March 18, 2015

SPOKANE, Wash. (AP) Mike Roth knows there will always be the doubters and critics that will poke holes in what Gonzaga has accomplished during a run that is getting closer to lasting two decades.

Often those criticisms revolve around the quality of competition the Bulldogs face during the conference season or their inability thus far - for all their regular-season dominance - to reach a Final Four.

But what should not be disputed is the streak Gonzaga has put together of reaching the NCAA Tournament.

When second-seeded Gonzaga takes the floor Friday night at KeyArena in Seattle to face No. 15 seed North Dakota State it'll be the 17th straight NCAA Tournament appearance for the Bulldogs. It's tied for the fourth-longest active streak in the country and tied for sixth-longest NCAA streak of all-time.

To put that in context, only Kansas, Duke and Michigan State have longer active streaks. The Bulldogs' streak is equal with Wisconsin's. And this tournament appearance will bring Gonzaga somewhat full circle. The run of consecutive appearances began in 1999 when the Bulldogs played their first two games in Seattle.

''Seventeen in a row, that is a run,'' said Roth, Gonzaga's athletic director since 1998. ''(And) doing that at a school that we're not in a power conference. That's something that we take pride in. A lot of that is our guys going out there and winning games in tough places that sometimes people don't give those places credit as being tough places to win games.''

What Gonzaga has accomplished since that first run in 1999 that made them darlings of the tournament by pulling a trio of unlikely upsets to reach the Elite Eight, is impressive. They've also become easy for others to dismiss, citing the fact that the Bulldogs play in the less competitive West Coast Conference and have earned an automatic bid by winning the conference tournament in 12 of 17 years during the streak.

However the streak is viewed, it places the Bulldogs in rare company right alongside contemporaries from the power conferences in college basketball. Kansas is making its 26th straight appearance, one shy of North Carolina's all-time record of 27. Duke is at 20, Michigan State at 18 and both the Bulldogs and Badgers at 17 straight.

No other school in the country has an active streak of longer than nine straight appearances.

''Seeding is important, it's for sure important for your success within that tournament but again it's an acknowledgement of your program also,'' Roth said. ''The committee is saying that your program, in this case Gonzaga, is a national program that needs to be recognized on the national level.''

For Gonzaga that's meant avoiding upsets and making certain of a conference tournament title in seasons where the Bulldogs were teetering on the edge of making it or not. Those concerns have dwindled over time as Gonzaga has become more of a national program with success outside of WCC play that is quality enough to make the NCAAs even without a conference tourney title.

But continuing the streak is not talked about within the walls of Gonzaga's locker room.

''It just shows the consistency that we have in this program,'' guard Kevin Pangos said. ''But that's the past. Now we have to focus on our journey this year.''

Two years ago, the Bulldogs reached a new level of affirmation when they were ranked No. 1 in The Associated Press Top 25 and earned a No. 1 seed for the NCAAs, only to get ousted in the third round by eventual Final Four participant Wichita State. They were on course for another possible No. 1 seed this season before losing to BYU in the regular season finale.

The ultimate validation for the program won't come until it gets to a Final Four. Perhaps this is the year it finally happens. That run in 1999 that started this tournament streak began with two victories in Seattle. Of course, 2004 was also supposed to be the year for Gonzaga with a No. 2 seed and playing in Seattle, only to get upset in the round of 32.

''For both Mark and I, we've been together for a long time and we have things left undone,'' Roth said. ''We have a lot of goals that we want to accomplish. We're very proud of what we've done, the success that we've had, but at the same time we know there are things we want to get done before either one of us sees the end of our career.''

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