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Gonzaga: The Fortress Remains Intact

This is not one of the better Gonzaga teams in the program's history, and more specifically, in its two-decade run of excellence that began in the mid-1990s.

This is not a Bulldog team with waves of big bodies or that one stud in the low post (Kelly Olynyk) that can take over a game in different ways from different spots on the floor.

This is not an awesomely potent assemblage of Zags with an Adam Morrison on the wing or Dan Dickau dazzling at the point. 

This is not a team that achieved much of anything in the regular season — partly because it just wasn't special in the non-conference portion of its season, and partly because Saint Mary's declined to a significant extent in 2014.

However, after all the worries that Gonzaga would not make the NCAA tournament for a 16th straight season, coach Mark Few got his team to max out in the game that mattered most, the West Coast Conference Tournament final in Las Vegas. GU hit the jackpot, playing a brilliant 25 minutes before fending off BYU in the final 15 to secure an automatic bid to the Big Dance.

This result does not offer occasion to get overly excited about the Zags within the context of this season. As for the program as a whole, Tuesday's triumph means a great deal… more than just one more trip to America's favorite bracketed tournament.

Yes, Gonzaga has made 17 straight conference finals in the West Coast Conference and 19 out of the last 20. Yes, with this win tonight, the Zags are now 13-6 in those finals, beating six different programs (BYU, Pepperdine, Santa Clara, San Diego, Loyola Marymount, and Saint Mary's) along the way.

Yet, this tournament win stands above most (though not all) of the others for the (not-so-mid-) major program from Spokane, Wash.

This year, Gonzaga didn't receive the quarterfinal bye it benefited from over most of the past several years in the WCC Tournament. This year, there was also a one-day break between two pairs of rounds in the tournament: first round and quarterfinals, then quarterfinals and semifinals. This enabled Gonzaga's pursuers more time to prepare and, in the meantime, gather their legs.

This year, Gonzaga — despite being the top seed in the WCC — entered Las Vegas with a resume that was inferior to its second-seeded foe from Provo, Utah. BYU scored wins over Stanford and Texas in non-conference play, more than anything the Zags managed to achieve. Moreover, BYU's presence as a relatively new member of the conference posed the simple but scary possibility of a changing of the guard in the league.

BYU, as mentioned here a few weeks ago, does not take a back seat to Gonzaga in terms of history and accomplishments. A Cougar win in Las Vegas might not have hurt Gonzaga directly beyond the loss of a tournament title (the Zags probably would have made the NCAA tournament regardless of this result, no matter how many holes their resume did indeed possess), but a BYU triumph certainly stood to elevate coach Dave Rose's program. BYU owns one of the more intimidating home courts in the country, and if the Cougars get 2011-level talent again, they're going to be able to make a run at the Final Four. Subduing BYU carried a significance that was primarily a "significance in the moment," but the value of this game certainly extended into the future as well.

Gonzaga's ability to not only win this game, but win it fairly decisively — and with one of its better performances of an inconsistent season — represents a marvelous response to a multiple layers of pressure. GU's elevated effort and execution are magnified precisely because this particular group did not establish itself as a dependable force on a weekly basis.

We are left with a set of contradictions and competing tension points that exists to a similar degree (but perhaps on a different level) at other programs in the United States.

Much as Wisconsin astounds with its high-quality consistency over four months but loses its starch each March, Gonzaga is also a program that, while rarely seen in the second weekend of the NCAA tournament, keeps dusting itself off to remain supreme in its own backyard.

This year, the West Coast Conference Tournament was supposed to be tougher. This year, Gonzaga was supposed to be uniquely vulnerable. This year, BYU had the better resume heading into Las Vegas.

Yet, this year, nothing really changed for the Jesuit school in the Pacific Northwest — not in terms of protecting its native habitat from those who wished to overtake it.

The Final Four remains an unmet goal — that fact will continue to eat away at Gonzaga fans until one team crosses the threshold. Yet, supporters of the Zags should take great pride in knowing that Mark Few has enabled his program to retain every last ounce of staying power on a localized scale.

Matt Zemek

About Matt Zemek

Matt Zemek is the managing editor of The Student Section, covering college football and basketball with associate editors Terry Johnson and Bart Doan. Mr. Zemek is the editor of Crossover Chronicles, covering the NBA. He is also Bloguin's lead tennis writer, covering the major tournaments. He contributes to other Bloguin sites, such as The AP Party.

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