No Longer Underdog Darlings, Gonzaga Men’s Basketball Team Is Officially a Faltering Favorite

In what is now a yearly tradition, the mid-major Bulldogs lost to a lower seed in the March Madness tournament

Gonzaga guard Julian Strawther (0) is tied up by UConn Huskies center Donovan Clingan (32) during the NCAA Division I Men's Championship Elite Eight round basketball game between the Gonzaga Bulldogs and the UConn Huskies on March 25, 2023 at T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas, NV.
What's the limit on underdog-darling status? The Zags seem to know.
Brian Rothmuller / Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Remember when Gonzaga University was that school you’d never heard of, and you knew you hadn’t because you’d have remembered such a weird-sounding name? Its men’s basketball team was a squad from a little mid-major conference overcoming the odds to travel relatively deep into the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament — more “Underdogs” than “Bulldogs.”

That was nearly a quarter century ago (yes, really!), and with no national title resulting from conference dominance and top tournament seeding throughout that time, the Zags have officially gone from underdog darlings to faltering favorites.

This past weekend, in the March Madness Elite Eight round, the Gonzaga Bulldogs were blown out by the UConn Huskies, 82-54. Gonzaga was a number-three ranked team (past tense), while UConn is (present tense) a four seed, playing in its sixth Final Four since 1999 this coming Saturday.

That was the year Gonzaga came into our collective sports consciousness for the first time, when, as a 10 seed, the school beat three higher-ranked teams and made it all the way to the Elite Eight, where they lost to the number-one ranked UConn Huskies.

The more things change, the more they stay the same.

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Since then, the Bulldogs, out of the West Coast Conference, have captured 19 conference tournament championships and have appeared in every NCAA Tournament, achieving pre-tournament seeds as high as three (three times), two (twice) and one (five times). In 2013, when they earned a number-one seed, CNN wrote a story about how they were unjustly disrespected. Five years later, when the Zags surprised the nation again as a four seed and made it all the way to the Sweet 16, SB Nation wrote “we probably should have all seen it coming.” Why? Because by then the Bulldogs were just good.

But then, two years ago, Gonzaga rolled into March Madness undefeated — the overall number-one seed. The Ringer called the school’s basketball program the best in the nation.

Then, they were blown out in the final by the Baylor Bears.

Last year, when as a one seed they lost in the Sweet 16 to number-four Arkansas, Bleacher Report said it was “a new low” for the Bulldogs.

While this year the Zags were “just” a three seed, the tournament was thought by many to be “wide open.” That has certainly been borne out. Three of the four relatively low-ranked schools that have crashed the Final Four are appearing in it for the first time, so a Bulldog defeat to the Huskies in the 2023 Elite Eight represents yet another missed opportunity at a college basketball Division I championship for the mid-major “powerhouse.”

And things may not get better for Gonzaga. The school’s best player and all-time scoring leader, Drew Timme, is expected to declare for the NBA Draft. But don’t tell that to the school’s SB Nation page publishers. The Slipper Still Fits says the Zags’ current “era of success” is not over.

“Not by any stretch,” the blog reads. “We’ve all been here before, talked about how it feels like the championship window is closing, and been surprised by what came next.”

Sounding like some kind of entitled Duke, Kentucky or UNC fan, the writer then runs through a series of seasons in which the Bulldogs were expected to fail in the Big Dance, only to cut a rug in Cinderella’s slipper through a handful of rounds.

Starting in 1999, through March Madness 2012, 10 out of 14 times the Zags shamelessly bowed out to a higher-ranked team. However, Gonzaga has now been ousted from the tournament by an overall lower-ranked seed in five straight postseasons.

Remember: Cinderella wore a slipper made of glass. This year, it feels like the outsized foot of the Gonzaga men’s basketball program has shattered it.

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