Success No Longer Surprises Gonzaga
Saturday night, when the Zags defeated North Carolina to advance to the second round of the NCAA tournament for the second straight season, there was no celebration, no dogpile.
"They weren't all that high, they weren't giddy, it was very business-like," said Gonzaga coach Kelly Graves. "They went around, they shook hands, they huddled up and they walked off the floor. I think they expected it. It's confidence, not arrogance."
Monday night -- understandably -- the Bulldogs took a little time to jump up and down after reaching the Sweet 16 for the first time in program history with a 72-71 win over No. 2 seed Texas A&M.
Gonzaga (29-4), the No. 7 seed, will take on No. 3 seed Xavier (29-3) on Saturday night in the Sacramento Regional in Arco Arena.
It seems like a natural progression. In 2007, Gonzaga reached the tournament for the first time and got blown out in the first round by Middle Tennessee State. In 2009, the Zags won their first tourney game against -- coinicdentally enough -- Xavier. And now two wins and a Sweet 16 run, which makes total sense to star point guard Courtney Vandersloot (No. 21, above right) named this week as one of 12 finalists for the Wade Trophy. Heather Bowman and Vivian Frieson and sophomore transfer Katelan Redmon. "We are ready for success in the tournament. We know what it feels like to lose and our goal was to get to the Sweet 16."
And it was a loss -- ironically against Texas A&M on Dec. 20 -- that the Zags say put them on their current path.
"They thumped us in the first half, so we pressed and we started to fast break and we had a chance to win at the end," Graves said. "We left there knowing we can play with these teams."
Gonzaga has reeled off 20 straight victories since that 80-76 loss to the Aggies.
In a tournament that is being marked thus far by the rise of mid-major programs, Gonzaga doesn't want to fit that bill.
Graves (right with Claire Reap) said his program's conference affiliation in the West Coast Conference is the only thing that puts them into that category. He reels off the "major" elements of his program -- private jet travel, local television coverage for games, top-notch facilities, a schedule that includes the country's elite teams.
"There are people who tell me when a certain kid has 'Pac-10 level' talent and we have a name for that, we call it being 'leveled,' " Graves said. "The term mid-major doesn't bother me, but all I know is we can play with people. There is nothing about our program that's mid-major and I know our players don't look at it that way."
Vandersloot said the Zags aren't insulted or offended by the label, but don't want to be defined by it either.
"We are not worried about whether we are considered a big name, we are worried about the game in front of us," Vandersloot said.
Graves said can still make use of the underdog mentality.
"This week, we were a higher seed than North Carolina, but I think a lot of people felt like we were the underdogs, even though we were wearing the white," Graves said. "That is certainly not lost on me and not lost on my team. The fact that we won these two games against very storied programs says a lot.
"These are signature wins and now we just need to ride the wave."