Gonzaga, soon to face UCLA in NCAA tournament, no stranger to Sweet 16

Gonzaga, UCLA's next NCAA tournament foe, has reached its share of Sweet 16 games in recent years

Gonzaga was an upstart, one of those mid-major interlopers that pop up at NCAA tournament time to create havoc on your bracket. The private school from Spokane, Wash., that thought it could and almost did.

At least that's the way it was in 1999, when the unheralded Bulldogs advanced all the way to the West Regional final before succumbing to Connecticut, the team that went on to win the national championship.

Now, in some circles, Gonzaga carries a different label. The Bulldogs, who play UCLA in a South Regional semifinal game on Friday, are underachievers. They have become perennial NCAA tournament participants, but this year marks the first time since 2009 that they have advanced past the first weekend.

Asked after his team defeated Iowa and advanced to the final 16 whether it was a relief to end the Sweet 16 drought, Coach Mark Few acknowledged it was, then added:

"We've been six times," counting this season, "and it's just interesting to see the corner or whatever that we're being painted into. I mean, I don't know who is being held to that standard."

He knows the answer: Gonzaga is.

Only 10 schools have been to more regional semifinals since 1999, and it's a list of basketball blue bloods: Duke, Michigan State, Kentucky, Connecticut, Syracuse, UCLA, North Carolina, Arizona, Kansas and Louisville.

Well respected veteran coaches from Wisconsin and West Virginia were not asked about getting over the Sweet 16 hump as they advanced, yet, since 1999, Gonzaga has made it to this round more often than either.

Meanwhile, in the last 10 years, Gonzaga has produced its fair share of NBA players, including Ronny Turiaf, Dan Dickau, Austin Daye, Kelly Olynyk and the Lakers' Robert Sacre.

When the Bulldogs went on their 1999 run, and came up one point short against Connecticut, no mid-major program had reached the Final Four since Penn in 1979. Nevada Las Vegas made the Final Four three times — but the Runnin' Rebels were a national college basketball brand that extended well beyond their conference.

Gonzaga had made one NCAA appearance, a 24-point opening-round loss to Maryland in 1995.

"It's been amazing," said Few, who was a Gonzaga assistant in 1995. "It's been crazy. We went from literally being an assistant that slept in cars back in the day, or slept on buddies' floors in the hotels, playing in a little tiny gym, to dreaming about being involved in the NCAA tournament, dreaming about actually winning a postseason game."

Gonzaga piqued everyone's interest. If any mid-major was going to kick down the Final Four door, it was the Bulldogs.

Only they didn't deliver. And while the Bulldogs stumbled, other mid-majors reached the sport's pinnacle event.

George Mason broke through in 2006, reaching the Final Four. Butler went to the national title game in 2010 and 2011. Wichita State, the new upstart, upset No. 1-seeded Gonzaga in 2013 on its way to the Final Four.

But the perception that the Bulldogs have been underwhelming disappointments is largely unfair and inaccurate. Of the Bulldogs' 15 NCAA tournament losses since 1999, six have been to No. 1-seeded teams and two have been to second-seeded teams.

In 2003, Gonzaga lost to top-seeded Arizona in double overtime. In 2006, the Bulldogs blew a 17-point first-half lead against second-seeded UCLA and lost, 73-71, after giving up five points in the last 40 seconds. In 2012, Gonzaga was tied, 61-61, with second-seeded Ohio State with four minutes left and lost by seven.

"At the end of the day, it's about staying involved in the greatest sporting event in the world," Few said of the tournament. "You want to stay in it for as long as you possibly can, because it's so much fun, it's so exciting, and as a basketball player you want to be involved."

chris.foster@latimes.com

Twitter: @cfosterlatimes

Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times
66°