Published March 25, 2013
SPOKANE, Wash. – Gonzaga's special season has ended with another early exit in the NCAA tournament.
Although they reached No. 1 in The Associated Press Top 25 and earned a top seed in the tournament, the Zags were bounced 76-70 in the round of 32 on Saturday by Wichita State.
Now attention turns to whether star center Kelly Olynyk will return for his senior season.
Gonzaga (32-3) became just the fifth top seed to lose in the round of 32 since the NCAA expanded to 64 teams in 1985, and that gave fuel to critics who contended this team was overrated after playing a relatively lightweight schedule.
But players and coaches insisted that the season will not be defined by one game in which Wichita State buried the Bulldogs under 14-of-28 shooting from 3-point range.
"For five and a half months it was unbelievable," coach Mark Few told reporters after Saturday's game. "A hell of a ride. That's the danger of this tournament. It's a couple-week deal. But nobody was having more fun than us for five and a half months."
Few, who has the highest winning percentage (.800) of any active coach with at least five years' experience, has no doubt about this team's legacy.
These Zags are "the greatest team in the history of basketball at our school," he said.
Olynyk told reporters that Wichita State was just one game out of 35 the Zags played this season.
"I don't think the loss is anything above or beyond that," Olynyk said. "But the record, the 32 wins, being ranked No. 1 and a No. 1 seed, those don't get erased just because you lost.
"Those achievements are still going to be there," Olynyk said. "It's not like they don't matter because we lost in the tournament."
A major question now is whether the 7-foot Olynyk will be there next season. The junior blossomed from bench warmer to potential All-American this season. He scored 26 points and grabbed nine rebounds in the loss to Wichita State, and has been mentioned as a possible first-round draft pick. Olynyk, who has already earned his college degree, has deferred all questions about his future until after the season.
The Zags will also lose forward Elias Harris, a four-year starter, and guard Mike Hart, who went from walk-on to starter, to graduation this season.
They will return a strong nucleus that includes guards Kevin Pangos, Gary Bell Jr. and David Stockton, along with big man Sam Dower and some younger players.
The Zags burst onto the national scene with a run to the round of eight in 1999 and have been to every NCAA tournament since.
Four more times they reached the round of 16, but more often they lost in the first or second rounds. That fueled complaints in some corners that they were underachievers in the tournament. It also gave ammunition to critics who said the team benefited from facing many weak opponents in the West Coast Conference, a league of small private schools, along with BYU.
Yet the program prospered, becoming one of the most successful in the nation. The Zags built a new arena in 2004, which is sold out with 6,000 basketball-crazed fans for every game.
The Zags this season were projected as something special from the start because of their veteran cast of returning stars. And that was before Olynyk burst from obscurity early in the year to become the team's biggest weapon.
They were a fixture in the Top 25 and plowed through a typical non-conference meat grinder that included going 5-0 against teams from the Big 12. Then they went 16-0 through the WCC in the regular season. They kept rising improbably in the polls as major conference teams above them kept losing. They broke into the Top 10, then the Top 5 and reached No. 2 in February.
A loss by Indiana propelled them to No. 1, a slot they occupied for the final three weeks of the poll.
After they swept two games in the WCC tournament to win the league's automatic NCAA bid, there was debate about whether they deserved a No. 1 seed. The selection committee made them the top seed in the West Region and sent them to Salt Lake City. They struggled in their opening game, needing late 3-pointers by Pangos and Bell to edge Southern. Then came Wichita State.
In the silent locker room afterward, Pangos acknowledged the obvious.
"We had goals of going deeper in the tournament," he said. "Everyone was just in shock."