Gonzaga enters this season as the No. 1-ranked team in the Associated Press poll.
When I saw this announcement, my first thought as an alum and diehard Zags fan wasn't pure glee or unbridled excitement, it was an emotion-free, "Well yeah... obviously."
That should tell you all you need to know about how far the program has progressed since I graduated from GU and moved away from Spokane in 2010.
Don't get me wrong, it's not to say Gonzaga's men's basketball program wasn't a national force during my time as a student. By the time I arrived on campus in 2006, the team had already made eight straight NCAA Tournament appearances and were coming off Adam Morrison's superstar season. The Bulldogs were a model of how a tiny school could succeed, but they were far from their current blueblood juggernaut status.
This was a time when Mark Few still hadn't even reached a single Elite Eight — something the squad has now done four of the last six years. It was an era when five-star recruits wouldn't even consider committing to Spokane — this year Chet Holmgren comes in as the No. 1 player in his class. This was even before Few realized that maybe a defense built around guarding the paint at the cost of allowing a ton of open three-pointers was a bad idea (which is why he'd yet to make an Elite Eight).
Heck, during my four years, the Zags were considered a bubble team for the NCAA Tournament at points during a couple seasons and only made it past the second round of the tournament once. Can you even imagine that now?
It's been amazing to watch Gonzaga morph from perennial plucky underdog to a team where not making the Final Four seems like a disheartening end result.
So many moments stick out from that stretch. Seeing Kelly Olynyk transform from a skinny Canadian heckled with Justin Bieber chants his first game as a freshman into a All-American post bruiser. Watching Przemek Karnowski abuse guys inside while also being an elite passer. The squad finally — blissfully — getting over the hump and making the Final Four in 2017. Seeing the basketball joy that was Rui Hachimura. And taking in the basketball precision that was last season's nearly undefeated run.
Z ags fans — myself included — are incredibly spoiled at this point. Playing in the West Coast Conference basically guarantees that even if the Zags get upset in the conference tourney, they'll already have amassed enough wins to easily make the NCAA Tournament.
Though, the conference "ease" also serves as the lone source of frustration that comes with being a Zags fan: having uninformed fans of other schools and Twitter commenters saying the Zags aren't actually any good. Despite literally having a higher conference RPI ranking than the ACC and Big East last year, the WCC isn't perceived as a "real conference." It's a false narrative because the WCC has actually improved a lot over recent years, but the Zags have gotten better at an even quicker rate. People see blowout Gonzaga scores and assume the opponents are trash, when really they'd be destroying middle-of-the-pack teams in the Big 10 and Pac 12 by just as much. (And before anyone suggests GU should swap conferences, consider how awful joining the Big East or Mountain West would be for all non-basketball sports.)
Until Gonzaga wins a national title, that public narrative piece will always remain (and honestly, it'll probably continue until they get multiple titles 'cause people like being the haters in the discourse).
Now being back in Spokane, I look forward to experiencing the communal energy of a Zags season again. While I rarely have missed a game over the past 15 years, watching from afar in Seattle, Syracuse or Montana doesn't have the same feel.
I also can't deny that at least a modicum of drama would be nice for the 2021-22 Zags. Perhaps that rub will come in the form of fallout from Mark Few's minute suspension or the departure of longtime assistant coach and international recruiting titan Tommy Lloyd to take over Arizona's program. Sure, last year's undefeated run was great until the final game, but having a touch of adversity in the form of an early season loss or two might restore a pinch of that underdog Bulldog attitude that once defined the program.
Will this finally be the year for the Zags? Who knows.
But it should be a good ride.
And it's great to be back. ♦