By George Ferguson
The Sweet 16 of the men's NCAA basketball tournament gets underway tonight. While it is obvious that my brackets are completely shot at this point, that doesn't change the excitement or the drama of the second week of March Madness.
Even the sting of my beloved North Carolina Tar Heels not playing this week can't completely dampen my spirits when it comes to the big dance. Hey, at least the Heels were actually in the tournament this year.
It is also no secret that I love college hoops. My good friend and boss Ryan Divish recently told you all about that.
But what he failed to mention, what he definitely and knowingly omitted when speaking of me and college basketball, is how much I do not like the Gonzaga Bulldogs. And that fact has me even more excited about this weekend.
The Bulldogs have been the supposed "darlings" of the NCAA tournament for what seems like an eternity now. But this year turned out to be a little different. The Zags were unceremoniously bounced from the tourney in the second round by a true "Cinderella" team - the University of Nevada Wolfpack.
That means that when I order my three pizzas and a cold pack of Pepsi to sit down and watch the madness unfold this weekend, I will get to do it without having to hear about the Zags, and nothing could make me happier.
Before I go on about why I don't like the Zags, I will be the first to admit that I respect them very much. The school has turned its men's basketball program into a national power, despite playing in the relatively small market of Spokane, and despite the fact that its enrollment is a mere 5,000 students.
What is equally impressive about Gonzaga's run over the last decade is that it has done it at a school where academics is the priority and athletes are only awarded partial scholarships to attend.
Furthermore, the Zags are well coached and have had a wealth of talented players come through over the last few seasons, and they play a very exciting brand of basketball that any college hoops fan would enjoy watching. So after all of that, there can't be anything not to like about the Zags.
There is a method to my madness when it comes to Gonzaga. It has little to do with the school itself. I have one word that can sum up why I am not a fan of the Bulldogs:
The Gonzaga craze has been spreading like a Montana forest fire for a number of years now and the number of people jumping on seems to grow every year. So many people have started to like Gonzaga that you need to call it a wagon. How about the Gonzaga Cruise Ship or a Gonzaga 757?
But what bugs me even more is how Montanans in particular have begun to cling to the Zags like flies to fly paper. Montanans have seemingly adopted the Zags as one of their own. As proof of this, I recently started a thread on a University of Montana web board asking why so many residents of Montana liked the Bulldogs. The most common responses were that Spokane is close to Montana and that they are underdogs.
The close to Montana argument drives me even more insane. FYI, we do have some college basketball teams right here in Montana and to modify a line from the movie Major League: "They have real uniforms and everything. It's really great."
Montana possesses two Division I-A basketball teams as well as a D-II school in Billings. Not to mention that the NAIA Frontier Conference presents some very exciting hoops over the course of each winter. Even though I am obviously in no position to tell anyone who to cheer for, it seems absurd to me that more Montanans would like to watch the Zags on TV rather than get in their car and drive to a local gym and watch basketball teams that their tax dollars help fund to play every season.
The second reason that has propelled me to despise Gonzaga is the whole "Cinderella" label. Seven years ago when the Zags came out of nowhere to reach the Elite Eight and barely lose to UCONN, they were a Cinderella.
But come on, how many years does Cinderella keep going to the ball. Zags fans want it both ways and it just kills me. They cheer for the Zags because they're "underdogs" or the "little guy."
Yet, they moan and groan when the Zags don't get the national recognition that a Kentucky or Duke gets. Zags fans are constantly screaming the words "mid-major" or "small school," but they want to be on the national scene like big schools. Look, pick one or the other. You can't have it both ways. You aren't supposed have your cake and eat it too - unless it's your birthday.
Which brings me back to 2004. Gonzaga lost two games all season and finished the year ranked fifth in the nation in one poll and third in another. The Bulldogs got all the national respect they could handle and then some.
I counted 11 different national TV appearances this season. And when it came to the NCAA tourney, the Zags were no longer searching for the glass slipper. They were a No. 2 seed, which meant the road to the Sweet 16 should be relatively easy.
Yes, Cinderella still showed up for the ball, only she was wearing a Nevada uniform, proving to me and others that maybe the Bulldogs aren't quite as bi- time as their fans want them to be..
Gonzaga's flop in this year's tourney was one of those very sweet ironic moments in sports that I love.
So I want to say a big thanks to the Wolfpack from Reno, Nevada for ending the Zags' year and at least until next fall, the Gonzaga Cruise Ship or Airliner won't be adding any new passengers any time soon.