAs. Just once in those seasons have they even made it to the Sweet 16. And that appearance (against UCLA in 2006) ended with a crazy last-minute collapse and star Adam Morrison sobbing on the court.
The Zags are victims of their own success, having paved the way for every other smaller program with their three-year run from 1999-2001 in which they made an Elite Eight and two more Sweet 16s. They have continued their league dominance while growing into tougher and tougher non-league schedules. They built a new arena. They have fully paid their dues to garner the respect they earned this year with a No. 1 seed. Yet no one will remember their 32 wins, their 5-0 mark against the Big 12, or their unbeaten romp through the West Coast Conference. They will remember that Gonzaga "choked."
Of course, the supposed gag completely understates the relatively small gap between them and the Shockers. It will brush over how Wichita State, a very suspect three-point shooting team (in part because of a lot of injuries during the season) made 14-of-28 in this game. It will go without mention the Shockers made their last five threes of the game, a couple of them after Gonzaga guard Kevin Pangos gave the Zags two different seven-point leads, when it looked like Gonzaga was in decent control of the game. It will bury the fact I (and others) picked the Zags to lose this game, not because they're overrated, but because they were going to be playing a very competent team.
But that's the nature of knockout tournaments and, in a grander scale, the American sporting culture. We like drama. We like playoffs. We like players to come up big in pressure spots. We like the spotlight hot and the action hotter. But with that comes some inherent unfairness, grand judgments made off of one night, and the Zags (along with Georgetown and New Mexico) now have to continue answering questions about high-profile failures come tournament time. As the patterns repeat themselves, maybe there is something to it for certain coaches or teams and the way they prepare or handle these games. For Gonzaga, that's for Mark Few and his staff and his players to discuss and try to figure out. The Zags can't control outside discussion, though, and the skeptics' verdict is stronger than ever: Until you prove us wrong, we're right about you.